Inside Celtic Media Centre is a quiet space completely closed off to the noise emanating from the surrounding stages and filled only with effects so alternately common and surreal they sound off like non-stop pop quizzes for the senses. Here, thumbs pressing into a bag of cornstarch are footsteps crunching in the snow. The dusty magnetic tape inside an old VHS cassette, when violently pulled out like strands of taffy, is someone walking through tall grass. When a beautiful star struts across this room, it is not Angelina Jolie, Penelope Cruz or Anne Hathaway; it is all 6 feet and 2 inches of actor Ryan Chase Lee, in high heels and skin-hugging short shorts, no less, walking in lockstep with the actresses he is miming on screen.
This dreamlike room is not a rabbit hole. It’s a recording studio.
“It was really difficult to find size 14 heels,” says Lee, an actor and movement specialist who often records walking and other noises with the sound effects team at Building Studios. “And I can’t wear pants while we are recording, because they make noise, so I think some friends of mine have pictures they could blackmail me with for sure.”
Lee’s boss and main collaborator is Michael Russo, co-owner and manager of Building Studios. After years of engineering and producing albums for area bands like Baak Gwai, The Last Chalaron and Tiny Arch, Russo and his business partner Paul Knox leased the studio space at Celtic. It wasn’t long before productions working out of Celtic asked them to record Foley sounds for movies.
Foley is the art of replacing the audio captured on noisy sets or outdoors with pristine recordings of background noises, movements and action sound effects like the clacking of footsteps, the whoosh of clothes moving, the metallic scrape of car keys being grabbed from a counter, doors and drawers sliding open and slamming shut, and everything that breaks, from glass to plates to bones.
Enter Russo and his team. Without any experience outside of recording music, Russo and Knox accepted the challenge and learned fast, “like diving head-first into cold water,” Russo says.
Athletic and thin with a small tattoo of DVD player controls—record, pause, play, and so on—running down his forearm, Russo has little use for those. Fast-forward is more his speed. The Baton Rouge native talks at a lightning clip and bounds beneath the dim, soft studio lighting to tug at a thick black curtain. Pulling it aside, he reveals racks of castaway yard-sale junk and plastic bins labeled and loaded with clothes, shoes, sticks, guns, a severed car door, special cigarettes that crackle loudly when lit, even old children’s toys—anything that can be used to make a sound.
“We may spend a whole day just figuring out how we’re going to do a certain surface,” says Russo, who first records footsteps and clothing sounds, then moves on to specific props. “You can really find yourself stuck in a hole—or dumpster diving.”
Russo’s team spends about two weeks brainstorming ideas and meticulously recording every Foley sound needed for a feature film, then another two weeks splicing those clips into the movie at precise frames. The film’s sound mixers and sound supervisor will adjust the levels of each of these tracks later, but placing them at the right moment is Russo’s responsibility. Timing sound effects to match the movie’s visuals is where accuracy ends, though.
“The sounds themselves have to be larger than life,” Russo says. “Realism is not important. What’s important is selling it. Like the VHS tapes we use. Real grass just doesn’t sound right.”
Unlike some Foley artists, Russo never shies away from leaving his studio for the wild. For a recent film called Husk, he discovered a broken-down taxicab outside of one of Celtic’s soundstages and dragged a pipe along its surface to help add menace to a diabolical scarecrow attack. Once, he sourced the very same corrugated roofing featured in a scene and scrambled across the metal just as the actor did. Watching the playback of Jason Hewitt’s Blood Out, in which star Luke Goss slides feet-first into the black sludge of a mud puddle, Russo pauses the video to point across the control booth and into the studio. “This is what we used that for,” he says matter-of-factly.
And there, lying on the floor, is the true scene of the sound: an inflatable baby pool brimming with pine branches and caked in mud.
“We had a good time diving into that,” Russo says. “See, we have to think outside the box and make it visceral. If I can’t close my eyes and hear that it is an exciting scene, then our work isn’t done.” buildingstudios.com