“Step into my office,” says Joanna Fang. OK, but to the untrained eye it’s a kleptomaniac’s hoard: rolls of Astroturf, mud and moss, wooden planks, violin bows, smashed keyboards, plastic boxes brimming with shoes, a full armory of axes and swords, a sand pit, a bamboo fence, rocks, half a bike, smashed iPhones, a boat’s anchor chain, a grimy car door. “Never trust a clean foley stage,” she says.
Fang is a senior foley artist at Sony PlayStation. Her job is to put sound to video games. So of course her stash includes a lot of leather jackets, since “in games, everyone wears leather.” But other common video game tropes—assault rifles and the like—aren’t close at hand in her San Diego studio. Her work is all about improvisation: Fang trained as a classical musician, and now everything is an instrument. “I always say that the best props are ones that you can play like a Stradivarius,” she says. “They just sing and they sound great. And you could do them anywhere, anytime, and get super expressive with them, right?”
Shake a hunting knife and a torque wrench together for the sound of a gun being reloaded. Tape wooden sticks to gardening gloves to make a cat’s paw. Toilet plungers on concrete are a clopping horse, crushed charcoal becomes crackling snow. To break bones, Fang crushes a pistol holster packed with pasta shells; smashed skulls require hammering melons—for the squish of the goo inside.
Just as droning strings can transform a humdrum street into a threatening alley, Fang uses her sound effects to prime our emotions. “It’s like weaponized ASMR,” she says. “We’re trying to get the audience to feel something.” But even with such a well-outfitted space—she extols the virtues of her concrete water pit—foley is an art of limitations. Struggling to embody a simple sound effect (Whoopi Goldberg in flat shoes, sauntering up to a bar) led her to a personal revelation. “I was having such a hard time with that cue because I didn’t feel right in my body,” Fang says. “I used foley for so long as this perfect art form that helped me shake off, frankly, my gender dysphoria.”