Prospect High School graduate Alex Ullrich said one particular scene in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated movie “Zero Dark Thirty” was the most fun to create.
“It was when they (U.S. Navy SEALs) went through the Pakistan compound ripping out all the files in the file cabinets,” Ullrich said. “It's showtime! We had to get a bunch of papers, a filing cabinet that we could pretty much destroy, and we had to get an old PC lying around and pretty much destroy that just to get all those sounds of the guys going to town in that office. That was fun!”
Ullrich works as a Foley artist. He's the guy who supplies ambient sounds you hear in a movie, cartoon or TV show, sounds that you think are being recorded live as the footage is being shot. But they're actually added later in postproduction.
We'll let Ullrich explain.
“You start with a scene that's completely blank, soundwise. By the time we're done with it, it's completely alive! You really get a sense of all the things we hear in our daily lives when you're a Foley artist.”
“A Foley artist adds organic sounds. Say a man walks up to a car, opens the door, gets in and starts it. I would create the footsteps, the hand grabbing the car door, the sound of him sitting in the seat and grabbing the car keys. Foley artists don't do the sound of the car door opening or the car starting, just the organic sounds.”
Ullrich said that most lower-budget movies can afford only a few days for Foley artists to work their magic on a movie soundtrack.
“We are doing so much in those three or four days that it can affect the quality of our work because we must move so quickly to get everything done. You're constantly making decisions about what you can do and what you can't do.”
Sam Raimi's upcoming new movie, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” gave Ullrich an amazing 28 days to supply the proper sounds.
“Now, 28 days is an immense amount of time to devote to a movie, and we spent every minute right up to the last one getting it done,” Ullrich said. “It was so fun to have that time to really do things right. It was a blast!”
Ullrich, a 1986 Prospect High grad, already has a zillion Foley credits to his name on the imdb.com database, mostly on videos and TV programs.
But he has a few movies on his resume, including Bigelow's Oscar-winning best picture “The Hurt Locker.”
“We went into the project knowing that music would be extremely minimal,” he said. “So the sounds had to really carry the film, and they really had to be good.
“I did a lot on that movie. Putting on the bomb suit. Footsteps. Then the scene where star Jeremy Renner dismantles the interior of a car to find a detonator to a bomb. Every single hand grab, glove box, car stereo being removed, ripping up seats, pulling out wires, everything is Foley. It came out fantastic!
“The first time I saw the completed movie, I just slunk down in my chair. It was like an actor seeing himself on screen for the first time. I listened to the Foley and thought, 'Was that me?' It was a really tough project, super challenging.”
Being a Foley artist was never part of Ullrich's master plan.
He grew up in Mount Prospect, attended Lincoln Junior High School, and after graduating Prospect High in 1986, he took a year off education to contemplate his future.
“I didn't know what I wanted to do,” he admitted. “I did some land surveying for a friend's father. Dad wanted me to try college. I really thank my parents for not pushing me into things. I had time to think about what I wanted to do.”
He worked several jobs, including one for a temp agency that sent him to Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect to be Santa Claus.
Eventually, he enrolled at St. Joseph's College in Indiana where he earned a degree in communications and theater with a minor in music.
“Going away to college was fantastic. I really enjoyed myself,” Ullrich said. “I learned a lot. I tried business classes, speech, English, the whole gamut. I felt like I was at a buffet taking classes.”
Wait. So how did a kid from an Indiana college wind up as one of Hollywood's best Foley artists?
Blame it on a 1996 Schaumburg High School graduate named Vanessa Mesia.
She was a cousin of Ullrich's best friend, and he arranged a double blind date one night. They went to see a movie, “Lethal Weapon 3.”
Three months later, Ullrich married Vanessa (who, as a matter of disclosure, turns out to be a former student of Campanelli Elementary School music teacher Peggy Gire, the wife of a certain Daily Herald film critic).
Vanessa's job with the music company EMI took her and her 32-year-old husband to Los Angeles where he became “the oldest intern ever” at a recording studio.
“It was a high-pressure situation all the time, and it defined the expression, 'Time is money,'” he said. “I could already see my creativity slipping away being in an environment like that.”
He went to work at another studio. One day, the bosses needed someone to do Foley work on a project, and they gave Ullrich the opportunity to see what he could do.
“I've always been a quick study,” he offered.
One of his first jobs was to find the perfect sound of a giant, animated heart character in a student's film short.
“What does a floating heart sound like?” Ullrich said. “I ended up using a water balloon. If you fill up a water balloon all the way, it really doesn't make much sound. But if you leave an air gap, it makes a really cool swishy-swashy sound. And the filmmaker loved it.”
If you go to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” pay attention to the scene where the Navy SEAL places explosives on a wounded helicopter, then slips and falls through the fuselage.
“That's me making those sounds!” Ullrich said.
The kid from Mount Prospect has spent years as an independent Foley artist. Recently, he gave up the movies for the security of a staff Foley artist at Warner Bros. television, where he supplies sounds for such series as “The Mentalist” and “Elementary.”
“When I was independent, I could control my schedule, but I never knew where my next job was coming from,” he said. “So, you feel compelled to take whatever comes along. That put a lot of strain on myself. It wasn't good never having time off to be with my wife.
“Now I'm a member of a union. I've got benefits, which I haven't had for a long time. It's been great. I feel like I'm a part of something really special now.”
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