Sound-Effect Maker

Sanaa Kelley uses everyday objects to create the sounds that bring movies and TV shows to life


ROCKING OUT Kelley drops rocks on the floor to mimic a groundshaking earthquake.

In a typical workday, Sanaa Kelley might find herself stirring a pot of Pop Rocks candies, smashing plates, or sucking on an orange slice. It may sound like Kelley is a chef who cooks unusual dishes. But these tasks are actually part of her job as a Foley artist—someone who creates sound effects for movies, TV shows, and video games. Popping candy, for example, mimics the sizzle of frying food. Shattering plates creates noises for a restaurant fight scene. And sucking on an orange sounds like kissing. Kelley is the founder of Reel Foley Sound in California. She’s worked on dozens of movies and TV shows, including Nickelodeon cartoons like Avatar: the Last Airbender and SpongeBob Square Pants, as well as The CW’s comic book-based series Arrow and Batwoman. Kelley spoke to Science World about the clever ways she re-creates everyday sounds.


SWEET SOUNDS Kelley has found that sucking on an orange slice sounds like kissing.

Why do movies and TV shows use Foley artists?

Imagine a microphone recording two people as they walk and talk. If the microphone were to pick up their footsteps as well as their voices, it would be hard to hear what they’re saying. To make sure their dialogue is clear, actors wear special quiet shoes. Later, in a studio, a Foley artist adds in the sound of their footsteps, along with any other sound effects and background noises the microphone didn’t capture. A sound editor then separates the recordings into multiple tracks—single streams of audio. The tracks are later mixed, or combined, with dialogue and music to create what viewers end up hearing.

What types of props do you use to make sound effects?

I try to use real materials from a scene. For footsteps, I match the shoes the actor is wearing, whether they’re boots or high heels. If an actor is washing a car, I’ll wash a prop car door. But sometimes, I have to get creative. I did a scene recently where the character ate a snail—shell and all. Obviously, I’m not going to eat a whole snail myself! Instead, fortune cookies mimicked the sound of the shell’s crunch, and a grape sounded like the squishing of the snail’s insides.


ON A ROLL An old chair and a heavy case on a rolling dolly create the sound of a covered wagon rolling across the prairie.

How is your studio set up to record sounds?

The stages in my studio are soundproof. They’re made to block soundwaves, so outside noises won’t interfere with recordings. The stages have different types of floors: wood, cement, and carpet. I have a big tank I fill with water for scenes where characters might be swimming and areas I can fill with dirt, sand, leaves, snow—you name it.

What else is involved in creating Foley sounds?

I create sounds by categories, like hands touching things, cell phone noises, people drinking and eating, and so on. As I’m working, a person called a Foley mixer is recording me. They adjust the sounds electronically based on what’s happening in the scene.


Foley artists are named after Jack Foley, who developed many of the first sound-effect techniques in the 1920s.

Do you have a favorite sound you’ve made?

Yes! A spaceship breaking in half. I created it by putting a metal car door on top of a truck’s tailgate so they creaked against each other. Then I dropped the tailgate against the ground. I also use a secret weapon to make the sound of something breaking: frozen lasagna! I put the lasagna on top of metal or glass, and then I smash the lasagna with a mallet. It makes the material underneath resonate to create a deep, reverberating sound that’s more realistic.

What else should people know about your job?

It can be a lot of work. It once took me eight hours to create the sound of a two-minute car crash. But Foley artists are good at what we do. So much so, most people don’t even know we exist!

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