Written by Doug Siebum, photos courtesy of Clas-Olav Slotte and Jukka Lehojärvi
Doug Siebum (DS): Hello Heikki, and thank you for agreeing to do an interview. First of all, can you tell us about your background and how you became involved in audio and films and what led you to become a foley artist and start your own business?
Heikki Kossi (HK): Hello Doug and thanks for asking for the interview. Back in the 90’s I worked as a professional musician for 6 years playing electric and upright bass with roots and blues bands. Between tours I would rent movies from the video rental shop downstairs and see a bunch of different films. So I watched a lot of films, but I didn’t have any idea that I was going to work with films one day. I was satisfied just to be able to enjoy the films.
Then I noticed that they started a new program in the studies of sound design for the radio and web at Turku Christian Institute in 1997. I became interested. During my first year I did sound effects by hand for radio features and later I heard about the art of foley. I became really interested in this way of creating sounds with my hands. Later I did all of my training periods at film sound studios. After I graduated in 2001 they started working on an animated tv-show called The Aristocrats. It was a 13 minute episode once a week, and as we all know, animation needs foley. Through that, I started to explore the art of foley and I’m still doing it today. At that time there wasn’t a full time foley artist in Finland.
DS: Our current topic is “international” and I understand that you’ve worked on films from many different places. Can you talk a little about how you became involved in the international film market and how you established yourself?
HK: From the network that I have now, there is an enormous amount of work, but also luck. Finding international contacts started step by step. First there were a few short films from Sweden, but maybe one of the most remarkable projects was BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO by Peter Strickland (UK 2012). Supervising sound editor Joakim Sundström got in contact with me and he mentioned that he had heard some good things about my work. Actually that is the main point. Every job you do needs to be your best at its time. Good work can produce more good projects. And every project is different.
Some of the International projects are co-productions which means that there needs to be some work in Finland, but most of the projects come because people want to work with us. I’m really happy about that! One very important step was meeting sound designer Peter Albrechtsen from Denmark. We have now worked together on over 50 projects and on one feature project called Danny’s Doomsday. I also met supervising sound editor Tim Nielsen from Skywalker Ranch who later invited me to work on The Little Prince.
Video feature on the sound for The Little Prince
DS: Was it a lot of work to network and meet people? What has that process been like?
HK: The Film Arc project started in 2009 here in northern Scandinavia. The goal of the project was to strengthen the audiovisual industries in the creative industries in Northern Sweden, Northern Finland and Northern Norway. I was invited there by Anne Laurila, and we had really useful masterclasses and workshops about how to behave with colleagues and customers, creating a business plan, etc. Film Arc was a really big help in the beginning. The project didn’t give direct education on foley, but provided useful tools for understanding the international film industry. With the support of Film Arc I was able to invite re-recording mixer Dominick Tavella to come here to Finland for one week, and later I visited Sound One studios in New York. At the same time, I also met Jay Peck, foley artist of Sound One. I visited the C5 foley stage and met great Marko Costanzo and George Lara. That New York visit was very important to my understanding of the foley work flow.
For foley artists, one project is maybe one of 30 other projects during the year, but for the director or supervising sound editor it’s maybe only one, or one of the few projects during the year. That’s a fact I need to understand.
I have felt that the best way to keep flow going is to respect every project and every story. For foley artists, one project is maybe one of 30 other projects during the year, but for the director or supervising sound editor it’s maybe only one, or one of the few projects during the year. That’s a fact I need to understand. And I need to love and respect each story and other film makers.
DS: Did you do all of your work from Finland or have your traveled for your work?
HK: Most of the projects I’ve done at my own studio here in Kokkola. I’ve done just 3 projects during the last 10 years in Denmark, because of the co-production rules. I’m open for both options, but of course my own studio is the place where I have my own rooms and props.
DS: What are some of the various countries that your projects have come from?
HK: There are still a few local projects from Finland, but let’s say 90 % of our projects are international from countries like Denmark, Sweden, US, UK, Norway, Columbia, Iceland among others. A few years ago we also did one documentary from South Korea.
DS: Can you tell us about your workflow? What is your process on a typical film?
HK: My first step is reading the script. I want to be ready when the project starts. When it’s time to start the actual foley work, I guess our workflow is pretty much the same as other studios. Spot foley cues, walk, edit, premix and deliver to customer. Projects vary, so sometime I only walk for the foley cues that were spotted by the sound designer. Of course watching the earlier cuts of the film, if possible, is a great part of the process. One of the challenges that we are facing, is to be able to maintain the creative process. For me doing foley is art and part of the creative process which can really help the storytelling. So in the beginning, it’s also good to think about what we are able to do within the resources of each project. Every film is different, with different budgets, but still there are a lot of possible ways to tell the story.
DS: Can you talk a little about your work on films such as Birth of a Nation and IO?
HK: Both projects were such a great collaboration with Skywalker Ranch and supervising sound editor Mac Smith. These two projects were also quite different from each other. The Birth of a Nation was an epoch drama dealing with pretty heavy things concerning slavery. One of the main things foley wise was to make a sonic difference between slaves and white people concerning their feet, housing, everything. I tried to create different textures, which tells about the poor situation of slaves and how hard life was next to the cotton fields.
IO was quite the opposite, located in the future where sound wise there are memories from nowadays, but also textures that we haven’t heard yet. I really enjoyed creating some of the sound textures for the abandoned city, like rusty metal rattling with the wind. Also for ambiences. The texture of a location which is abandoned means dusty, dirty and rattling to me. At the same time, I need to be aware of the things which are not old and rusty. Like some additions for the future machinery.
Basically with both of the films it was the same challenge, tell the story with foley and give the sense of realism.
Sound Featurette on ‘The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki’ which Heikki Kossi did Foley on
DS: Dealing with such emotionally heavy material as there was in Birth of a Nation, did you find it mentally or emotionally exhausting to work on the film?
My job is to go under the skin of the characters and the story.
HK: Yes, you’re right. Birth of a Nation was one of the heavy ones. And also the documentary Last Men in Aleppo as well, which took place in Syria in the middle of the war. And many many others. When I watch the upcoming project for the first time, I try do it without thinking about any foley. I just try to feel and carry these feelings with me through the project. When doing the actual work I use these feelings as my guide.
Once I read that Jack Nicholson has said that he has lived as many lives as he has had roles. I feel that it’s the same thing with doing foley. My job is to go under the skin of the characters and the story. Doing that is emotionally rich, but also hard sometimes. At the same time, it is almost impossible to do good foley if I’m not able to feel the story and the characters. And I have also thought that if I’m not able to feel the story as one of the film makers, it’s impossible for the audience to feel that way as well. I think that I’ve been blessed to see so many different stories and I have learned a lot about life.
DS: Can you tell us about your work on The Beguiled?
HK: The Beguiled was supervised by Richard Beggs. It was such a pleasure to work with Richard as well. I think it was first time in my career that we spent quite a lot time talking about the sound of cloth rustle. We wanted to make the sonic difference between characters with the different kinds of dresses that the main characters were wearing. And they should sound like the right kind of cotton, woolen and silk when needed. Not just generic rustling. I felt that The Beguiled was kind of a chamber movie with silent scenes, where there is room for many details. The feeling of a wooden house, which should also sound like a house where only women live, with no men around taking care of the daily things. War has taken all the men away. These kind of things are what I’m thinking about when doing foley.
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DS: The Distant Barking of Dogs has been very well received at film festivals. Can you talk a little about the sound for that movie?
HK: The Distant Barking of Dogs (DBOD) is one of my latest projects. It was also different because I was working as a supervising sound editor together with Peter Albrechtsen and Pietu Korhonen. Not just as a foley artist. Of course my angle to my sound designing side comes through foley. I love the way I can make sounds organic like foley and integrate foley with other sound FX. DBOD was also a special project because it was the first project that I worked together with Peter Albrechtsen as sound designers. Before this I did foley for more than 50 projects for him. All three of us sound designers were really happy about the collaboration. And one big thing was to be able to work with the great director Simon Lereng Wilmont, who is really into sound.
Here again, creating the sounds with DBOD, we talked a lot about the textures like the village where everything happened. The small village Hnutove is located in the middle of a war, in Eastern Ukraine. It’s like a ghost town. Only dogs are barking. Everything is rattling, dirty and broken. Life should sound fragile. Also there is great music on this film by Uno Helmersson and Erik Enocksson that sounds like that as well.
DS: Does your process or workflow vary from country to country?
HK: Basically not. I just try to adapt each project through the story. My job is to create feelings and I think feelings are universal.
DS: I see that you did the foley on The Little Prince, how does your choice of sounds in animation differ from a live action film?
HK: With animations we record more with closeup miking and mostly with one mic. Supervising sound editor Tim Nielsen made a really good spotting session, picking up great ideas and small details. One of them was to create the stop-motion world with two foley layers: naturalistic and paper layers. Animation requires quite often more characteristics and sweepy sounds. Exaggerating is also preferable. But as I said before, there are no rules. Every project is different and rules are for breaking.
DS: What is the most challenging film that you have ever worked on and can you tell us about it?
HK: This is a question I’ve been asked for many times. Or which is the most difficult sound to make? Sometimes projects where there is something you haven’t seen before, like something from the future, might feel challenging, but it can also be relieving. But really the most difficult thing is to make sound that fits what we see. And it fits with the story and characters. It’s a challenge that I love and I face it everyday.
DS: Do you care to share any tips or techniques for doing foley with our readers?
HK: Respect the story!
DS: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
HK: One of the latest projects I’m really happy about was to work with my French brother Nicolas Becker. He supervised an upcoming film titled Sound of Metal (directed by Darius Marder). Nicolas has his own personal way of doing sound, and that also related my foley work. Trying new crazy microphone techniques has been so inspiring. I would like to talk more about this after the film is out ;) Let the film and story talk first.
Learn more about Heikki’s work on IMDB here, and find his company page here
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