John Roesch: Foley Artist Honored for a Lifetime of ‘Breaking the Rules’

Apr 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Matt Hurwitz


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For E.T., Campbell relayed director Steven Spielberg’s request that E.T. sound “funny.” “Joanie and I went to lunch, and somebody ordered Jell-O,” Roesch remembers. “And as the bowl was thrown onto one of our trays, and it was wiggling away, we just looked at each other and started laughing. Joan went home and cooked up a huge pot of Jell-O, and I took my T-shirt and taped the neck and the arms, turned it upside down, and poured all this Jell-O into it.”

Roesch also performed E.T.’s walk: “He reminded me of a duck out of water—the way they’re graceful in their own world, but on land, they waddle around. So I did his footsteps using my hands.” The film won two Oscars for sound, including Best Sound Effects Editing.

By 1984, Roesch and Sadler teamed up with Allan Goodman and opened TAJ Soundworks. There, they welcomed the technological skills of engineer Ed Bannon, who provided, among other things, a custom-made mic cable known as “The Phaser.” Bannon also solved a sound intrusion problem in the ceiling of TAJ’s studio with a custom suspension system, something he also utilized in a mic stand system, which similarly isolated low-frequency sounds. Bannon also suggested using a Neumann KMR 81 shotgun mic, which Roesch immediately found to his liking. “That was, once again, against the ‘Foley law,’ but it allowed me to go off-axis and sound more naturally offstage, if I needed.”

In 1992, the TAJ partners split, and Warner’s sound department head, Don Rogers, invited Roesch to join his studio team, first at Warner Hollywood, and then, in 2000, to his current home base on the lot.

Advances both in filmmaking and directorial skill have meant additional challenges for the Foley artist, Roesch notes. “Some directors that we work with, such as Christopher Nolan or David Fincher, are very precise in what they give us to do. Fincher told Ren Klyce, the supervising sound editor on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that he wanted the town in the film to sound very cold. The first way that was introduced is when Daniel Craig’s character arrives on a train. We wanted the wheels to sound very cold and crackly. So I bought a couple of old ice trays, the ones with the handles, on eBay, so when it pulled up, I would slowly pull the handle in conjunction with the picture.”

The level of precision is challenging, but it’s also the reason Roesch does what he does. “That kind of thing is so much fun for us. It makes our job more difficult, but much more rewarding. An ice tray. It’s fantastic.”

Sidebar: Lasting Effects

Lawrence Kasdan’s western Silverado gave Roesch a chance to help introduce something that would become a hallmark of his work. “Bob Grieve, the supervising sound editor, really wanted the film to give the experience of the expanse of the West, the feeling of being in a saloon,” he explains. “I actually bought some replicas for that film, like of a Henry rifle and a Colt six-shooter. I really want to get as much authenticity in a film as possible.”

But in this case, the literal authenticity was superseded by screen authenticity—specifically the sounds of spent brass shell casings hitting the ground. “The problem was that when we used the caliber of the actual weapon, they all sounded like a dull dink. But if I used something from a large-caliber rifle, like a .223, it sounded right. Now, pretty much any time you hear a bullet casing in any film, that’s what it’s going to be, not the actual caliber.”

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