Here, Foley supervisor/artist Heikki Kossi talks about how Foley played a key role in keeping the audience close to McBride, helping to relay his physical and mental experience. He also presents some of the many approaches, techniques and (surprising) props used for the film - and highlights what's essential to great Foley:
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox & Clas-Olav Slotte
In director James Gray’s Ad Astra — in theaters now — traveling to the moon is just as taxing as traveling from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey. It’s a long, non-stop flight, aboard which a flight attendant may supply you with a stiff pillow and slightly too-small blanket for an astronomical fee. There may be points of interest visible from a tiny, hand-print smeared portal window. In the terminal, lines of weary travelers dot the escalators and are strung out around the baggage claim carousel. It’s the polar opposite of last year’s lunar expedition in First Man. Space travel is more common place in Ad Astra. There are even connecting flights from the Moon to Mars and beyond.
Unlike First Man, it’s not the journey to space that makes Ad Astra interesting; it’s the journey that happens inside a person once they’re out in space. The infinity of the universe makes one feel infinitesimal and ultimately self-aware. And it’s that close, personal, intimate presence that director Gray wanted to express to the audience, which Foley Artist and Supervisor Heikki Kossi and his team at H5 Film Sound in Kokkola, Finland achieved through their work.
Feeling and performance are the cornerstones of Kossi’s approach to Foley. Here, he talks about creating layers of textures that added depth to the reality of the world on screen and resonant sounds that extended into the realm of subjectivity. He shares insight on his prop selection — like old machines and old pilot suits — that provided inspiration for the sound of futuristic space tech and gear.
Can you tell me about your collaboration with supervising sound editors Gary Rydstrom and Brad Semenoff? What were their goals for Foley on Ad Astra?
Heikki Kossi (HK): Actually, I started working on Ad Astra in April of 2018. At that time, the supervising sound editors were Doug Murray and Robert Hein. Later on, Gary [Rydstrom], Brad [Semenoff], and Tom Johnson at Skywalker Ranch came in. We made a first Foley pass before the end of June that year, with some pickups later in the autumn and some last pickups that we did in June this year.
… we discussed subjectivity and perspective, for example when we are inside the spacesuit and how we feel resonation and different movements…
We had a real creative and inspiring talk with Doug, Bob [Hein] and director James Gray. We started talking about the sound in space generally and agreed that in space you don’t hear anything. But at the same time, we discussed subjectivity and perspective, for example when we are inside the spacesuit and how we feel resonation and different movements inside the suit. James said that he wanted to have the feeling of body hair and a real intimate presence of the person inside the suit. Also, the changes of gravity in different planets were an interesting subject to talk about.
I tried to keep in mind what the texture of objects in the future would sound like.
I’ve worked with Doug Murray previously, and I really like his open thoughts for sound design with Foley and I felt that we were free to create different textures for other things, like resonation of the spaceship when needed. During the process, I tried to keep in mind what the texture of objects in the future would sound like. Like James Gray said, “I wanna hear something I’ve never heard before.”For the space sequences, what were your guidelines for Foley? How did that impact your choice of props or your recording techniques for those sequences?
HK: Like I said earlier, this was such a great challenge. We made careful spotting notes of when we needed to have just sound through the space suit, natural sound, or both. Or just resonation — a sound that is felt inside the suit. Our workflow was so that we first did the realistic sounds and then I used headphones to listen to those sounds while at the same time doing the sound for the same moment inside the spacesuit. The Foley editing also played an important role.
‘In this Soundworks interview episode, 7 time Academy Award-winner Gary Rydstrom delves into using sound to create an increasingly unsettling journey for the audience through the use of subliminal ambiences, manipulated vocal loops, and strategically used distortion. We also deconstruct the film’s signature lunar rover chase sequence and discuss the film’s rules of sound, an important topic to director James Gray.’
I wanted it to sound more like some material from the future which does not even exist yet.
We had the idea that, in the mix, it is possible to play around with total subjectivity. In terms of props, I was thinking that they shouldn’t sound too much like metal, even though they look like that in the images. I wanted it to sound more like some material from the future which does not even exist yet. For sounds inside the space suit or resonation inside the suit, I used a lot of contact microphones, specifically the Schertler Dyn-Uni-P48 Contact Microphone.
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What props did you use for the spacesuit Foley? What was the most challenging spacesuit sound to Foley?
HK: I had really inspiring talks with my dear friend Nicolas Becker, who did the Foley for Gravity. He had a real spacesuit for the Foley. For me, that wasn’t possible but it wasn’t any problem. I was more interested in discussing the feeling and materials of the spacesuits. I also called some space experts and we had really interesting talks about space travelling, etc.
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I found that when using an actual suit it was too complicated to control the sound and positioning of mics when doing the Foley but this process made my vision stronger and it was clear to me how it should sound.
I tried some diving suits and even an old Russian pilot suit, which should work the same way with pressure like a real spacesuit. I found that when using an actual suit it was too complicated to control the sound and positioning of mics when doing the Foley but this process made my vision stronger and it was clear to me how it should sound. The ideas from James were already there as a real inspiration. And these experiments I just described took only an hour or so.
I ended up using several different pairs of gloves, putting the mics inside, and I did the same kind of setup with a helmet. And all the while, I was listening through headphones to the sound I was making.
Foley mixer Kari Vähäkuopus also helped to keep things focused and did a great job keeping these different layers separated sound-wise. And finally, Foley editor Pietu Korhonen blended these layers together. Of course a lot of things happened after we finished the job but I think we managed to give a pretty good picture of what our ideas were for different perspectives.
The official behind-the-scenes video for Ad Astra
How did you create the sound of Roy’s (Brad Pitt) feet on the ladder of the International Space Antenna in the beginning of the film?
HK: I used heavy snow boots and recorded one track with the contact mic inside the boot under my heel, trying to get the feeling of a whole body resonating. Then we recorded another track to give just a bit more attack and feeling of the surface. This realistic layer was recorded with a good old Neumann KMR81. I wanted to do it this way. I felt that it’s a more organic approach than doing it with all the mics on one take. It was fascinating to work against a sound I just made a bit earlier.
Did you Foley the button touches on the space ships? What was used for those sounds?
HK: Yes, we did all those, concentrating on their focus and presence. I used different kinds of old and crappy props I have at the studio. I think this is a good example of the meaning of the performance when doing Foley. Maybe the prop isn’t close to the real object but acting out the sound right, with a good performance and rhythm, makes the sound right. And I tried to give texture for each button. If the button is on top a console, I tried to position the prop so that the feeling of a console is a small part of the sound.
Maybe the prop isn’t close to the real object but acting out the sound right, with a good performance and rhythm, makes the sound right.
It’s also a great example of the artistic value of Foley work. It’s the art of Foley. Of course, there are also sound effects used. It’s best when Foley and effects help each other. As a guideline, we had the idea of when the helmet is on and the visor is closed we do the Foley also resonating through the spacesuit.
HK: Some old crappy props. At the industrial area where my studio is located, in a trash can I found some kind of metering machine that’s the size of a PD4 DAT-machine. It’s old and made from metal and its sounds have good body. As always, it’s old and that’s why it’s also well made ;)
Also, the sound through the suit blended with a realistic sound, and that made the buttons sound pretty interesting.
Did you have to walk in heels for Helen’s (Ruth Negga) footsteps at the Mars base camp? Do you have a comfy pair you like to use?
HK: Yes indeed. I used one pair of my favorite ladies’ boots and just walked. Great acting and great body movement is something where the performance is so present. Actually, we recorded her feet in a hallway with natural reverb. We are very happy to have this kind of option at the studio.
Besides the heels, were there any other challenges in doing Foley for the footsteps or the cloth pass?
When talking about Foley generally, the biggest challenge is to get the performance right.
HK: When talking about Foley generally, the biggest challenge is to get the performance right. With Ad Astra, the feet and cloth rustle were pretty basic. The unique thing was the feet, movements and resonations recorded inside the spacesuit, which needed some extra work with the mics.
Careful spotting really helped and the recording process was very organized, giving more room in the schedule for creativity. In the scenes on the Moon and Mars, I tried to perform the feet so that different gravity changed the sound a bit. Also, the shoes were a bit softer.
Were there Foley effects that the sound supervisors wanted you to cover on Ad Astra?
HK: Like I said earlier, there were some textures we did for the rattling space ships. The sound editors took care of the big space ship motors, etc. and the Foley added some textures for the things we see, like rattling consoles, a rattling helmet, a rattling bench, etc.
In some places, I did the realistic rattling sound first and then we played that back through a small solid drive speaker and I was controlling the speaker and the amount of resonation felt through the suit. I feel that this was definitely a very organic way of using Foley technique and art. James Gray had this great idea that in Ad Astra space travel is more or less an everyday thing and I felt that the space ships can sound in some places more like rock ’n roll flying, you know.
When creating the rattles, I did most of them just by handling and shaking the props. But I also used Foley technique by playing around with the KOMA Field Kit – Electro Acoustic Workstation. With KOMA, it’s possible to control the resonation speed, intensity, and pressure against different surfaces while watching the movement. I feel that this way of doing Foley is really inspiring and it’s definitely the art of Foley in the deepest meaning.
Using a water tub and a hydrophone always opens some new paths. Just tapping around the tub gives interesting resonations through the hydrophone.
What was the most challenging scene for Foley? Why? What went into it?
HK: I don’t know which was the most challenging but the sequence at the VESTA IX included a lot of different perspectives and intimate feeling. I always feel that the challenges — if there are any — relate more to the performance than to the exact sound. Kari also did an amazing job with different mics and following the perspective changes when jumping in and out of the suit.
I always feel that the challenges — if there are any — relate more to the performance than to the exact sound.
Also the underwater scene was great to work with. Using a water tub and a hydrophone always opens some new paths. Just tapping around the tub gives interesting resonations through the hydrophone.What was the most challenging single sound to Foley? Why? What went into it?
HK: On Mars there is a scene in the room with no reverb (Anechoic chamber). Again, maybe it’s about the performance but also the challenge to sound really dry and claustrophobic that felt interesting.
The scene on the International Space Antenna was also challenging because that was the time we were creating the “rules” and Foley method for the rest of the film.
What is one thing that other Foley artists would find surprising about your work on Ad Astra?
HK: I feel that creating texture-like sounds for things which are around but can strongly affect the feeling of the image and the atmosphere of the scene are something surprising. That’s my experience. I’m also lucky to have such a great team with me, with Foley editor Pietu Korhonen and Foley mixer Kari Vähäkuopus. Quite often I hear, “Don’t do this; it’s hard effects.” But Foley can give some extra flavor to the effects. Of course you need to be conscious of the time you’re able to use for the project.
…my collaboration with Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen has been a great journey into the world of breaking the rules.
I want to say that my collaboration with Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen has been a great journey into the world of breaking the rules. “There needs to be texture,” he always says. I love it. Another thing is the creative talks with sound artist Nicolas Becker about being organic and crazy.
Overall, after seeing the final film, I strongly feel that making Ad Astra was a process of creating a style that follows the story and the director’s vision. I’m pretty sure that having these Foley elements afforded great possibilities to play around with subjectivity which was not just a few frames or moments here and there. The final mix strongly supports the story from the very first frame to the last one, and includes great decisions on using sound.
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