By Jennifer Walden
Director Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, has gotten rave reviews from both critics and audiences. The biographical dramedy is based on Ron Stallworth’s true story of infiltrating the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan back in the 1970s.
Stallworth (John David Washington) was a detective for the Colorado Springs police department who saw a recruitment advertisement for the KKK and decided to call the head of the local Klan chapter. He claimed he was a racist white man wanting to join the Klan. Stallworth asks his co-worker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to act as Stallworth when dealing with the Klan face-to-face. Together, they try to thwart a KKK attack on an upcoming civil rights rally.
The Emmy-award winning team (The Night Of and Boardwalk Empire) of Foley artist Marko Costanzo and Foley engineer George Lara at c5 Sound in New York City were tasked with recreating the sound of the ‘70s — from electric typewriters and rotary phones at police headquarters to the creak of leather jackets that were so popular in that era. “There are cardboard files and evidence boxes being moved around, phones dialing, newspapers shuffling and applause. We even had a car explosion which meant a lot of car parts landing on the ground,” explains Costanzo. “If you could listen to the film before our Foley, you would notice just how many of the extraneous noises had been removed, so we replaced all of that. Pretty much everything you hear in that film was replaced or at least sweetened.”
One important role of Foley is using it to define a character through sound. For example, Stallworth typically wears a leather jacket, and his jacket has a signature sound. But many of the police officers, and some Klan members, wear leather jackets, too, and they couldn’t all sound the same. The challenge was to create a unique sound that would represent each character.
According to Costanzo, the trickiest ones to define were the police officers, since they all have similar gear but still needed to sound different. “For the racist police officer Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), we wanted to make him noisy so he sounds a little more overzealous or full of himself. He’s got more of a presence.” The kit they created for Landers has more equipment for his belt, like bullets and handcuffs that rattle as he walks, a radio and a nightstick clattering, and they used extra leather creaking as well. “We did the night stick for him because he’s always ready and quick to pull out his nightstick to harass someone. He was a pretty nasty character, so we made him sound nasty with all our Foley trimmings.”
The police officer Foley really shines during the scene in which Stallworth apprehends Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who just planted a bomb outside the residence of Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the black student union at Colorado College. Stallworth is undercover, and he’s being arrested by local uniformed police officers instead of Connie the criminal. “The trick there was to make the police officer sound intimidating, and we did that through the sound of their belts,” says Costanzo. “They’re frisking the undercover cop and putting the handcuffs on and we covered all of those actions with sound.”
That scene is followed by a huge car explosion, which the Foley team also covered. While they didn’t do the actual explosion sound, they did perform the sounds of the glass shattering and many different debris impacts. “Our work helps to identify the perspective of the camera, and adds detail like parts hitting the bushes or parts hitting other cars. We go and pick out all the little things that you see and add those to the track,” he says.
Sometimes the Foley adds to the storytelling in less overt ways. For instance, during the scene when Stallworth calls up the head of the local KKK. As he’s on the phone listing all the types of people he hates, the other police officers in the station stop what they’re doing. Zimmerman swivels his chair around slowly and you hear it squeaking the whole time. It’s this uncomfortable sound, like the sonic equivalent of an eyebrow raise. Costanzo says, “Uncomfortable sounds are what we specialize in. Those are moments we embellish wherever possible so that it does tell part of the story. We wanted that moment to feel uncomfortable. Once those sounds are heard, it becomes part of the story, but it also just falls into the soundtrack.”
Foley can be helpful in communicating what’s happening off-screen as well. The police station is filled with officers. In Foley, they covered telephone hang-ups and grabs, the sound of the cords clattering and the chairs creaking, filing cabinets being opened and closed. “We try to create the feeling that you are located in that room and so we embellish off-camera sounds as well as the sounds for things on camera,” says Lara. Sometimes those off-camera sounds are atmospheric, like the police station, and other times they’re very specific. The director or supervising sound editor may ask to hear the characters walk away and out onto the street, or they need to hear a big crowd on the other side of a wall.
Part of the art of Foley is getting it to sound like it’s coming from the scene, like it’s production sound even though it isn’t. When a character waves an arm, you hear a cloth rustle. If people are walking down a long hallway, you hear their footsteps, and the sound diminishes as they get farther away from the camera. “We embellish all those movements, and that makes what we’re seeing feel more real,” explains Costanzo. To get those sounds to sit right, to feel like they’re coming from the scene, the Foley team strives to match the quality of the room for each scene, for each camera angle. “We try to do our best to match what we hear in production so the Foley will match that and sound like it was recorded there, live, on-set that day.”
Tools & Collaboration
Lara uses a four-mic approach to capturing the Foley. For the main mic (closest to Costanzo), he uses a Neumann KMR 81 D shotgun mic, which is a common boom mic used on-set. He has three other KMR 81 Ds placed at different distances and angles to the sound source. Those are all fed into an 8-channel Millennia mic pre-amp. By changing the balance of the mics in the mix, Lara can change the perspective of the sound. Because how well the Foley fits into the track isn’t just about volume, it’s about perspective and tonal quality. “Although we can EQ the sound, we try not to because we want to give the supervising sound editor the best sound, the fullest and richest sounding Foley possible,” he says.
Lara and Costanzo have been creating Foley together for 26 years. Both got their start at Sound One’s Foley stage in New York. “We have a really good idea of what’s good Foley and what’s bad Foley. Because George and I both learned the same way, I often refer to George as having the same ear as myself — meaning we both know when something works and when something doesn’t work,” shares Costanzo.
This dynamic allows the team to record anywhere from 300 to 400 sounds per day. For BlacKkKlansman, they were able to turn the film around in eight days. “The way that we work together, and why we work so well together, is because we both know what we are looking for and we have recorded many, many hours and years of Foley together,” says Lara.
Costanzo concludes, “Foley is a collaborative art but since we’ve been working together for many years, there are a lot of things that go unsaid. We don’t need to explain to each other everything that goes on. We both have imaginations that flourish when it comes to sound and we know how to take ideas and transfer them into working sounds. That’s something you learn over time.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.