By Scott Ellis
The remote South Australian town of Quorn, 39km northeast of Port Augusta, is a world away from Hollywood . . . and that’s just fine by John Simpson, a multi-award-winning sound recordist and Foley artist known for his work on Happy Feet, Australia and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Simpson may have made his mark on the kind of big budget films usually found in America’s cinematic capital, but Spencer’s heart belongs to the isolated spot at the entrance to the Flinders Ranges.
With a population of around 1000, Quorn is a popular pit stop for travellers on their way into the outback, the kind of place where you can enjoy a hearty country meal and admire the colonial buildings. You can also stay a bit longer and jump on the historic Pichi Richi Explorer, a half-day steam-train journey from Quorn up to Woolshed Flat and back again.
At Simpson’s 150-acre property just outside of town, Spencer has established a world-class studio that allows him to make any sound needed for a modern feature and take advantage of the natural environment he’s surrounded by.
“We have to be able to create any sound,” Spencer said. “From people walking their dog down a street – which is their footsteps, the dog’s footsteps, the dog collar and chain rattle and all the other sorts of things that are in the background – right through to a large scale car crash and more.
“Basically all those little and large sounds that make things real.”
Sometimes that means using the enormous bank of sounds he already has recorded, but often he has to get out into the countryside and find (or create) what he needs.
“For example we’ve got a pool out the back and I can drive the tractor alongside, fill the bucket with water and make huge big splashy noises,” he said.
“Or we’ll go to the creek up the road if we want a large expanse of water and record out there, you just can’t do that in a city because you’d still be surrounded by heaps of people and noise.”
Simpson’s horses, the local Pichi Richi steam train, his neighbours and even buildings in the area have all contributed he said, and he’s always listening for a sound that might come in handy in the future.
“I know a lot of the farmers and you go out and visit them and they’ll shut the door and you think ‘Gee that had a good old sound to it! I’ll have to come back and record that!”
Even the local café, Emily’s Bistro, where Simpson drops by for a coffee has caught his ear. There’s an old “flying fox” style cash runner in the store that moves products from one side to the other.
“If we need a sound similar to that I’ll know where to go!” he said.
inventing a noise that has never been heard before that attracted Simpson to Foley artistry.
“You have that enjoyment of getting a whole bunch of stuff, putting it all together and making some noise that it was never intended to make and that’s just great, especially in animated films, we get to do that a lot.”
In Happy Feet for example, that was the sound of a dancing penguin, something nobody – understandably – had ever heard.
“That wasn’t too bad, penguins have little feet like a lot of other animals and the snow, well obviously we don’t have snow, but we can make that sound with wet sand,” Simpson said.
“You add a little bit of water until you get the right slushy sound, if you want to add a bit of crunch you add some rice bubbles or some cat litter and you can get the ‘squeak’ that snow has from a little bag full of corn flour. You just add that in later, a few little creaks and it comes together.”
And the best result, he said, is when the average cinema or television watcher doesn’t even notice.
“Being a Foley artist is kind of like putting the icing on the cake. Everyone’s got the guts of the sound from the sound editors, we kind of sprinkle a bit of Foley sound on top and make it all come to life,” he said.
“If it’s done right you won’t really notice it, that’s the challenge we all face!”