Rendering the Umwelt: Foley, Animal Life and Ethics

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This article considers the ethical implications of the use of Foley sound in wildlife documentaries. Almost all of the sounds that animals seem to make in these films and television programmes are added by Foley artists; animals in the wild are often filmed using telephoto lenses, beyond the reach microphones. Crew or vehicle noise will also often muddy sounds recorded on location and so a clean soundtrack must be created in post-production. This article is based on first-hand interviews conducted with practicing Foley artists. It details some of the techniques that Foley artists use to simulate the sounds of animals walking, chewing, scratching or otherwise engaging with their environments. It then draws on the work Emmanuel Levinas to frame ethical activity as the act of encountering with the other in terms which recognize and accept their otherness as such. I suggest first that Foley might impede such an ethical encounter with animal life because it seems, at first, to anthropomorphize the animal and to reduce them to a subset of the human. I go on to suggest, however, that Foley is also invested in representing what the biologist Jakob von Uexküll has labelled the umwelt of the animal – the animal’s unique ‘lifeworld’. According to this reading, Foley does ethical work in the wildlife documentary; it brings us to an encounter with the animal’s otherness and intimates that humanity’s own umwelt is but one amongst many. In this way, Foley reveals that the human perception of the world is neither objective nor universal nor absolute. It decentres the human in the way we conceive the world and ethically frames the animal Other as coequal with the human.
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Soundtrack
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 25 Mar 2024

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