The Sound of Gowns

I knew Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair was going to be an interesting and challenging project. It was filmed with lots of attention to the visual details, and the sound of the Foley effects—naturalistic sounds recorded to match the action in a scene tracks—would need to be as audibly clean and meticulous as the film is visually stunning.

The production track on Vanity Fair (which opened in September) was in good shape when they first brought it to us—some cleaned usable dialogue, along with production effects, some backgrounds and music, all on separate tracks. As with many production sounds, embellishments from the Foley department help to sell the authenticity of what you see on the screen.

Some sound designers/editors will work on a production for several months—they will prepare many different tracks and ask us (Foley Artists) to record Foley effects in specific areas. And some editors will rely on Foley effects for practically every sound you hear in a film. Vanity Fair was somewhere in between.

We recorded almost everything on camera, including horse drawn carriages, wooden trunks, fancy dresses and garments, ornate jewelry…the list goes on. Most of the hoof steps for the horses were already prepared, and the Foley team only needed to record the most upfront horse hoof steps. We also recorded all of the movement of the reins and saddles.

When my team and I first saw an early screening of Vanity Fair, our sound supervisor Warren Shaw and Foley supervisor Bill Sweeney were very specific with their descriptions of sounds they wanted to hear for the film, which is an 1820s English period piece. Everyone and everything in the film were authentic looking. With so many specific props and character sounds in front of us, it appeared as if the entire contents of my prop room would be utilized. We decided that the most efficient way to record would be to break the film up into sequences, or broad sound components: clothing rustle, footsteps, horse drawn carriages, wagons, and smaller props.

Many beautiful gowns are worn in the film—made of satins, velvets, taffetas, and other types of shimmering materials. As Foley Artists, we wanted to convey a sense of elegance and refinement for each individual character. We needed to differentiate those qualities and recall them for use in each scene. Having already worked on one or two period films, I recalled into service my supply of “fancy cloth.” Seeing that I only had the proper material for just one or two characters, I assigned Dave Warzinski (aka Foleyboy), the task of finding more varied materials. I’m not sure where he went, but he returned with over a dozen different types of materials. I was delighted to have at my fingertips access to several distinctly different sounding satin materials, velvets, and other types of weaves.

By using two or three different pieces of material for each individual character, we were able to create the sound of each person’s individual movement. It was important to have varying qualities when more than one fancy dress was onscreen at the same time. Many times one character would flow into another. I was pleased that I could hear the differences in clothing quality when I screened the final mix.

As we listened through the film, we could hear many different qualities of hard heels for the women and some surprisingly sharp heels for the men as well. We normally try to match the sound quality of each footstep to the character on screen. The floor surfaces in most scenes were visible in the film and somewhat audible on the production tracks. We matched the tonal quality of the floors in each room with the characters’ shoes, noting that many of the floor surfaces were marble, ceramic tile, wooden, parquet, or some similar variation. We also matched the varying degrees of room bounce (echo, reverb) on the footsteps.

The easiest way to describe room bounce is in distance to the microphone. The further away the microphone from where I make the sound, the more room bounce will be on that Foley effect. When recording footsteps in this fashion, it allows the final mixer to “slip” the Foley effects tracks into the final mix more easily than if the sound were recorded close-up. This is not a new process for recording Foley effects, though it does require a “live” Foley stage.

My company, C5, was conceived and built with this in mind. The Foley house stage is immense, and capable of creating a bounce the size of a gymnasium. Most of the rooms in Vanity Fair were of a slightly larger variety than what we normally see in typical films—banquet halls, libraries, dining rooms, and bedrooms all required keeping the microphone at least four to ten feet from the source.

The posh, finer estates in Vanity Fair were extremely clean, so we needed to keep that in mind during recording. Grit on the floors would be kept to a minimum. In dinner scenes, dinnerware would be distinct and without extra rubs and slides. No sloppy eating sounds. We used real silver cutlery for proper sounding silverware action, as well as fine china placements and crystal stemware grasps. In the quietest moments we placed soft, subtle nuances of fingertips coming off glass stemware. Background actions for servants were important for these dinner scenes as well. Much of their actions were performed off camera, while the elite ate at the table. Everything depicted on screen would get the finest, cleanest sounds possible. Except in the case of Sir Pitt Crawley and his dilapidated estate.

In the film, you must see upon first glance that Sir Pitt’s residence is a filthy, disorganized, rundown mansion—books off the shelves, maps and deeds flung about. Our challenge came when transforming the sound of the Foley to match the scene in which his mansion is cleaned—when dust encrusted chandeliers transform into highly polished, beautiful fixtures. We used a combination of actual chandelier ornaments and assorted pieces of broken glasses. The tinkles were extremely crisp and clear, with a variety of tones all working together. We needed to keep in mind how diligently the servants were working—brooms sweeping across floors, chair and furniture movements, and other general cleaning sounds were recorded.

Of special concern were the many scenes inside and outside the horse drawn carriages. The sounds of the carriages were made according to the stature of the owner inside: private carriages had less rattles and creaks than the carriages used to transport the commoners. And the sound perspective of the creak would be dramatically different on the inside of the carriage as compared to the outside. We found some carriages in local barns and recorded them at their individual locations. This is a very time consuming process, and something always slows down the progress. Airplanes, lawn mowers, and automobiles often and inevitably ruin some portion of the recordings.

We listened back to these recordings and duplicated the sound in the studio, adding creak tracks by placing the microphone inside large wooden boxes and compartments. By following the rocking of the carriage back and forth, we were able to simulate the carriage movement. This turned out to be very convincing for all of the carriage movements.

Just another layer of sound in what helped to create the overall sound mix on a challenging film.

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