How a Hollywood computer made the stick of celery redundant - News - Films - The Independent

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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week