An Evening with Pete Burgis: Foley Artist Extraordinaire Reveals All

Foley: a mysterious art known to few and mastered by even fewer. Many, perhaps most, have never heard of it, and those that have seldom understand its arcane intricacies. In simple terms, Foley practitioners recreate on-screen sounds that are difficult or impossible to record in real time for television, videogames and films by using props and their own bodies in often innovative ways.

Last Wednesday (28th October), I had the chance to get up close and virtually personal with a man who is among the most celebrated of these sound-making magicians. His name is Pete Burgis, and his 25-year career has seen him work on films and games as celebrated as Harry Potter, Gears of War and Ex-Machina. His many accolades include two Emmys and three MPSE awards.

SAE Institute has UK campuses in London, Liverpool, Oxford and Glasgow

At a 90-minute-long Zoom talk hosted by SAE Institute – a creative media school with campuses in the UK and across the world – Burgis first recounted the history of his craft. The art gets its name from Jack Foley, a pioneer who worked for Universal Studios during the advent of sound films, recreating footsteps and other noises which could not be picked up by the crude on-set recording equipment of the time. Foley and his colleagues would watch along to the raw video and precisely mirror each of the actors’ footsteps for capture on the soundtrack. They worked live and in one shot.

While the basic technique remains the same, much has obviously changed in the intervening century. With the rise of digital technology, no longer are artists restricted to one track. They can add complexity and layering to the sound and can easily repeat and refine individual scenes. This, Burgis explained, enabled him and the Fantastic Beasts team to build the necessary depth and nuance for the Kelpie sea creature’s splashes in and out of the water. Therefore, these days, “there are no hard sounds,” he says. The biggest challenge is the sheer variety of choices to be made.

As for Burgis’ personal history, he broke into the industry as a recordist. In a dramatic twist of fate, in his first session recording with Foley artists, he “realised that [he] was a rubbish technician, and [that] everything [he] wanted to do was what these people were doing.”

After learning by watching and speaking to the performers, he started to practise by taking a myriad of rhythm-based classes – like dance – to learn timing. Eventually, upon being made redundant, he decided to pursue his dream and was “very lucky” to meet Pauline Bennion, a successful Foley artist who took him under her wing.

The evening’s main attraction was the enthralling behind-the-scenes glimpses scattered throughout. We learned that the iconic heartbeat played in the background of many an anxious TV moment isn’t a recording of the real thing, but an illusory imitation achieved by stretching a tight piece of cloth out and then pulling intently at the edges. The simplistic ingenuity is strangely mystifying, although I was disappointed that a punch sound is made just by hitting yourself.

Pete’s foley bag contains shoes, clothes, coconuts and more!

But Burgis’ Foley kitbag is also replete with a wide array of other props bearing all manner of uses. Many of these are mundane items: bottles of pills, along with jackets and rucksacks – which apparently double as bulletproof vests. Others are more esoteric: from dog bowls to cornflour, which helps give that squelching snow-under-foot effect.

For the aspiring Foley artists out there, some of the most essential items include shoes, with Burgis recommending you build a bag with 10 to 15 different pairs covering both period and modern settings. The 150 to 200 pairs Burgis boasts is probably excessive for now.

When I asked how he feels about Foley artistry’s relative obscurity, despite sound being critical to film production, he expressed a desire to open his knowledge up, although hopes this won’t ruin audience immersion. Hence the 2014 short film The Secret World of Foley, in which – for once – Burgis takes centre stage.

In a bizarre, Inception-esque turn, the Foley artistry on display in the film was itself subject to further Foley in post-production. At one point, you’re watching one of Burgis’ colleagues chop playdough in sync with a fisherman in a film she’s working on. The sound for this scene in The Secret World was actually created months later by Burgis, so it’s Foley on top of Foley!

For those who wish to acquire these opened-up tricks of the trade, Burgis will be teaching at SAE London in January 2021, with future dates in the works. While you won’t go from to beginner to pro on this four-week course, it should provide fantastic fundamentals.

And who knows? Some of you might just become the sound wizards bringing the next Avengers or Star Wars spin-off to life! 

Words by Nick McAlpin

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