The thing about being a Foley artist is, you're always trying to outdo yourself. There's no library of pre-recorded sounds from your previous projects to pull from; there's only the library of experience. And when a picture like Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes comes along, that mental library gets hard usage. Existential, bizarre and fun are a few of the words that have been used to describe the film, which stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter in a sci-fi fantasy where a human being crash lands his spaceship on a very strange planet. Like all of Burton's films, Apes is highly imaginative and action-packed, though it's certainly not a conventional action movie.
Foley artists Dawn Fintor and Alicia Irwin and mixer David Betancourt have been a team for six years, five of which have been spent on the Jane Russell Foley stage at Fox Studios. In that time, working on films such as Traffic, X-Men, Erin Brockovich and Men of Honor, they've forged a tight working relationship.
Fantasy and reality blend in Apes; among the Foley challenges are jungles, spaceships, battles, and a multitude of simian breeds, each with proprietary characteristics. There's also what the film's Oscar-winning production designer Rick Heinrichs calls “the dichotomy of animal-human behavior” — in this case represented by characters that are 80% human and 20% ape.
“For this film, we've had to rely a lot on intuition and on what we could see,” says Irwin. “On the one hand, the apes are very primitive, yet they have crystal chandeliers, ice cubes and nice beds!”
“We've had to create a lot of sounds for things that don't exist in this world,” adds Fintor, “things that are a combination of the past and the future. Some of it is very tribal, and we had to figure out what the characters themselves had to work with: Did they have metals or just leather and wood? Did they know how to blow glass?”
One particularly time-consuming Foley element concerned the armor worn by the soldier apes. Different for each rank, it ranged from extremely primitive to chain mail, breastplates and helmets. Approximately six tracks were recorded for each kind of battle outfit, which included real armor, bones, leather and whatever else was necessary.
“The costume department was great,” says Fintor. “They gave us plenty to work with. But a lot of it was plastic armor for the actors, who can't be walking around all day in heavy metal. It looks very intimidating, but it didn't help us. We had to create the heavy sound that makes it seem real. The armor was definitely a challenge. If you move one of the things you are using an inch, it rattles too much; when you move it back, you don't hear enough metal. Those subtle things are difficult.”
Experts conducted a special “Ape School” for many of the actors to help them incorporate ape movement into their performances. Irwin and Fintor also found themselves tapping into their “inner ape.”
“They've taken into consideration the evolutionary chain,” Irwin notes, “with the foot soldiers being lower in the way they walk than the officers. Dawn and I also found ourselves performing with a lower center of gravity!”
Foley artists are, of course, footstep experts, but the hybrid characters in Apes made for some new challenges. “The characterization of footsteps is something that makes humans sound different,” says Irwin. “We worked really hard to make the apes sound ‘not human,’ even though they all were wearing some kind of primitive footwear. We also had to give the heavier apes more weight, to make them more intimidating.”
The bulk of Apes' footage was shot on soundstages at L.A. Center Studios, where the Foley team created sonic ambiences ranging from jungles to spaceship interiors. While normal recording time for a reel of Foley might average two days, Apes, in general, took seven, coming in at about 40 tracks per reel.
“There's nothing average about this movie,” laughs Betancourt. “Just making the armor sound correct took six tracks, and the main apes each have their own separate armor. It's very busy: In a scene where characters are running through the jungle, you have to do as many people independently as you can. You need to be able to distinguish them separately; if not, you'll end up with a wash of sound that won't be very interesting.”
“It's worth taking the time to make it distinctive,” Fintor agrees. “If we didn't have different size leaves for every time you see them push a leaf aside, it would just sound like noise to the audience. We used something like 20 different plants to make layers of different thicknesses. We're always layering; when someone gets hit on the head with the limb of a tree, you want to hear the wooden limb sound, the body snap, the part of the helmet getting hit…”
“It's about detail and volume,” says Betancourt. “Picking apart the littlest elements here and there in the overall picture makes the biggest difference. If you get the details, that pretty much takes care of everything else.”
Most recording on the Foley stage is in mono; for surround, a part may be recorded three times and spread. Background footsteps, however, are often recorded in stereo over three takes, with the walkers watching and performing to left, center and right sides of the screen.
Betancourt usually uses only two or three Sennheiser microphones — KM 81s for closeup work and a 416 for the room. “The art of miking is definitely still alive here,” he laughs. “You're mixing as you're putting it down to tape. When we're doing something complicated, like a character that's coming from the distance who then goes right by the camera, I play that perspective by favoring the close or distant mics.”
Betancourt's mic preamps of choice are Martinsound. “For Foley, they're the best,” he insists. “They are extremely quiet, and they handle the kind of wide dynamic range we need beautifully.”
Signal goes direct from the preamps to Digidesign 888s and Pro Tools with Pro Control. For the time being, the Neotek Essence analog console is still used for monitoring, as it provides a function needed in Foley that Pro Tools doesn't yet offer: the kind of monitor switching required to avoid feedback loops on a session where performers don't use headphones.
The control room's outboard collection includes an Eventide H3500 (programmed with Betancourt's custom and secret “underwater” settings), dbx 160X compressors, a dbx 120S boom box, an SPX 90 used primarily for pitch programs and a GML EQ. Monitoring is LCR on JBL 4425s.
Planet of the Apes is the first project on the Russell Stage to be recorded into Pro Tools, and the team is unanimous in endorsing the system. Previously, recording was to Tascam MMR-8s, which made playback of multiple tracks difficult. “They can only play back eight channels at a time,” explains Betancourt. “If you wanted to record on track 16, you had to unload the first eight tracks, load in the second eight, then arm it… It was very time-consuming when you wanted to check a sound against everything else. Now, working with Pro Tools Mix Plus with 64 voices, we can pretty much go up to 64 channels, including importing eight or so channels of the effects stem to A/B against.”
Being able to import a drive of already cut sound effects has proved a big boon. “Pro Tools has allowed us to listen much more easily to what the effects editors have done, so that we can decide how to enhance it,” says Fintor. “It's much easier now to hear what they've got and what we need to do. Often, they'll have the low-end weight on it and we just need to add the detail — or it might be the other way around. Before, we were just guessing, and, not knowing what they had, we'd tend to spend more time making it complete. Now, we're not being redundant; it's much more time-efficient.”
Betancourt combines tracks within Pro Tools, using only two outputs for monitoring. Traditionally, Foley consoles have not been fitted with automation, so he finds that feature especially helpful. “It's not like on music projects,” he comments, “where you lay everything to tape knowing that you'll be mixing it later. In Foley, you want your tracks to arrive at the dubbing stage ready so that they can just put the faders to zero and everything is mixed.”
The art of Foley comes from identifying and creating the subtleties and minutiae of sound. As with musicians who play together in a band, the best product results when there's a team of people who are on the same wavelength.
“The three of us have to be in sync when we're recording,” says Betancourt, “because it's live. One of the tough things about our job is communication. It's really difficult to translate back and forth when they're out there performing. What they're hearing out in the studio with the naked ear could be completely different than what gets recorded. Actual words aren't enough: If something doesn't sound like what you think it should, how do you describe it? So we've got fluffy, clacky, smacky…”
“There's no dictionary, no full, American vocabulary of sound,” agrees Irwin. “So we've created our own language; we had to for survival. Even other people in the sound business who come in don't always get what we're talking about, but we understand perfectly.”
Maureen Droney is Mix's L.A. editor.