How a Hollywood computer made the stick of celery redundant

For more than 70 years, Foley artists have knocked coconut shells together, snapped vegetables and stamped in gravel pits to provide films with their sound effects. To them, a stick of celery or a frozen lettuce is not the staple of a decent salad but a bone ready to be broken. A heavy staple gun becomes a .44 Magnum, and scrunched cellophane a crackling log fire.

In the hands of an expert soundman, a pair of gloves produces the flapping of wings, squelching soapy hands conjure gory fight scenes, and the sound of actors smooching is given added lustre by the technician getting amorous with the side of his own wrist.

These traditional techniques have persisted even as cinematic visual effects have undergone multiple revolutions. Even today's most high-tech films like Toy Story 3, with their computer-generated imagery, still rely on the plain old Foley artist, who is often still using techniques pioneered in the first "talkies" (and remains consigned to the tail end of the credit reel).

However, if a team of American computer developers has its way, some of the practices perfected by these unsung heroes of the film industry could become obsolete.

The team will unveil a computer program this week which will generate sounds using similar modelling techniques to those employed in creating CGI graphics.

Their program builds a physical picture of the way sounds are created – for instance simulating the noise of a waterfall by constructing the component noises on a 3D virtual grid. If the new model proves successful, the existing, labour-intensive system of employing Foley artists to recreate every sound on a film could become largely automated.

Foley artists, while not resistant to change, believe that computer simulation can never completely replace the raw passion a human can bring to a soundtrack. "These newer ways of operating can remove a lot of the donkey-work from what we do but sound engineering in films is not simply about creating a sound, it is about creating an emotion using sound," said Pinewood Studios' resident Foley artist, Sandy Buchanan, whose recent film credits include Quantum of Solace and Tim Burton's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

"The real sound of a bone breaking would be quite boring if you just recorded it, but the sound of celery snapping, designed, produced and engineered by a professional, can be stomach-churning. For those sounds, the Foley artist cannot be replaced – but he will have to adapt."

Andy Farnell, a prominent sound technician who specialises in computer games, agrees: "My emotional response would be that you can never replace those techniques entirely."

The traditional art form is named after Jack Foley, who created the sound effects for Universal's first talkie, Showboat. The microphones used at the time could only accurately pick up dialogue, so background noises, like footsteps and doors closing, needed to be recreated in a studio. Foley began to develop ways of making these sounds and dubbing them over the film.

Since then, hundreds of ingenious techniques have been used to create almost all the background noises in Hollywood films, adding layers of texture that are taken for granted by viewers. Despite the ubiquity of these effects, they often go unnoticed – until the artists make a mistake.

The new system, developed by Hengchin Yeh, William Moss and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, synthesises sounds associated with liquids flowing or splashing.

Mr Moss explained that, when water flows or waves break, noise is generated by the vibration of air bubbles. "You can model the bubbles – they just resonate at a certain frequency depending on their size. It is surprising but that is the primary source of sound in liquids," he told New Scientist, adding: "The physics is pretty easy."

The program models the vibration of these bubbles on a 3D grid, in the same way that 3D figures are made in CGI films. Until recently the technology has not been able to produce realistic simulations of complex sounds. But developers believe that they will soon be able to accurately recreate most of the noises they need.

Creating the sounds

Heavy staple gun, Gun noises

Snapping celery, Broken bones

Metal rake dragged across metal, Screeching car brakes

Heavy phone book, Body punching

Tearing a head of cabbage, Paper shredder

Cellophane, Crackling fire

Metal laundry tub filled with metal trays, empty fizzy drink cans, hubcaps, cutlery, knives..., A "crash tube" used to simulate collisions

Cassette tape ribbon, Grass or brush

Pair of gloves, Bird wings flapping

Hand soap, Squishing noises

Wicker basket and flippers, Sea monster (as above)

The side of the wrist (wet), Adding gusto to kissing scenes

Leather jacket (twisted), Hammock swinging

Polystyrene, Sound of ice breaking

Rusty hinge/old chair, Creaking sound (hold against different surfaces for drastically different results)

Arrow/thin stick Whooshing noise or brush of clothing

Half-coconuts, stuffed with padding, Hoof noises (à la Monty Python)

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high