Hollywood Foley artists have messed with how we think the world sounds

No doubt you're aware that the sounds you hear in films aren't the real sounds that happen on set.

Behind every great movie (and all the not-great ones too) is an unsung army of Foley artists, putting coconut-shell clops to each horse's hoof that hits the ground.

While audio equipment on set might be cutting-edge, for some reason they point all the microphones at the actors mouths rather than the objects that the actors are interacting with. 

What's interesting is that sometimes a real sound when recorded doesn't sound like the thing it's a recording of. In these instances, the Foley artists substitute the real sound for a fake sound that sounds more real. 

The sweet sound of...meat?

This supplantation of the real for the sounding-real means that we now have a perception of how certain things should sound that's inaccurate. 

So, in Terminator 2, when the T-1000 ‘melts’ his way through the prison bars, that’s actually Sound Designer Gary Rydstrom sucking dog food out of a can. Whereas in real life, that would sound like... wait, maybe that was a bad example. 

A better example is how the sound of bacon frying is interchangeable with rain falling. And rain falling doesn’t really sound like rain falling. 

Don’t believe us? Check out the bacon-tastic video below:

This poses an interesting problem for companies that deal with sound for a living like Audio Analytic, the AI company behind the Hive Hub 360’s ability to identify different kinds of sound in your house, and alert you when there’s a break-in or an alarm going off. 

We spoke to Audio Analytic’s CEO and founder Dr Chris Mitchell about this exact problem. 

“Hollywood has a habit of making up sounds, putting them in movies, and then we all imagine that’s what they sound like,” Chris said, “A window being broken in Hollywood sounds like one thing, but in reality sounds completely different.”

Which makes a big difference if the point of the device is to detect windows being broken.  But it's not just window breaking:

"It's amazing the preconceptions people have about sound [because of] Hollywood movies. Marvel movies have been completely ruined for me because of a sound effects company at the back of Cambridge that we know supply lots of the sound effects to Hollywood. 

Hulk smash!

Hulk smash!

"We were looking at alarms," Chris continued, "and there's an alarm that goes off in a Marvel movie when the Hulk lands a building on a car. It doesn't sound like any car alarm we've ever heard, and we've heard a lot of them, so we went and spoke with the guy and he'd got his trusted synthesizer out, and made it up.”

And that made up siren is no use to you if your device is supposed to be able to identify real alarms, or dog barks, or babies crying. And what that means is that they have to train their AI with more 'valuable data sets'. 

Which is a delicate way of saying they spend a lot of time smashing windows and bothering dogs.

Collecting valuable data

"We have the sound lab in Cambridge (UK)," Chris said, "where we smash, bash, crash, and beep our way through a whole range of different sounds to explore how the idiophones change with different variations of the sound."

And all these variations mean that devices with Audio Analytic's AI baked-in are better able to understand the world around them. What's really cool is that this technology not only allows the Hive Hub 360 to let you know if your smoke detector's going off, but could one day mean your smart speaker has a better understanding of what's going on in your house, changing volume based on what's happening around it. 

"When you talk about smart assistants, if you want to extend their personalities to be more caring, that can be extended by extending not just the words you're communicating to it through, but through the other sounds and broader context."

If a device constantly listening to you freaks you out, don't worry, Audio Analytic's AI works cloudlessly, meaning it isn't sending the recordings of your home off to a company, even if it hears the Hulk crashing through your window.

Andrew London

Andrew London is a writer at Velocity Partners. Prior to Velocity Partners, he was a staff writer at Future plc.