STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Hollywood congratulates itself on Sunday night when the Oscars are handed out. The big ones - Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Film - get most of the attention. But this week NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg focuses on some lesser-known aspects of moviemaking, and she starts this morning with a report on sound.
SUSAN STAMBERG: In a sprawling, perfectly innocent looking building on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica, California, some really awful things are going on.
(Soundbite of speeding cars)
STAMBERG: A motorcycle gang screams in and out, a gun is cocked, a guy gets kicked. Good thing it's make believe. Sound effects for a movie being mixed at Todd-AO Studios.
It's slightly more benign in another control room where actress Leslie Mann is rerecording dialogue for a film called "Knocked Up."
(Soundbite of laughing)
STAMBERG: When this scene was filmed, Leslie Mann's on-location laugh wasn't loud enough, or maybe a car went by or a plane. So she has to record it again in this studio, watching herself on screen to synchronize the sound.
In fact most film sounds, including some dialogue, is added in post-production with effects from sound libraries or effects created and recorded on a special stage.
Unidentified Man: Come on in, and welcome to our little - watch your step - our playground.
STAMBERG: Playground, playpen, this is the dusty, daffy workroom of two guys who've collaborated on nearly 200 movies - "Snakes on a Plane," "Wedding Crashers," "World Trade Center." The men are 40-somethings whose mothers probably never said stop when they banged spoons on their high chairs.
Mr. JEFFREY WILHOIT (Foley Artist): My name is Jeffrey Wilhoit and I'm a Foley artist.
Mr. JAMES MORIANA (Foley Artist): James Moriana, and I'm a Foley artist.
STAMBERG: Jeff and Jim are following in the footsteps - and we'll get to those sounds in a second - of a movie pioneer named Jack Foley. When films began to talk, Jack Foley perfected ways of adding sound effects, too. For instance, the director of "Spartacus" wanted better sound of an army marching. Jack Foley said don't go back to Rome to re-shoot. He grabbed a set of keys, shock them near a microphone and poof - clanking armor.
Jack Foley was the movies most legendary Mr. Sound Effects, and today Jeffrey Wilhoit and James Moriana amplify the tradition in a darkish space off a control room.
Mr. WILHOIT: This room should resemble and 80-year-old man's garage that has never been cleaned out. That is a perfect Foley stage. Broken items, flea markets, even alleyways and dumpsters are sometimes the greatest finds for sound.
STAMBERG: Let's start with the shoes.
Mr. WILHOIT: Between the two of us, we must have over 100 pairs of shoes. We have work boots, army boots, different dress shoes.
STAMBERG: Looking at you in a shoe store must be a really funny thing. I mean you're there auditioning shoes.
Mr. MORIANA: That's right. Most of my shoes I get at thrift stores. So most people are looking for a bargain and I'm just looking for a sound.
STAMBERG: Jeff and Jim are called Foley walkers because footsteps are their major job description. On location it's hard to record actors walking. The mics are on their talk. So later on the Foley stage four special microphones will capture steps alone.
Today Jeff Wilhoit, in an attractive pair of size 12 women's shoes, matches an actress's short walk across the kitchen.
Unidentified Man: Okay. Rolling.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
STAMBERG: This Foley stage lets Jeff and Jim walk on various surfaces. Gravel, big stepping stones, a patch of sand. They travel miles in a fairly small area of their sound playroom.
Mr. WILHOIT: We're soldiers running up hills and we're doing this all day. We have to walk in place, you have to run in place. You can't move. You know, it's not like you can run around the room and the mic will follow you. It doesn't. You have to just stay there.
Mr. MORIANA: Not only running in place but holding your breath while you're running in place.
STAMBERG: Because otherwise the mic picks up your breathing. These Foley guys have a million ideas. Footsteps on snow: Fill an old sock with cornstarch and squeeze it.
(Soundbite of footsteps on snow)
STAMBERG: An egg splatting: Drop a wet chamois cloth.
(Soundbite of egg splatting)
STAMBERG But of the 100 plus effects they record everyday, the Oscar has to go to Jeff for figuring out how to make doggy nails on a hard floor.
Mr. WILHOIT: I have these little cloth gardening gloves and I used hot glue. And I glued these press-on nails that women use to extend their nails. And then you can just…
(Soundbite of clicking)
Mr. WILHOIT: I'm locked in this dark room all day and my brain is very active.
(Soundbite of music)
STAMBERG: Oscar-winning director William Friedkin believes that sounds make the movie. Without sound effects and of course music, a film is just celluloid and sprockets. Three decades ago, Friedkin mixed the sound for "The Exorcist" at Todd-AO. In that film's most chilling scene, a child is possessed by the demon. Her small head turns totally around on her neck, a full 360 degrees. William Friedkin needed some creative, sometimes truly terrifying effects.
He hired an innovative soundman named Gonzalo Gavira. Mr. Gavira spoke no English.
Mr. WILLIAM FRIEDKIN (Film Director): And he had a translator there who was his brother-in-law. And after he saw the film, about a half hour afterwards, he said in Spanish, okay, I'm ready. And I said, ready for what? And he said I'm ready to do the effects. And he stood in front of an open mic. And for example, the sound of the little girl's head turning completely around, he borrowed an old cracked leather wallet from his brother-in-law and it had credit cards in it. And he held this right very close to a microphone and started to bend the wallet. And you heard this cracking and creaking, which became that sound.
(Soundbite of movie "The Exorcist"
Unidentified Woman (Actor): Open the door.
(Soundbite of creaking and cracking)
Mr. JACK MACGOWARAN (Actor): (As Burke Dennings) Do you know what she did?
STAMBERG: From Jack Foley in the 1930s to Gonzalo Gavira in 1973, and right up to James Moriana and Jeffrey Wilhoit -
(Soundbite of kissing)
STAMBERG: That's them right now kissing their hands for a passionate close-up -Foley artists make films smooch and creak and crunch and walk…
(Soundbite of movie "Casablanca")
Mr. HUMPHREY BOGART (Actor): (as Rick) I could use a trip…
STAMBERG: …into an eternity of movie sunsets.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(Soundbite of movie "Casablanca")
Mr. BOGART: (as Rick) Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
INSKEEP: To hear more sound effects and see the Foley artists in action, visit npr.org.
Now later this week, getting ready for your close-up. The role of costumes in film.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.