Award-winning foley artist Gary Hecker is one of the most sought-after talents in his field. He works on AAA game titles, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (which earned him two MPSE awards in 2019), Borderlands 3, and The Last of Us—the latter two scoring Golden Reel nominations.
In the feature film realm, he's walked the bound feet of Japanese women in Memoirs of a Geisha and the thundering footfalls of Orcs in Warcraft. He was even a foley artist on the original Friday the 13th. He's a regular collaborator with supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman on Tarantino films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight. Animated features include Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (find an in-depth story on his MPSE award-winning foley work here), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Spirit.
This year, he's been busy performing foley for Zack Snyder's upcoming Army of the Dead and MCU's Morbius and Venom 2.
From flashy Marvel movies to subtle documentaries, Hecker delivers foley that fits the characters onscreen. In our discussion, this master foley artist talks about the importance of foley and shares tips on perfecting the craft.
No Film School: Why should up-and-coming sound pros consider foley as a profession?
Gary Hecker: If they want a creative profession, then foley would be the thing to do. It's very, very creative. You're not behind a computer all day. You're creating all day and creating sound for a film. So every day is very interesting and exciting and every film you work on is different.
So what's good about it is that every day you come to work, things are different, and you're doing different stuff all the time. You're experimenting and finding new ways to create sounds. And it's just been really rewarding for me. And I'm sure it could be very rewarding for other people as well.
NFS: Footsteps are a huge part of what a foley artist covers. Why is it so important that you get the footsteps right?
GH: You've got to get the footsteps right because sound editors can cut sound effects, but they can't really cut footsteps from a library. I mean you can, but the whole thing about foley is that it's performance-based.
Footsteps are really important because you have to perform them custom for each film. If it's an army film, you've got to have army guys. If it's a Western, you're going to have the Western characters and spurs and boots. And if it's a film where there are women in it, then you have high heels. So it's important to get the footsteps right because those are the one thing that the editors can't edit from a library.
When I'm working on a film, a lot of supervisors say, "Hey, I can cut a lot of those sound effects but I need the footsteps for the film custom-performed." So it's very important in that aspect.
NFS: What are some tips you could share on how to improve foley footsteps?
GH: When you're performing feet, it's really important to get the weight distribution right. I'll give you an example. I'm a 200-pound guy. So, if I'm doing Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's a big guy—like a 230-pound guy—or if I'm doing Batman for a film those characters have to be big and weighty, and you have to wear a big, beefy shoe for those guys.
But then, if I'm doing a film like Memoirs of a Geisha, well I'm 200 pounds but I have to do a 90-pound woman and be very delicate and super, super light.
It's an art form. You have to be able to distribute your weight correctly to do that, to get that aspect of the character, to get the weight distribution and also the character. For that 90-pound woman, I have to perform very lightly and delicately. But for the big Batman character, I have to perform really weighty footsteps that are big and bold.
Also, you've got to have your timing down. Sync is very important. It's got to be right on. Sync is very important so that when the sound editor is editing it, they have less work to do. You want to deliver really good sync, as best as possible, so that when it leaves the stage it's in sync.
NFS: Another huge aspect of foley is cloth rustle. What are the benefits of a cloth track? Being such a subtle layer of sound, what does it actually contribute to the final soundtrack?
GH: Cloth is actually the most important for the foreign versions because all the dialogue is stripped out and you're left with naked ADR for different languages. So that's when foley footsteps, cloth, and sound effects are very important because all the production sounds are stripped away.
It's also very important under an ADR line. When an actor comes into an ADR stage and replaces a line of dialogue (maybe for a performance, or maybe there is noise in the track or noise on their microphone the day they shot the film) that part of the production track and that original dialogue is being replaced. So you have to fill it with cloth and other foley. The foley is important because the ADR has to sound real because you're just dealing with pre-recorded dialogue that's by itself. You have to have foley around that, and the cloth has to be really good and be performed just right so that it doesn't interfere with the dialogue. You don't want it to be hissy when the actor is talking, so that's why it's important.
NFS: What are some tips you can share on how to improve the cloth track?
GH: As I mentioned, you have to be very, very precise with it when you're using it and you have to flow with the cloth—not be jerky—and you have to move your entire arms when doing it. Not just move your hands, but really get into it with your body.
Whatever the character's doing, you have to move the cloth to match. Some artists, when they're learning, they just ball up the cloth and move it around. I call it "the ball of cloth." And that's not a good thing because it just creates a ball of white noise. So you want to use the cloth very precisely and strategically, and just have it flowing and use your whole arms while you're doing it. Don't do the ball a cloth, and don't do a lot of extra moves when you're doing it, because a sound editor is ultimately going to get that track and if you're doing a lot of extra moves, then they've got to cut them out. That creates a lot of work for the editor. So it's really important for their sake to be super tight as well.
NFS: Typically, the goal is to get the foley to match production sound. Are there any tips on how to capture studio-recorded foley so that it fits really nicely in with production sound, or feels like it fits the space on-screen?
GH: That's really important actually, to match production. Let's say the scene is a long shot, and you're looking at an actor walking down an interior hallway. What's really important to do, to match the production sound, is to mic for each angle. Foley artists and recordists tend to stick the mic right on the source or whatever they're recording. But what I do is I follow the camera around, within reason, so if it's far away, then I'll mic far away and if it cuts to a close-up, I'll bring the mic in super close. And then if it's a medium shot, I'll adjust for that. So I'm constantly moving the mic.
And that's a very important tip because, as I said, a lot of people don't do that or they're not aware of it. If you keep moving with the camera, then that keeps the sound moving, and it helps the foley melt into the production track, which is the most important thing.
If you're shooting foley for an interior and it's for an ambient room that's echoey and you make your foley sound really close, then it's going to stick out. If you mic it from a further distance it's going to melt into the production track and melt into the movie. And it just really helps a lot.
Another thing that's really important, if it's possible, is to get the acoustical room on it. Some people just record the foley straight and then some people add a digital reverb on it. But if you can get a nice, light room on it, it makes it sound better. You use two mics: one on the source and one mic at a distance that's picking up the room ambiance and you mix the signals together so that it sounds like whatever the sound is inside that room on screen.
For sounds that are exterior, use one mic so you don't hear that room. Doing this helps to distinguish between sounds that are interior and sounds that are exterior.
NFS: What are some common mistakes that new foley artists tend to make? Or, what are some pitfalls that new foley artists should be aware of and avoid when possible?
GH: Well, it's more of a bad habit, but one thing that I see a lot is a foley artist using one foot when performing footsteps for their characters. So they stand in place and they'll put one shoe on the right foot (or the left) only, but they'll use just one foot. And what's weird is a lot of people are doing that. And I've never done that in my career. It's just not a good practice to do. You should always use both of your feet. I can tell in a second if an artist is doing that, and I have an old joke. I'll say, "Hey, I'm paying you for both feet!"
It's just not a good thing to use one foot. One reason is that if you're using just one leg then you can't get the weight distribution correct.
NFS: Any other sage advice to impart on fledgling foley artists?
GH: You've got to give a good level when you're recording because there's going to be a music track, a production track, and sound effects. So you have to give a really good level when you're recording and keep that in mind to not be really light unless it's a delicate scene. It's really important to give a good level and a full sound.
Also, if you're doing foley you have to have a huge variety of shoes in your arsenal—different shoes for women and businessmen and soldiers. It's really important to have a huge variety of different shoes so that you're well-equipped.
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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the Sound Week 2020 is sponsored by RØDE.