VCUarts welcomes Foley artist Shelley Roden

Foley artist Shelley Roden stands on the beach.

In Pixar’s Toy Story 4, two main characters share a tender moment when Bo Peep lays her hand on her friend Woody’s cheek. But the noise the audience hears isn’t the cold clack of ceramic and plastic colliding. Instead, it’s a delicate layer of sounds, of toy fingers and human hands touching, that complements this single gesture. And due to the way the microphone responds to warm and cool sounds, these couldn’t be recorded at the same time. It’s a laborious process designed to blend into the background.

“We tricked you into thinking, you know, you’re hearing ceramic but really you’re hearing a human hand and ceramic,” says Foley artist Shelley Roden, an Academy Award winner whose sound team carefully constructed audio for beautiful scenes like this throughout Toy Story 4. “We’re not a distraction, we’re not supposed to be heard, really. We’re supposed to help you feel.”

For decades, Roden has devoted her career to the art of Foley: human engineered sounds that recreate and enhance the world of live-action and animated storytelling. Foley artists are some of the many unseen creators in filmmaking and game design who ground the movements of characters on-screen and depict with sound what the camera can’t capture. Now, in her new role as an affiliate faculty member with the VCUarts Department of Kinetic Imaging, she hopes to share her knowledge this fall through visiting artist lectures, workshops and consultations.

Students couldn’t ask for a more qualified professional to teach Foley. In the last few years alone, Roden and her creative partners have shaped the sonic landscapes of movies and television shows such as Onward, Knives Out, Thor: Ragnarok and Mindhunter, as well as blockbuster games like Mafia III and Halo 5: Guardians.

Roden’s Foley work involves producing sounds as subtle as footsteps and as fantastical as a vibranium staff, which can involve a lot of work to achieve. Throughout their careers, Foley artists will collect a wide array of props—from small toys, car parts, and blades to different shoes with distinct heel and toe sounds—just to capture or modify a noise. For Black Panther‘s fictional vibranium, her team had to add something new to their collection.

“We went to a salvage yard and found these awesome crowbar-shaped things,” says Roden, “but they had an S-wave [shape] at the end of them. If you hit it, it sounds very magical.”

But if you listen to a scene in the film, the final sound isn’t simple. Vibranium is a combination of noises that have been layered and manipulated to create an otherworldly effect—just like Bo Peep’s hand.

“Make it complex, make it interesting,” she says. “How do you do that? Those thought processes are universal no matter what kind of art you are doing.”

That creative philosophy of elaborating on ideas and materials, and experimenting to make something new, is what Roden is excited to teach students.

Roden holding a Golden Reel award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors society.

The primary job of a Foley artist is to serve the story on screen, be it a friendship between two animated toys or the half-ton footfalls of the metal-suited Master Chief in Halo. Foley artists have access to a broad range of tools; the stages they work on are outfitted dirt- and gravel-filled pits, wooden and metal floors, and cement, all used to sell a dramatic scene to an audience.

Tools are useful. But imagination, says Roden, is key to making stories believable and engaging. She wants students to analyze narratives, experiment with microphones and software, solve problems with the tools they have, and be willing to try new ideas and make mistakes.

Roden grew to love sound work during her own time as an art student. She originally went to film school for animation, but in one class project she was unexpectedly assigned to the sound team. Being off-set, in a creative space more like a workshop or laboratory, gave her room to explore the potential of audio. After college, she took any job she could find in sound, from creating Foley for student films to working nights at a studio.

With each new job and encounter with different specialists, Roden came to understand the full creative arc of making Foley, from the stage to the production booth. As she puts it, she did eventually become an animator—with sound. And she thinks VCUarts students have the same curiosity and drive to create, too.

“After 20 years in the business,” says Roden, “I feel like I’ve been through enough to impart some wisdom that might help students navigate their own path.”