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Fights, Footsteps and Thrills


Matt Damon reprises his role as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum.

Photo: Jasin Boland/Universal Pictures

In our September 2005 issue, we ran an in-depth story about the often-misunderstood and under-appreciated art of Foley recording — the post-production process that adds everything from footsteps to door slams to tea cup clinks to clothes rustles, and a zillion other big and small sounds to make movies sound as true to life as they are. To revisit the topic, we chose to zero-in on one particular film and discuss specific issues related to Foley.

In this case, we looked at The Bourne Ultimatum, the third installment in the popular series of action films starring Matt Damon and based on Robert Ludlum’s best-selling spy novels. The first two films — The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004) — have earned more than half-a-billion dollars worldwide, and the promise of more fast-paced thrills in exotic locales (Russia, France, Spain, Morocco) and some measure of resolution of the complicated story of agent Jason Bourne’s mysterious past will likely translate to another box-office smash.

Paul Greengrass, who directed Supremacy (and, more recently, the exceptional United 93) is back at the helm. So is much of the same post sound team that helped make the first two films so compelling. Working out of Soundelux, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers were supervising sound editors; Craig Jaeger was Foley supervisor; and Kelly Oxford, Foley editor. The Foley recording team came from Burbank, Calif.’s One Step Up, which also handled the first (but not the second) film in the series, with Dan O’Connell and John Cucci the Foley artists, and James Ashwill the mixer. The re-recording mixers at Todd-AO West were Scott Millan — a veteran of all three films — and “newcomer” to this series, David Parker.

Hallberg and Baker Landers have been working together for nearly 20 years now on dozens of excellent films, including Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot, Black Hawk Down, Seabiscuit, Ray, The Island and many more. According to Baker Landers, the first step in the Foley process is, “Per and I will spot the film together — we’ll go over it and make a game plan for the effects and the Foley and all the other elements. One of my favorite things to do is to cover the Foley stage; I’m a big fan of Foley. When we go through it, there are obvious Foley things we know we’re going to be doing. Other things we’ll discuss and figure out what’s going to come from effects and what will be Foley.”

Foley artist Dan O’Connell amid the props in the main room at One Step Up, a leading Foley facility he operates with John Cucci.

At this point, Foley supervisor Craig Jaeger and Foley editor Kelly Oxford come into the picture, so to speak. Jaeger was born into the business — his father, Donald, was an effects editor — and he worked as assistant effects editor beginning in the late ’70s before becoming a Foley artist in the late ’80s, then a Foley editor and, with Air Force One in 1997, a supervising Foley editor. It is Jaeger, in consultation with Baker Landers and Hallberg, who is primarily responsible for laying out the specifics of the Foley sessions for the group handling the actual Foley recording — in this case, One Step Up. “The way Per and I like to do it is get everybody in a room and run reels,” Baker Landers says. “I like everybody to sit and watch the movie together if we can and talk during it and bounce ideas off of each other. A lot of ideas come from our group spotting sessions.”

“Karen and Per will also usually have special notes they’ll hand me,” Jaeger adds, “and it might include things the director really wants, as well as other things we need to cover that might not be so obvious.

“Then I go through it and program in Pro Tools,” he continues. “For years, we used to make what was called a ‘shopping list.’ I’d go through and do a footstep pass, for instance, and handwrite it. I’d make a list of footage in and footage out: ‘Okay, I want Jason’s footsteps on wood here,’ and where it would change I’d write, ‘Carpet at 55 feet.’ It was a lot of work, a lot of typing and I wasn’t a very good speller or typist. [Laughs]

“Now I’ll create and build a session [in Pro Tools]. I’ll put in a ‘record’ file, and when I see something I want to cover, I tag it and give it a name. Then when it goes to the Foley stage, they pull up that session, and they say, ‘Okay, here are Jason’s footsteps all the way through. We need this prop for this character here,’ and everything is laid out clearly. It can be very, very specific: ‘This “grab” is only this number of frames.’ Dan [O’Connell] will look through it and know exactly what they need to do or need to find.”

“Craig lays out the session for us to follow,” O’Connell says. “From having worked with them so much, though, we also know the kinds of things that Karen and Per really like, and Karen also gives us the notes not just from the director, but from the picture editor. Knowing what the picture editor [in this case, Christopher Rouse] wants is as important as knowing what the director is looking for because they have a vision of how the cut film is all going to tie together. So we get all these notes and get a sense of what everybody is thinking about. Then we head off and try to fulfill that: hitting everybody’s mark and adding our own special touches along the way.”

“Every movie is different,” Jaeger comments, “and that’s part of the challenge: ‘Okay, what are we going to do better than we did on the last two [Bourne films]?’ Which is hard because I think we did a pretty good job on both of them! What can we do differently? Let’s get into it and find out.”

Adds Baker Landers: “We know what we wanted Bourne to sound like in the past, but we also say, ‘Let’s try to change it up a bit.’ You can’t make it too different because you have an audience that’s in love not only visually, but also sonically, with certain aspects of Bourne. The most important thing about Jason Bourne’s character is he’s very solid and fast and deliberate. He’s not real high tech-y; he’s not flashy. He’s down and dirty — he gets it done and he’s precise; he’s a machine. So the Foley movement has to reflect that. It’s not just the surface he’s on or the shoes he’s wearing; it’s his attitude, his confidence. And that’s something we try to follow all the way through with his movement. There’s nothing messy or sloppy.”

I ask how Bourne’s confidence and purposefulness is conveyed by Foley. “The movements are precise and solid,” Baker Landers answers. “They don’t sound wimpy or tentative. Remember, Foley artists are actors. So a lot of the attitude is coming through Dan and John [Cucci]. The art of really capturing a character is amazing, and when it’s good you don’t even notice. When it’s bad, though, it’s distracting and maybe you don’t feel the presence of the character, or his size, or his speed, or his dexterity.”

In O’Connell’s view, “Jason is not tentative at all. He’s a highly trained individual and he doesn’t stop to think. It’s always a go. It’s all bam-bam-bam! So I have to be sure that what I do [in Foley] is going to sound like that. He’s climbing up sides of buildings and going from rooftop to rooftop and jumping through glass windows, running down hallways, down stairs. Then there are the hand-to-hand combat fight sequences — because of his training, he is able to fight with almost anything in a room; anything becomes a weapon. It may be a book or it may be a candelabra or something just sitting on a table, but it is weapon of choice for that moment, so we have to find those things and make sure they sound right and that the mood of the scene reflects the unpredictability and the spontaneity of the situation he’s in.”

One Step Up has been a top L.A.-area Foley company for the past 13 years, though O’Connell’s career stretches back much farther. Their new facility in Burbank is state-of-the-art, with multiple walking/running surfaces (of course), two different dirt pits — “your Western dirt, which is hard-packed, and forest dirt, which has a softer, moister quality” — an area for water Foley, a Pro Tools rig, a large complement of microphones with different characters — including Neumann and Sennheiser shotguns (industry-wide favorites) — and a huge storage facility down at the other end of the block filled floor to ceiling with every prop/noise-generating object imaginable. Their prop assistant, Gabriel Elliott, “is a really important part of all this,” O’Connell says. “He’ll set up in the morning, and all through the day he’ll be getting us special things. I’ll give him the weirdest request and somehow he’ll find it.”

Supervising sound editor Karen Baker Landers (seated) and Foley supervisor Craig Jaeger

In the early days of One Step Up, they recorded to 24-track tape. That was followed by DA-88s, then MMR-8s and now, of course, most Foley sounds are shot from multiple angles directly to Pro Tools, which is now an integral part of every facet of the post sound chain in nearly all film productions. “Pro Tools has made it more efficient in terms of getting tracks from the Foley stage to the editing room and laying things out and cutting them,” Baker Landers says. “Even on the Foley stage itself, you say, ‘Well, can we move that a couple of frames?’ and you can do that very quickly now. ‘Can we play these three tracks together but move that other one?’ Trying different things is much easier now, but what the guys actually do on the stage hasn’t changed that much. It’s still a process that takes a lot of time to get it right, though hopefully [the technology] gives you the luxury of being able to do a few more takes if you need to.”

O’Connell says that when possible, they’ll try to match the feeling of existing production tracks: “If we can fall into that area sonically, it helps the dubbing mixers in the long run because if they have to match something we’re doing into a scene that exists, it’s an easier time for them.” Adds Baker Landers, “The art of great Foley is that it sounds like it was recorded on the day [the visuals were shot].”

Foley runs the gamut from subtle clothing movements to augmenting ear-splitting FX, and all agreed that each is as important as the other. “Sometimes the subtle movement is more challenging,” Baker Landers comments. “If it’s something in a quiet scene that’s going to play and you’re on a mixing stage and you’re finaling and putting everything together and hearing it really loud, it’s all about that detail, and you have to get it perfect or it can be jarring.”

When it comes to FX, “Everything is so intertwined, whether it’s Foley, effects or backgrounds,” Baker Landers adds.

O’Connell: “A lot of times, the effects editors will have a car crash or a huge explosion, but they may not have the piece of something that falls in your face, like a big spring or a piece of fender or a tire that rolls by. Those kinds of things are where [Foley] can come in and add another dimension to the sound job. Sometimes they’ll send us temp tracks or some rough representation of what an effect is going to sound like; then we can get an idea of what frequency we need our stuff to fall into to make it come alive. A lot of times, it’s broken glass or small pieces of metal debris; little things like that. We’re adding the cherry on the sundae that the effects editors make. [Laughs] Most of what you hear is many layers that all play together, and each little bit of detail heightens what the audience is going to take in as their reality. The more that we can provide, the more they’re in the film and excited by it.”

Jaeger cites a car chase in The Bourne Ultimatum that neatly combines Foley and FX, noting that engine sounds and tire screeches and the like were the natural domain of FX, but “where the bumper flies off and there’s a big whump-whump-whump-whump as it rattles off, that was done in Foley [with Dan O’Connell dragging a trunk lid across the ground]. At one point, the bumper’s still on the car but it wobbles, and Dan created a really great metal sound and then a kind of plastic-y wobble and then I put them together so they matched because it’s right there in your face — you see it so you want to hear it.” Foley was also key to the sounds inside the cars during the chase: “Bodies are flying against the door; hands are turning the wheel real fast,” Jaeger says. “These are all things that build tension in the scene.”

Foley editor Kelly Oxford worked with Foley supervisor Craig Jaeger.

Baker Landers was at One Step Up for many of the Foley sessions, which is consistent with her and Hallberg’s great attention to detail and intimately knowing every element of the sound tapestry. As O’Connell notes, “The great thing about Karen and Per is that they really love to find out what each element is going to be so that when they get to the dubbing stage and they’re sitting there with the director and the picture editor, they can say, ‘We shot a really cool thing for this — let’s listen to it!’ The fact that they know each piece of their project is really helpful. Karen sits with us and we’ll get a direction from her, we’ll go with that and then play back the reels for her and we’ll do fixes based on our playback.”

Once the Foley for a reel or section has been recorded, Jaeger takes the material and he and Oxford cut it precisely to picture. “We’ll get it in the ballpark,” O’Connell says, “and we’ll give them our final choice, which is usually the one we think blends best with the overall feel of the scene, as well as other options.” Later in the process, the director or picture editor or re-recording mixers may ask for additional elements or strip away layers for whatever reasons. Picture changes or the arrival of new visual FX late in the process often necessitate shooting new Foley. Baker Landers estimated that Foley for The Bourne Ultimatum — considered a big job — would take more than 25 days, “whereas a regular film usually tries to do it in 10 days or less. Foley schedules have gotten crunched on some of the smaller films and that’s usually not a good idea.”

Asked about the most challenging aspect of creating Foley for The Bourne Ultimatum, all three interviewees mention the same area: footsteps. Bourne is constantly on the run — literally and figuratively. “There’s lots of storytelling through feet,” Baker Landers says. “We spent a lot of time on specifics capturing the right texture and the right feeling, whether it was a chase on foot or something less frantic, like in a dark room where you can’t see much but you can hear the creeeak of a footstep — that can be a cool moment for the audience.”

Adds O’Connell, “There are a lot of one-on-one foot chases that go up halls, down halls, down stairwells, over rooftops, climbing up here, climbing up there. That was a huge part of it this time. So that’s a lot of different surfaces and different sound environments. But that’s part of what makes it fun and interesting: figuring out how to make what you see on the screen sound real and exciting.”