Sound. It continues to be one of the unsung heroes in media production yet one of the most crucial elements. It is unsung because (arguably) all sound design should be invisible and unobtrusive to the viewer, as they should be completely absorbed in the narrative. It is crucial because it manages to emotionally affect or communicate something to the spectator that the cinematography cannot do by itself. Additionally, one assumption about the work of a sound department is that it is profoundly technical, involving the manipulation of several bells and whistles. Whilst this assumption is valid, it also diminishes the role of the Foley artist because, when all is said and done, sound design is not about pushing buttons but is a highly creative, impactful enterprise.
These are the key ideas that Vanessa Theme Ament is keen to explore in ‘The Foley Grail’, now in its 2nd edition, and is vastly successful in achieving. The book is neatly structured into seven sections: it begins by offering a great deal of contextual information about the origins of sound design; it then moves onto the various job types available for a career in sound; she then concentrates specifically on Foley for gaming (a great part of the book is its ambitious scope as it covers the platforms of film, gaming and animation); next we get to look at the exciting methods that Foley artists use to make sounds; Ament then comments on the changing role of the Foley jobs; followed by a discussion of how to create a Foley stage; then concluding with a reflection on all of these topics.
Depending on your interest in sound design, that list could sound fascinating and wide-ranging, bewilderingly complex, seriously ambitious or mind-numbingly dull. Speaking as a beginner in sound design (but eager to learn!), I must confess that reading through these sections in Ament’s introduction made me presume that what would follow would be purely theoretical, didactic, by the numbers and therefore, quite uninspiring. My fears were confirmed by flicking through the pages and seeing the heavy amounts of copy. Yet, while the presentation of the information could be strengthened, upon an examination of the content, this book functions as an incredibly accessible study of sound design, and one in which the passion for sound really does shine through. It would be easy for this publication to focus on one extreme: either sound design as a theoretical piece of film history, or as a ‘how to’ guide to sound production. Perhaps the most commendable aspect of this work is how Ament takes these polarised theoretical and practical applications of sound and marries them in imaginative and informative ways. Ament’s precise writing style encourages the integration of these two elements rather than their separation: sound theory informs the practise. Thankfully the novel does not get too weighed down in sound history ; however fascinating it could be, this is not ‘the history of sound design’ but more like, ‘how the history of sound will improve your sound and make you a creative Foley artist’ (‘The Foley Grail’ makes for a much catchier title). As such, the book does what all good books on film production should do: it does not encourage the reader to copy the conventions of existing artists, but implores that you take them as an inspirational models from which you can derive your own bold, fresh and fearless sound work. Considering the breadth of material and number of media platforms explored, it’s reassuring to note that this is not a colossal book to transport around but is compact and economical to use. It works both for the reader who leisurely sits and absorbs the information yet it also functions as a handy pocket book for the busy sound designer on location or in the editing suite. Even the quickest scan of the pages reveal pithy and memorable tips, such as, “it is a much better strategy to make specific decisions about what sounds should be heard rather than to make noise for everything that moves.” It is also refreshing to note how the case studies of films included are not limited to a certain genre or institution. By contrast, the range of genres and works of global cinema discussed is impressive, successfully including every type of filmmaker or sound designer out there rather than solely concentrating on the archetypal soundies such as Ben Burtt (don’t worry Ben, we still love you). Finally, the most joyous section of this work is the practical application of Foley sound which is accompanied by several diagrams, location shots and photographs of sound designers at work. It’s very inspiring to view these images as it reminds one of how sound design is essentially a messy occupation: it will remain a job for a craftsman rather than a text-based theory. Thanks to this publication, sound is appraised as a subjective art form. So whether you’re a novice (i.e. “what even is Foley?”) or a whizz (“pfft, why do I need to read about Jack?”), there truly is much to learn from this book. Seek the Foley Grail.