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Finnish Foley artists enjoy Emmy nominations, international success

The sound effects creators behind The Underground Railroad and Sound of Metal discuss their path to acclaimed international projects and the awards recognition that has followed. 

Foleytaiteilija Heikki Kossi.
Image: Juha Kemppainen / Yle

When the Emmy awards for outstanding achievement in television were handed out last weekend, there were a few Finnish names in the mix.

Foley artists Heikki Kossi, Pietu Korhonen and Kari Vähäkuopus were each nominated for their work on Amazon’s The Underground Railroad, a limited series about a woman’s escape from slavery in 19th century America.

Most sounds heard on the screen — punches, footsteps, doors opening and closing, ringing telephones and other subtle details — are created after filming by audio experts known as Foley artists and these elements are assembled into the film's final form.

Capturing the swishing of clothes and creaking of doors are all standard fare for a Foley artist. For Kossi and his crew, creating sound effects for environments that only exist in our imagination, like future space travel or the inside of your head, is where it gets really interesting.

Award has pros and cons

This is not the first time that the work of audio production company H5 has been recognised: They were part of the team that won an Oscar for best sound on Sound of Metal, a film about the experience of losing your hearing.

Their Emmy nods, and Juho Kuosmanen’s Grand Prix award at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival for Compartment No.6, have put Kossi and his colleagues on a solid awards track.

Peer recognition is an honour, Kossi tells Yle News, but joked that it can have an adverse effect on careers.

"I remember when Dominick Tavella won the Oscar for Chicago and his phone stopped ringing for six months, because everyone assumed he was busy," Kossi says. "For us, thankfully, these events have resulted in people contacting us. Even before Underground Railroad premiered on Amazon, we got a few inquiries based on previews. These are small circles."

International success through word of mouth

There are currently more astronauts than Foley artists in the world, according to Kossi, which makes H5's prolific CV all the more impressive. In recent years they have made their mark on films like sci-fi flick Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Finnish nouveau classic Unknown Soldier.

Kokkola-based Kossi’s international career trajectory started around 15 years ago, after he created a Facebook page for his company. Projects started to trickle in, most notably collaborations with Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, with whom they worked on the 2019 Oscar-nominated documentary The Cave.

"Peter is highly connected. In fact, when Tim Nielsen, a sound mixer from Skywalker Ranch, came to mix one of his projects, he stopped the film after ten minutes and asked, 'Who did the Foley on this?' That’s how we landed The Little Prince," recalls Kossi, whose work stems largely from word of mouth.

"I’ve always believed that good work pays off and we never make compromises when it comes to the quality of our work," he adds.

Story continues after photo.

Heikki Kossi äänittää askeleita studiossa.
Foley artist Heikki Kossi in the recording studio. Image: Kalle Niskala / Yle

The Underground Railroad came to H5 through frequent Barry Jenkins-collaborator Onnalee Blank, best known for her Emmy-winning sound mixing work on Game of Thrones.

"She called me up and said she needed ‘a better Foley team'," Kossi says.

The project, which consists of 10 one-hour episodes, presented Kossi, Korhonen and Vähäkuopus with an extraordinary amount of work.

"From a Nordic perspective, the resources were next-level," he says. "People always think that a big budget equals a lot of coffee breaks, but it’s the opposite."

"With this kind of project, every detail matters. We had a lot of recording days, which meant that you have ample time to create, and you don’t have to figure out which sounds to drop because you can’t get to it all," he adds.

Human contact imperative in filmmaking

The pandemic has not slowed them down professionally, but Kossi and Korhonen lament the fact that they have not been able to be in physical contact with their clients as much as they would like.

"Filmmaking is based on human interaction, so you can imagine how difficult it has been to do our jobs over Zoom," says Korhonen.

Kossi agrees with this, and adds that: "Foley work can be done remotely, but I think it helps tremendously, if you’re doing the sound design for an entire film, that you’re sitting in the same room."

Because of current travel restrictions, Kossi and Korhonen were unable to attend the Creative Arts ceremony in Los Angeles on 11 September. While going to a glamorous event where your work is being honoured would be a fun experience, the true value of attending is scoring face-to-face time with colleagues and clients.

"This is the kind of field where you form teams that want to do multiple projects together. This means that while much of the work has to do with your job performance, a lot of it depends on how you get along with people," he explains.

What Kossi believes makes his company stand out, however, is the ability to deliver what others might not.

"For the past ten years we have worked with some of the best people in the field, artists whose skills are at the highest level, and every job leaves its mark on us," he says. "The ability to really create nuance, which only comes with experience, has led us to some top projects. That has been truly gratifying."

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