Sanaa Kelley of Reel Foley Sound talks all things foley

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Even if you haven’t heard of Sanaa Kelley, founder of Reel Foley Sound, you’ve heard her work. She is the foley artist on a massive, constantly expanding list of projects, from Only Murders in the Building to Ted Lasso to Shameless to Riverdale to basically everything Mike Flanagan does. Seriously, check out her IMDB: you’ll be impressed with just how many high profile projects she’s worked on. But while you’re watching a project of hers, you probably didn’t even notice her work. She tells me that “the cool thing about foley is that we know we’ve done a good job when people don’t know it’s even a job.”

Foley is the reproduction of sounds in film. Foley artists–”you should have at least two at all times,” Sanaa tells me–recreate sounds that are needed for a film in post production. Everything from the sound of footsteps to the crunch of potato chips to the sickening sound of a zombie being stabbed in the head are all the purview of foley artists. It’s a vital part of post production, and one that is often overlooked.

Sanaa Kelley had an unconventional start to her foley career. “I was pre med, got my bio degree, but before doing that, right after high school, I saw a foley artist doing foley. I’m always into science. I saw him using a doorknob for a gun movement, just really weird things, […] and I’m like, I can do that! That’s so easy! And he said go ahead and do it… and I couldn’t. I really couldn’t do it.” That was her first time realizing how complex foley artistry is. “He said yeah, some people have it and some people don’t. You don’t have it.” At this time, she wasn’t interested in the film industry, nor did she even know that foley was a full time job. “But I took it really personally that he said I couldn’t do it. So I called like every studio, and after a million nos, one studio said yes. I could come in, but I had to sit with the foley mixer, not the foley artist, because they don’t like to teach. They actually did me a favor, because I learned to hear what the mixer hears.” 

Sitting with the mixer helped her to understand what mixers need from foley artists. “When they were done, I’d close my eyes and try to recreate the scene, just to practice. After being there every day, one day they had a low budget movie and they asked if I wanted to do it. […] They were like, you’re not getting paid and I was like that’s fine!” She laughs. “I guess me making coffee and sweeping and cleaning worked out for me. Ever since then I’ve been doing foley. I still finished my biology degree and went to med school, but sound was my thing. There’s a lot of science behind it too.”

I share that my start in film was unconventional as well, and I think of myself as less of a filmmaker and more as a storyteller who is interested in different ways to tell stories. In a way, she’s a storyteller too. “Foley goes hand in hand with your work. You tell a story with a script and by putting it in a video, and my job is to service your story. If someone closed their eyes, they could feel the emotion in every footstep, every prop, everything that we do.” She goes on to tell me how she conveys the emotion in the scene, thinking about if each sound sounds sad or happy. Emulating the sounds of the scene helps tell the story. “Good actors have props for a reason. […] They’re telling a story with their face, their body, and any props they touch. If it’s on screen, it’s important, and I will do my best to reenact it.” Sound, and specifically foley, is just one of the many ways storytellers get their message across. “We do everything from beginning to end. Anything you put on the screen that’s a story point, anything you do, we’re going to do it. Say the actor has a pen and they fidget with it, I’m going to do that in sound, too.”

I ask her if she has a favorite sound she’s ever created, or if there’s a particular sound that she thinks would really surprise viewers. She had an instant answer. “I was talking to a friend of mine who worked on Gilligan’s Island. They had asked her to do the sound of the waves. She got some coffee grounds, put them on a cement floor, got a leather purse, and just dragged it over it. She did that, and I thought it was amazing, and I could also use that to do traffic, like the sound of cars passing by. I tried the same thing and put ground coffee on a cardboard box, and it sounds like snowboarding when it’s really icy. One sound, changing a couple of things, changing the micing on one thing or moving another, and it’s really cool.” The complexity and nuance of sound is very interesting, and one foley artist may approach the same task totally differently from another. “I can have one prop and move it a certain way and another foley artist will do something completely different with it. It’s just amazing!”

I ask about the different objects she uses to make sounds, especially fruits and vegetables. “I love using celery for some of the bone breaks,” she tells me. “However, if there’s multiple different bone breaks, I’ll do the ribs with celery. If someone breaks their little finger, I’ve used glow sticks before, because the bones are smaller. If someone has a bigger finger, I might use a carrot. I try to look at bone density and think about what that would sound like. If it’s a smaller bone, maybe a smaller piece of celery, I’ve used uncooked, raw lasagna, sometimes I’ve put cloth on top of it, if someone has clothes on before things break. It’s important to pay attention to the little details.” 

I ask if her medical background helps with those decisions. “It kind of does!” she says. “The most fun one was an autopsy. I’ve done a real life autopsy.” That background helps her make educated decisions about what certain things would sound like. “I think I was lucky because I did foley before I went to med school, so now I’m always aware of the sound. Even passively, I’m collecting all the information in my head.”

She doesn’t just learn from other foley artists. Sometimes her Instagram followers inspire as well. “If you follow my channel, Reel Foley Sound, a lot of times I do guess the sound. And I love that, because I could put something that sounds like rain, and someone will say oh, it sounds like something being fried, and I’m like, oh my gosh, yeah, if I just add this and do this, I could see what they’re thinking. So I’m learning from my followers!”

Next, I ask her some questions about how beginners can get started as foley artists. “I would say the best thing to do is find out if you can shadow. A lot of people say get an internship. A lot of internships are paid, but people are not going to pay you to sit there and watch them. A lot of foley artists don’t even want you to watch them.” Watching foley artists at work doesn’t absolutely have to be in person, either. “29 years ago I didn’t have any videos to watch. There was no TikTok, no Instagram. I had to trial and error. You guys have all these videos; I alone post minimum five times a week. You have all these short clips. Mute me, and do foley to my foley. I’m using my iphone, it’s not what we use to give the clients, so it sounds boxy and woody and thin, but if you can get it to sound like me? Perfect! Because I’m just using an iphone.” She works hard to make her instagram content educational, showing her whole body to display her technique, and showing the screen whenever she has permission. She also regularly hosts zoom workshops. The price ranges depending on if it’s just her or if she has other sound experts teach as well. When the other experts teach, they cover a wide range of post production sound skills.

I ask her if there is any equipment a beginner foley artist should invest in. She shakes her head. “No. Do not buy anything. You don’t need to have equipment, it costs so much money to start a studio properly, you’d need about $300,000 worth of equipment. You’re not gonna do that. The room has to be soundproof, there’s so much that goes into it. I practice in my living room. […] You go to any studio, they’re going to have the microphones, they have the props.” 

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t collect any props, just steer clear of expensive equipment. “There are certain props you should have. You should have your own shoes. At least four pairs of each: high heels, boots, every type of shoe that you see on screen. You need at least four pairs in case two actors are wearing the same shoes.” She’s posted a video with the essentials you need to have, which you can find if you scroll back far enough on her Instagram. There are also things you can make, like gloves with paperclips attached to the nails for animal footsteps. 

I ask what it’s like working for different clients, and how much creative control she has. The answer is somewhat complicated. The majority of her clients are repeat clients, so she knows exactly how they like to work, but that’s not always the case. “Most of the time there’s a sound supervisor that has a meeting with the producer and director, and takes notes about what needs to be ADR’d, what sound effects need to sound like, just specific notes. But most of them, we know what they want. If something is unclear, like a surface, we just send them a text.” But the foley artists are not the ones making the creative decisions about the sound design of the film; that’s the sound supervisor’s job. Foley is just one element of sound that the sound supervisor oversees before they are able to go on to the sound mix stage. “The sound supervisor sits in at the mix stage to make sure it’s right. Then when the director and producers sit down and watch it, the sound supervisor is there as well.”

I ask her for advice for people who want to build a stable career in audio. For her, it all comes down to perspective. “The biggest compliment in the world is when I go into work and people who have spent millions of dollars on their art choose me to do the sound. It’s an honor that they’re giving me the opportunity to work on their movie.” 

“It’s also important to be thankful that you get to work and get to create and actually have fun doing it.” I ask her what parts of the creative process give her the most joy. “When I first walk into the studio and I have my playground, as I like to call it, and it’s almost like I have a canvas. If you were a painter, you have your canvas, you have all your paint brushes, your paints, and everything, and you’re creating this beautiful piece of visual art. With me, it’s the same thing with sound. It’s so rewarding to just create! And I don’t always know what I’m walking into. Sometimes it’s a horror movie, sometimes it’s a romcom, so I don’t know if I’m going to be stabbing zombies or kissing my hand. It’s fun!”

Her most important advice? “Be a good human.” Work hard to master the skills of foley, do your best for each project, treat others with kindness, and you’ll be someone who clients want to work with again and again.

Thank you so much for your time, Sanaa! Check out Sanaa’s Instagram and website for more information on foley.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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