MThat morning, in the small town of Coggeshall, Essex, and in an unpretentious building that was once a laundry, a man named Barnaby tries to look like a horse. Strangely, try and succeed. Don’t neigh or neigh, just make the sound of hooves on the ground.
In a large screen on the wall of a windowless room, an armored knight rides a white warhorse. This is Richard III, in this case, accompanied by a string of guards, also armored and mounted. It’s a scene from The Lost King, Stephen Frears’ upcoming film about the woman who, after 30 years of searching, discovered Richard’s remains under a Leicester parking lot.
Barnaby – Barnaby Smyth – crouched down in front of the screen, staring intently at it. In front of him on the ground is a square of compacted earth with a microphone pointed at it, like a heron waiting to strike. Smyth has some vegetation close at hand, some vines and fall leaves, but he has pushed it away; he doesn’t need it for this scene, just the hard floor. In each hand he has pins in the center of rolls of old 35mm film film, wrapped in duct tape.
As King Richard turns his white steed onscreen and walks away, Barnaby hits the earth with his spindles exactly in sync with the hooves, first at a brisk walk, then a small stumble at a gallop before s’ settle into a rhythmic gallop. Ignoring Barnaby and looking at the screen, you’d swear you heard a big horse galloping through Bosworth Field in 1485. Perfect; the only disappointment is that Smyth doesn’t use coconut to do it. “Coconuts can be a bit hollow,” he says. “It’s just more…” and he hits the ground with them again. More like the sound of a galloping horse, clearly.
Welcome to the strange and rather wonderful world of sound effects. Named after Jack Donovan Foley, who pioneered many techniques in the 1920s, sound effects are the addition of everyday sound effects to film or television in post-production – incidental sounds such as squeaking. from a chair, the sound of bottles in a refrigerator door, the rustle of clothes or a swinging purse. And steps, many steps, human and non-human. “It guides the narrative, where to look, how to feel,” says Smyth. “Foley adds this focus to grab the public’s attention.”
Feet First Sound is a sound effects studio and Barnaby Smyth is a sound effects artist and supervisor. Keith Partridge – in headphones and seated at a large mixer at the back of the room – is a sound engineer. Basically, Smyth makes noises and Partridge records them and fiddles with them to improve them.
The room is a strange mix: part a modern high-tech recording studio, part a flea market. There are trays and carts of bottles and glasses for making noises and clattering, books and pens (although if Smyth wants to make the sound of a really nice fountain pen, he will often use a pressure gauge to bike tires, which sounds heavier and classier and makes it more like a pen).
And there are shoes, shelf after shelf, hundreds. This elegant pair of brogues that Smyth wore to complement Gary Oldman’s footsteps as Churchill in Darkest Hour. They recorded in Churchill’s War Rooms in Westminster, for authenticity, as well as here in the studio. And those size 10 black low heels are the ones he wore to nickname the typists in a hurry in the same movie, as well as the busy minions of Downton Abbey. A big pair of military boots? Nazis, of course – in the BBC drama World on Fire, as well as the films Suite Française and The Aftermath; they make a lot of Nazis.
If this room is a flea market, then the next one is a complete garage sale – a huge space, filled with almost everything. There are rows of drawers labeled “medical”, “belts”, “sport”, “police”, “bone”, “makeup”, “gloves”. He shows me how he makes the sound of a flying pigeon beating a pair of leather gloves together. He did it for a recent episode of Baptiste. There are crates filled with different types of soil to walk on: leaves, bark, forest floor, mossy soil. Smyth shows me how to make the boot noise in the snow by twisting a pillowcase full of cornflour. Want crispier, more compact snow? Add dishwasher salt.
On the wall are real weapons: decommissioned rifles and machine guns, swords, axes (“We’re all ready for the zombie apocalypse,” he says happily). On the floor are piles of old tech: phones, keyboards, the ZX Spectrum used in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It’s Marie Kondo’s worst nightmare: nothing is thrown away. Even the cardboard packaging in which the mixer arrived has been preserved. With a rubber mat on top, he made the noise of the gym floor in the boxing movie Journeyman. For the punches, Smyth held a microphone in his mouth and punched himself in the stomach.
Period drama is a crazy peak. “It’s awesome in terms of sound: there is so much to do in these squeaky environments. They sometimes leave the studio, to record in real stately homes. Fantasy is also fun. They’ve just completed a series called The Wheel of Time, an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s epic novels, which Amazon hopes will be the next Game of Thrones. Lots of armor, blood, and guts.
Do they do a lot with watermelons? “There’s this presumption that we spend all day crushing watermelons,” says Smyth. But yes, they are known. There was a movie called The Upside of Anger that had a shocking exploding head scene and they smashed a watermelon for it. “All the gloopy pieces are brilliant for the sound of brain pieces hitting the floor and the wall. If you really need to raise the bet, you can get a grenade, cut it in half, and gulp the innards; it sounds like flesh, gooey with a little sinew in there, and celery is like cracking bones.
They also make more joyful flesh noises. Smyth kisses the back with his own hand. “You get in the mood, I kiss whoever’s on screen, I have to think about the angle and if I’m kissing the neck or whatever.”
And sometimes that goes beyond kissing. They did a series called The Great, with Elle Fanning as Empress Catherine II and Nicholas Hoult as Emperor Peter III, who were there many. Smyth rhythmically bangs the top of his arms to impart flavor. “It’s just a job, I’m doing a sex scene. You break it down – I’ll do the skin, I’ll make the sheets – it’s a trivial thing.
Okay, enough of that. It is time to get back to work and to Bosworth in 1485. There is still a lot of noise to add to the scene. After making Richard’s horse, Smyth and Partridge must return to the scene several times to add the sounds of armor and reins, as well as those of the other on-screen knights, their horses and banners. For the armor, Smyth wears a gauntlet (eBay, £ 18) which he rubs against his chain mail (an old butcher’s apron), while his other hand shakes Partridge’s favorite accessory, a folding steamer basket. made of metal. Again, he does this perfectly in sync with Richard’s driving motions.
Now there are more clogs to add. It can’t be that hard; I need to try. I’ll make the hooves for one of the other horses, while Smyth takes care of the clinking of the armor. I hit the ground with the taped records, trying to keep pace with the horse on the screen. I think it sounds pretty good, maybe a little uneven, but maybe I can go to the first one, or at least get some credit… “Not for that horse you don’t like,” Partridge has said since then. his office, “this drunk horse. “Smyth jumps aboard the mocking wagon.” A mad horse, with BSE, just before he was shot… “
Yeah, okay, I was only trying to help. I’m not sure horses even get BSE. But it is possible that my horse will not make the final cut. Smyth and Partridge aren’t going to many premieres anyway. They just send what they did and the director and sound director pick whatever they want.
As for the spectators, they are mostly unaware that the noise even exists; that there are people like Barnaby Smyth and Keith Partridge, who crush watermelons. It’s OK with Smyth. “To not stand out is really the biggest compliment we can get. “