Heard But Not Seen: Transgender Foley Artist Joanna Fang Featured in New Mini-Documentary
Text by Codi Fant
If the name Joanna Fang sounds unfamiliar to you, it's because she's damn good at her job. Fang is a Foley artist. Some footsteps crunching through the snow, a messy lip smack after slurping some pasta, the graceful dance of a flag through the air; all sounds—moments otherwise unnoticed—recreated on the Foley stage and timed perfectly to what happens on screen. The mark of a good Foley artist is to have never noticed they touched the film at all.
At just 25 years-old, Fang has nearly 150 credits to her name, including Netflix's hit Master of None and the Academy Award winning film Manchester by the Sea. Just last September, Fang and her team at Alchemy Post Sound (an independent New York Foley studio) took home an Emmy for their work on the Academy Award-nominated documentary Cartel Land, making Fang the first openly transgender woman to win a Primetime Emmy.
On a bright and sunny 4th of July morning, I sat down and listened to Fang tell me about her journey, starting with the making of the recently made profile covering her called Always Love: Joanna Fang. The short documentary is one in a three-part series on New York-based LGBTQIA creators sponsored by WeWork. It follows Fang on two consecutive weekends following her life at Alchemy Post Sound’s Foley studio, her apartment, and the NYC Pride Parade where she marched alongside the Asian Pacific Islanders Community Health Association (APICHA).
Almost poetically, Fang performed the Foley for the piece. “It was super weird to be back on the Foley stage two days after we wrapped shooting creating Foley sound effects for myself, on camera, in the same room that we filmed me doing it,” she laughed. “It was the strangest, most meta experience.”
While the profile covers Fang’s personal navigation of her gender identity to an extent, it beautifully expresses her identity as an artist and creator as well. “There are a lot of people who don't recognize that [my gender identity is] just a small portion of who I am, and although my trans identity is definitely something that has influenced me through and through, I'm still a working Foley artist,” she explained. “We really decided to focus on the intersection of how me being trans kind of dictated a lot of the pressures and the norms that eventually led to me - not just finding my career - but also finding my identity. For me, Foley—what I do for a living—and how I live are intertwined.” She continued: “To make great art, I need to have a full conversation between my art and my lifestyle.”
Fang’s experience of working on the documentary was in some ways allegorical to her life experience of coming into herself and following her passion for art. “Over the years I learned ‘this is my life. I'm going to walk down this path. I'm going to embody it fully,’” she explained. “So, it was really weird to then see the most literal interpretation of that in post-production where I was shooting my own footsteps.”
At her core, Joanna Fang has been and always will be a musician. She trained as a classical vocalist from a very young age and began learning guitar at the age of twelve. She also discovered film at a very young age, a passion she then nurtured through her years in high school. Deciding to continue her interest of music, she went to NYU to study film scoring, a compromise between her passions, but eventually discovered it wasn’t the path she was meant to walk: “I realized I may have loved music for as long as I have - I’ll always be a musician - but there comes a time when you realize that maybe your emotional relationship with that art might not be as healthy as you thought it was.” She explained, “I asked myself, ‘then what brings joy to my life now?’. Not what brought joy to my life for the last 20 years, but what brings joy to my life now? Filmmaking.”
The turning point for Fang came when fellow student and sound designer, the late David Miller, asked her to do Foley for some silent films created by an advanced class at the school, something she had never done before. Fang was not just good at it—she was excellent. Miller asked her to be his Foley artist, and for the next six months they worked on applying sound to those silent pieces. It was during this time that Fang had a revelation: “I was sitting there asking myself ‘why do I love movies and why do I love music?’ And I realized it's the kinetic, it's the rhythmic, it's the passionate heartbeat of the way a camera moves through a scene. It’s the editor essentially DJ-ing the footage. Making things hit, making things scream, making things quiet. It's all this kinetic energy, the same with music.” She continued,” In music you have your beat, you have your rhythm, you have stillness, you have all this contrast, but it’s all happening to move something forward. In film it’s the story, in music it’s an emotion or just a period of time. But I realized that Foley, in all its essence, was just the purest extraction of both those things.”
For Fang, Foley is a transcendent art form: “Every single prop becomes another beautiful piece of music that you’re trying to create,” she said. “How do you make a lamp sing? There is so much beauty to that, there is just this rhythmic, life-energy, and it exists on a sonic level, like music, and is motivated by what you see on screen. [Foley] resonates with me as a filmmaker, it resonates with me as a musician, and it doesn’t just sort of resonate with me—it is the exact thing that holds my love to those things in the same regard.”
It is in this concept of embodying music and art that circles back to the intersection of Fang’s personal and working lives. Fang would lose herself in her work as a means as escape from her dysphoria. Progressing in her career proved difficult unless she was comfortable in her own skin. “It stopped being about ‘how do I avoid the difficulties of my life by going to this work, but became ‘how do I embrace myself fully so I can bring more of myself into the work.’” she explained. Transitioning gave her that confidence of living and appearing in a manner that was true to herself. Her work in the studio benefitted immensely. She now had that bit of assertion that she was missing; courage in her own work and assurance in her place in the industry. Fang knows a thing or two about being yourself: “Speak your voice, do your thing, bring everything you’ve got. Don’t stop looking at the world and feeling the world. It’s what separates good art from great art.”