The Sounds of Undressing

Foley and the cloth pass

The role of a foley artist is to generate sound effects for film, television or radio, usually in post-production. Foley typically produces diegetic sound, to enhance or replace sounds that are seen to originate from actions and events that occur on screen, or it may generate the impression of unseen events that occur off-screen. These sound effects play a vital role in the construction of a believable landscape, part of the process that is described by David Bordwell as ‘worldmaking’ [1].

The sound of clothing is typically recorded in a ‘cloth pass’, which is then laid over other audio tracks to contribute to a multi-layered soundtrack. Foley artists record audio to accompany the movement of clothed characters, moving cloth between their hands or wearing similar clothes to the actors on screen, then exaggerating their gestures close to a microphone. Foley artist Vanessa Theme Ament recalls that it was once standard practice to record a cloth pass for every central character, but time and budget constraints have meant that a single cloth pass is now typically recorded for the whole film [2]. The aim of this track is primarily to provide texture. Like other incidental sounds – a dripping tap to suggest a poorly maintained abode; raindrops against a window-pane to create a somber atmosphere; passing cars to signify an urban setting – the sound of cloth is rarely central to the progression of the narrative, but does contribute to hyperdetail that is necessary for believability and immersiveness. These incidental sounds highlight the ‘microevents that reconstitute the texture of the present’, rendering a moment is vivid detail [3].

The art of foley must also, ironically, eliminate some clothing sounds. Any noise from a foley artist’s own clothing may add unwanted noise to the soundtrack, and thereby destroy the illusion that the sound originates within the film. In order to prevent the possibility that their own clothes may add unwanted noise, foley artists often undress before their performance. David Lewis Yewdall recalls spending most of his time as a foley artist ‘with [his] pants off’ [4].

There is intimacy in the cloth pass. The sound of clothing invites listeners to consider the surface of the body, and the intimate sensation of touch. Clothing alone does not make the sounds that can be heard in a cloth pass, but rather, sound is generated through intimate action. As Michel Chion observes, sound ‘necessarily implies a displacement or agitation’ [5]. The displacement of clothes, as the wearer’s body moves against them, as in dressing or undressing, makes them audible.

The cloth pass is an expression of the sound of a garment itself and the object with which it interacts. In Ament’s exploration of the recording of footsteps, she observes that the sound of shoes varies significantly depending on the ‘sonic character’ of the surface on which they land, and so sound design must be equally concerned with the shoe and the surface [6]. Likewise, other clothing makes sound only when it is displaced by the movement of the body, and comes into contact either with other parts of the garment or with the body itself. The sound of cloth gliding over smooth, soft skin is different to the coarse sound of cloth against stubble. The sounds of undressing tell a complex story of the journey that a garment takes as it leaves the body, expressing the changing relationship with the various surfaces with which it makes contact.

When clothes fall from the body to the floor, they produce a sound which communicates both the nature of the garment and the environment in which the undressing takes place. A reverberant sound may express as much about the ‘space that contains it’ as it does about the garment itself [7]. In Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black, heiress Susan Parrish (Claire Forlani) undresses Joe Black (Brad Pitt) in her father’s palatial manor. As she slides it over his shoulders, Joe’s jacket can be seen and heard brushing against the sleeves of his shirt. In this close-up shot of the characters’ head and shoulders, the rest of the jacket’s journey to the floor is not visible, nor is the vast interior in which the scene takes place. Both of these – the jacket landing on the floor, and the extravagance of the surrounding space – are aurally signified by a soft thud and its echo as the sound reverberates off the marble surfaces of the room.

Such sounds may also be designed to express the character of the undresser. When Bond girl Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) undresses for James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in Die Another Day, her falling gown generates sounds which speak of her aloofness. The audience does not directly witness Frost’s naked form as the gown slips from her body, as the camera cuts to a shot of the gown falling on the floor. The gown lands heavily, with a sound that indicates the weight of the many glass beads that adorn it, reinforcing the sternness of her character. Previous Bond films have featured lovers of gentler character, and with softer gown to match. When Bond unzips Plenty O’Toole’s silk-jersey dress and lets it fall to the floor in Diamonds are Forever, the garment lands softly – almost inaudibly.

The soft, feminine sounds of a Bond girl’s dress falling to the floor contrast markedly with the more masculine sounds of undressing in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. In the prelude to the film’s sex scene, the sound of clothes being removed from the body reflects the vigorous, even forceful, tone of the lovemaking. The first homosexual encounter between Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) is ‘abrupt, aggressive and passionate’ [8] and so too is the sound of their partial undressing. The cold mountain location is punctuated with harsh sounds even before the love scene begins. When Ennis makes his way towards Jack’s tent he stumbles over a metal pan, triggering a rattling sound; inside the tent, the rustle of thick tent cloth and sturdy workwear similarly accentuate the harshness of the environment. When Jack initiates sexual contact, Ennis initially withdraws, and his inner conflict manifests in firm, occasionally aggressive fumbling from both parties. Ennis overcomes his reluctance, but his actions remain forceful. When he begins to unfasten his jeans in preparation for love making, the dominant sounds originate from his belt buckle and zipper, both of which are hard, metallic objects. The masculinity of both characters is reflected in the rawness of the sound.

Never is the sound of undressing more important than when it is the only means by which the act is signified. The visual image is contained within the screen, thus visual events may be seen or unseen depending on whether they are located inside the frame. Sounds have no such boundaries. When audiences are denied the sight of clothes being stripped from the body, sound can be relied upon to provide almost as much detail. Foley artists for radio, film and television can signify dressing and undressing entirely through sound effects, creating aural images of clothes ripping, unfastening or falling to the floor. This sonic image-making is achievable through acousmatic sound, that appears to originate from beyond the boundaries of the screen from an off-camera source.

Acousmatic sounds suggest events and actions without direct visual depiction [9]. The dislocated sound that is distanced from the immediately observed space, separates the sound from its source so that filmmakers are able to represent events and actions which may be too distasteful to show on the screen. It allows the audience an insight into events without telling the full story. For a filmmaker who produces scenes of a violent or sexual nature, sounds that originate off screen allow the narrative to progress without censorship. In Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, seductress Lili Von Stupp (Madeline Kahn) makes an effort to ensnare local sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little). Lili blows out the lamps in her boudoir, plunging the room into darkness, and leaving the screen entirely black apart from the silhouette of a jug on the windowsill. We hear Lili as she enquires, ‘Is it true what they say about the way you people are… gifted?’ A ‘zzzzzip’ noise penetrates the darkness, which presumably originates from the zipper of Bart’s slacks. Lili remarks, ‘Oh, it’s true!’ The lack of direct reference to any body part in this scene, verbally or visually, is consistent with the innuendo that characterizes this and many of Brooks’ other films. The direct depiction of a (presumably erect) penis would limit the potential for humour in this scene. The penis in performance may either be perceived as comical or aggressive. When flaccid it invites mockery; when erect it represents, at best, ‘depravity’, or at worst, sexual aggression. By avoiding the image of an exposed penis, Brook is able to sustain a light-hearted tone throughout the scene, and ensure that the film will meet the approval of censors.

References:
[1] Bordwell, D. (2006), The Way Hollywood Tells it: Story and Style in Modern Movies, Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 58.
[2] Theme Ament, V. (2009), The Foley Grail: The art of performing sound for film, games and animation, Burlington, MA: Focal Press, pp. 99-100); Smith, J. (2013), ‘The Sound of Intensified Meaning’, in J. Richardson, C. Gorbman and C. Vernallis, The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 344.
[3] Chion, M. (1994), Audio-Vision: Sound on screen, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 19.
[4] Yewdall, D. L. (2007), Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound, Burlington, MA: Focal Press, p. 451.
[5] Chion, Op. Cit, p. 9.
[6] Theme Ament, Op. Cit, p. 78.
[7] Chion, Op. Cit,  p. 79)
[8] Patterson, E. (2008), On Brokeback Mountain: Mediations about masculinity, fear, and love in the story and the film, Plymouth: Lexington, p. 50.
[9] Schaeffer, P. (1966), Traite ́ des objets musicaux. Paris, France: Le Seuil.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s