POLITICS

Bonk! Splash! Pow! Soundman shares the secrets to on-screen noises

05/29/2013 02:00 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - On any given day Tchae Measroch could find himself crawling around on all fours, splashing about in a bathtub or tapping on a bear skull, all in the name of his art.

Such is the life of a foley artist — someone who reproduces everyday sounds for film, video games and TV, with the profession named after Jack Donovan Foley, who pioneered the craft in late 1920s Hollywood.

The 37-year-old Montrealer toils in a small, dimly lit studio that looks more like a disorganized storage space containing many props, some of which closely resemble curbside junk.

This is where he cranks out sound effects for video games.

There aren't many people like him. While Canada closes in on the status of being the world's second-biggest video-game producer, with more than 16,000 employees, there are only a handful of full-time foley artists.

Relying on his imagination, the Ubisoft employee improvises sounds based on what he sees on-screen while working on games like Assassin's Creed 4.

He might remove the skin from a banana to mimic a zombie peeling the skin off its face. He's used an old door knob and latch in order to replicate the sound of a centuries-old musket gun cocking.

In this line of work, as it turns out, there might be unusual uses for a medical tool whose regular intended purpose is probing body cavities.

"It happened once that I couldn't find a pair of police handcuffs in my stuff," he recalls. "So, from my 'Hospital Items Box' I grabbed a speculum to sound the cuffs."

Sound effects are almost always last in the creative process.

That gives Measroch and others like him precious little time to probe their imagination and grab the closest available object to produce the appropriate sound.

Axes, bottles, boots, chains, old tires, swords — they're never far from reach.

His tool kit involves anything he can use to replicate a sound. He might find such objects at home or in the most unlikely of places, such as garbage cans.

And there's plenty of trial and error.

While trying to simulate the sound of someone being clubbed over the head, for instance, Measroch quickly realized his bear skull wouldn't produce the desired effect.

In the end, a coconut did the trick.

Another time he discovered that his water-filled tub could provide the ambient sound for a character drowning or falling overboard.

Starting out at age 20, Measroch worked alongside a veteran foley artist on B movies, assisting him for three years before venturing out as a freelancer and picking up film work.

Measroch eventually left the movie business and ventured into gaming, lured by the offer of greater creative challenges and recognition.

More recently, Measroch has been hold up in a fifth-floor studio, designing and creating sounds at Ubisoft's Montreal branch. With over 2,400 employees, it is the biggest facility in the Ubisoft group and one of the largest independent video-game development studios in the world.

Life as a foley artist has had its challenges.

"It's like being the stuntman of sound," he says.

Measroch recalls injuring himself while working on a movie. He'd put his hands through glass while trying to emulate the sound of a woman, held captive in a cabin, banging on the window.

Despite the technological advancements in sound and recording over the years, Measroch doesn't think much has changed since the first "talkies" flickered on the silver screen.

"Jack Foley and foley artists today have lots in common. It's the exact same job, really," he says.

"They think the same and use similar tricks in front of the microphone, but the recording tools and techniques have greatly evolved and so has the overall quality of sound."

Visitors to his studio will occasionally suggest he has a dream job. Measroch makes sure to point out that it's not just fun and games.

"Sometimes it's a tough job," he says, "and you've got to be ready to get your hands dirty."