‘Taste of Things’ Foley artist Olivier Thys reveals secrets of the sounds coming from the kitchen

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As the man of the house at a rustic French estate, Benoît Magimel co-stars as Dodin in Tran Anh Hung's "The Taste of Things." Courtesy of Stéphanie Branchu. An IFC Films Release.

You've probably heard the phrase "You eat first with your eyes." But what about our ears? Sound plays such an important — and often overlooked — role in cooking. But not in the French movie The Taste of Things, where every sizzle, splash and slurp is artfully conveyed. And none of it was recorded while shooting. The food sounds in the film were all created in post-production. So in addition to interviewing the film's director, Tran Anh Hung, and its star, Juliette Binoche, we decided to talk to Foley artist Olivier Thys, who made the movie sound so appetizing. 

Evan Kleiman: For people who are unaware of the role of Foley artists, can you explain what the job is?

Olivier Thys: A Foley artist is somebody who works for the soundtrack of a film. His task is inside the studio to make everything very vivid, all the manipulation of what the actors are moving or touching and to try to get the intention right on as much sound as you can in the studio. So the practice is to make sound on purpose, on demand. What the story is telling, we support it in the best way we can. Everything is made in the studio [so] you always have to find tricks to go the direction you want. If, for example, you don't have snow in the studio, you don't have an elephant, you don't have a shark or a huge swimming pool, you have to find ways to connect sound-wise the elements to make you think that you hear the real thing.

What kind of direction did you get, either from director Tran Anh Hung or from the sound editor, for your work on The Taste of Things?

Usually, we have a discussion about the way we are going to treat the whole theme first. So we say okay, are we very realistic? Are we very brutal? Are we [treating it] in a more aesthetic way? We try to find a major line of treating the sound. 

Then, scene by scene, we also speak about what's been told in the scene. If, for example, somebody would be very nervous doing this or that, we try to make it feel [that way] by the sound. If somebody's letting a fork fall on the table, you can make it very surprising or softer or the table can resound very much. You have many, many ways to put sound on the same image. For this film, Tran Anh Hung was there for most of the process, so we could chat with him in the studio and say, "What do you want? How do we go in the good direction?"

Let's take that fork dropping on the table as an example. Would a Foley artist actually drop a real fork on a table? Or would you use other items to simulate that sound?

It really depends on what you want to hear. It's been maybe 20 years [that I've been] doing that very intensely. After a while, when you work in this business, you begin to hear sounds in your head. You have an idea of what you want to hear before you actually do it. Since you have all your suitcases around you in the studio, full with objects, it's like a vocabulary. You know what object you're going to take to have this kind of a result. 

For the example of a fork and a table, sometimes the table is not doing what you want, the fork is not doing what you want. So you have to, as fast as possible, find a solution to [achieve] the results you have in your head. Sometimes a fork would be like shtoing or shtung but you want a shlack so the fork is not helping and you have to go for another piece of metal or something else.

One thing that was so evocative in the movie were the scenes of Juliette Binoche's character cooking. You would have many different sounds layered all at once. To us, as humans, they make sense. But to have to create them from the beginning seems sort of like creating a symphony — a very layered experience of putting one sound on top of the other with some sounds that seem like they would be hard to do. For example, boiling water. How do you have that sound of water boiling or something simmering in a pot below the conversation?

Sometimes, it's very easy to take a little tube of plastic and blow in the water. Then it would be also mixed with the sound editing and we cooperate to have [it] exactly the same. If you have a very big shot of the boiling water, we could really do the good size of the bubble to be very precise and accurate on what we see. But when we had somebody cutting foie gras in a very big shot, it was very difficult to find the exact sound because it's not really sounding. And sometimes, it's not very appetizing. The sound wouldn't make you want to eat it, if you [were to] focus on it.

You can't have had 20 pounds of foie gras that you would just keep cutting. So what did you cut through instead of foie gras?

The sound of the foie gras, if I remember well, we did with a banana. If you put your microphone very close to the source in a very big shot, and you cut your banana, you have exactly the sound that fits to the foie gras being cut on the screen.

Since Taste of Things didn't have a score or any music the way most movies do, what kind of a burden did that place on you? Did you have to change your methods at all?

Not really but something which is very specific to Tran Anh Hung is the very, very powerful editing. The image editing of this film is very, very conscious and precise and creative. It's really as if older songs were written in the screen already. The editing was a score for us and the moving images. Except for the sound off-screen, all [of it] was very, I wouldn't say obvious, but it was appealing to us to create as much diversity as possible to go with a rhythm of the image editing, which is very precise. 

It's kind of like you were asked to create a score on your own through all of these sounds. Food is often used to create sounds and movie scenes that have nothing to do with food. Most famously, I think, in Psycho, where the sound team repeatedly stabbed a melon to achieve the proper sound for the shower scene.

Yes, we do the same. We use a pepper for when a vampire is entering the neck of his victim. Crunching a red pepper works very well. If you want to do cracking bones, you use celery. A lot of different food works very well because it has fiber and usually it cracks very well. If you have a knife entering skin on screen, when you enter a leek with a knife in a very close shot, it sounds very, very [much like] entering the skin with a knife. Then you add a little bit of wet sand with a sponge or some wet tissue and it works very, very well.

It sounds like you really enjoy making those kinds of sounds.

Yes, but usually food sounds are very specific for… you want to make things sound a bit ugly or dirty or painful and then you go through food.

That's so fascinating that something that gives us so much pleasure can mean all of these other things when separated from its context. 

Usually, the first time that people enter the studio, they're extremely surprised at how playful it is and how even though it [demands] a lot of kind of concentration and focus and discipline, it's very playful at the same time. So you always have to find a solution, the best way you can to get to what you want to be heard.