This month we’re on fire.
Let’s start with the creation of effects in a burning house, a scenario that requires two types of action: closeup and medium shots of people in and around the building, and long shots of the entire edifice on fire.
Night time fire sequences are easier to rig and appear more dramatic than flames in daylight; the latter depend heavily on smoke. So we’ll burn on a moonless night, a night of big trouble in the home of the Steeds.
Burning Down the House
The fire began to the rear of the domicile, and has already spread to the upper floor.Jonathan’s frightened screams have alerted the rest of the family; he and brother James are trapped in an upstairs room. They’ve opened the window and are crying desperately down at their mother, who has run round to the front of the house to wring her hands in dismay.
Now we watch Mr. Steed and his neighbor, Asprey Blythe, frantically trying to break the chain locking the ladder to the wall of the garage.
Out on the front lawn Mrs. Steed is screaming louder than her offspring. We see her, lit from above, with a whiff of smoke drifting across the shot.
From her point of view we see the two children, starkly backlit against the fire. For this we illuminate the room with all the lamps we can muster. Unless we want to silhouette their faces we must light them from the front.
We have to make the room look as if it’s really on fire. Bright light will suffice as long as we add smoke-something clean and odor-friendly, as we’re recording in the lads’ actual bedroom and we don’t want it fouled up.
Before applying the smoke we must know which way the wind is blowing. There’s no point in releasing smoke if it’s bound to be blown back into the room. Hopefully it’s possible to open a window at the back of the building so the wind can blow the smoke out the bedroom window. If there’s no such helpful draft the trick is to rig a sheet of clear polythene behind the actors to funnel smoke up and around them.
Remember never to use flame of any sort when people are backed with inflammable materials. And don’t make too much smoke; we want our actors to breathe.
Now we need a really dramatic closeup of the faces of the trapped. This time, though viewers believe Jonathan andJames are still framed in the window, they’re actually outside the house, recorded from a suitably low angle. The lads are backed by an out-of-focus sheet of white erected some distance behind, so now we may use flame and smoke more freely.
And soon James looks back over his shoulder, horrified to see flames rising behind.
Forks of Fire
At this stage we’ll leave the plot to look at a means of producing dramatic flames.
For an outdoor shot we can use something called an “ark,” a device used for burning cloth or sacking soaked in kerosene-never gasoline.
An ark is a metal or wooden frame with wire netting bent round it. The impregnated cloth is draped over the ark, which is positioned just below the bottom of the picture. When the cloth is ignited it burns fiercely with good clear flames.
If it’s necessary for the fire to flame on and off, use a flame fork supplied by a cylinder of propane gas. This system is great for closeups; the fork can be handheld and moved back and forth. It can also be employed to illuminate sets and the faces of actors.
Where foreground flames are required, the fork positioned below camera gives a nice effect. Unfortunately, flame forks are rarely feasible inside an ordinary house; the heat at ceiling level would be too intense.
In older, larger buildings where ceilings are high and sprinklers or fire sensors absent, forks offer an excellent source of flame. They may be positioned behind equipment or furniture and turned up or down to suit the action.
To ensure that things are safe and under control, each fork should be lit separately. Heavy gas flowing from unsupervised outlets can ignite with disastrous results.
Well-lit smoke can imply fire, and is often used where real flames are difficult to arrange or could present a hazard.
In the burning house scenario, lit smoke could be used for the interior sequences of burning rooms, as well as building wide shots. Copious amounts of smoke behind the house, lit by powerful lamps from below, will give a convincing impression of a house afire.
Smoke machines can be hired from facility houses or special effects companies. Where small amounts of smoke are required the good old bee-smoker should suffice.
Flickering flames occasionally required for indoor sequences can be generated with a simple device made from paper known as a flame drum. This is simply a sheet of opaque paper with a series of sloping parallel slots cut along the length.
The paper is fastened end to end to form a drum. Hung from the ceiling on a thread it must be wound up by hand. Allowed to unwind naturally, the drum will rotate slowly for several minutes, long enough for an average shot. A light shone through the dram and projected onto smoke or walls gives the effect of rising flames.
Without a large smoke machine it’s sometimes difficult to stage a convincing outdoor fire sequence, particularly in daylight. One trick is to burn used automobile tires.
Pour kerosene inside and ignite with a handheld blowtorch. Burn on a sheet of corrugated iron, as the business of clearing up the black sooty mess will be less than fun.
Of course we don’t want to see a pile of burning tires, so situate them behind buildings or other concealing objects.
Surrounded by screens ensuring smoke and flames are deflected outside, tires may even be burned inside certain buildings. Again, corrugated iron sheets should be used. To protect floors from the heat the iron should be set on bricks placed on hardboard or a similar protective material.
Some areas of the world prohibit the burning of auto tires. Check local laws before ignition. Also consider that flaming rubber releases toxic materials into the air unhealthy for talent and other living things.
When faced with a script that calls for fire, it’s wise to consider all aspects of the plot.
For example, furniture on fire looks good but presents problems. Consider the matter of retakes, each necessitating the use of duplicate items. It’s often better to shoot in such a way that the furniture appears to be on fire but escapes actual conflagration.
Much depends on the shot required, but visualized in sensible terms an item of furniture-say an armchair-could be shot from an angle where a combination of flame forks, smoke makers and the right type of lighting would convince viewers they were seeing real fire.
Out in the open, piles of paper, used tires, bales of straw, cardboard cartons and kerosene-soaked rags can be ignited produce impressive bonfires.
While many items and events can be called down without revealing an obvious change in size, fire is an exception. Small flames on a small model look unreal; we must use big flames on a big or a wide shot of a burning building, prepare a hardboard cutout. If the sequence is set at night, a simple cutout silhouette is all that’s required. For a daylight shot the cutout must he painted to resemble a building, though a hand-colored photo blowup can look very impressive. Erect in a convenient field.
Both the house and the flames will appear sharp and in focus. The fire may he seen behind cutout windows, or made to look like a bit of burning roof. Pieces of wood flaming fiercely in the background could appear to he burning rafters on the miniature.
The open field offers more than a place to set up effective model shots. It can also provide a convenient studio for full sized fire sequences.
Let’s assume that having rescued the children, Mr. Steed has returned to the upper story to rescue Finney and O’Toole, the family goldfish. These pets, unaware they’re about to he poached, are swimming languidly in the tank. Around them the entire room is on fire. The curtains are burning, the bed is a sea of flame.
Enter Steed, choking in the smoke-laden atmosphere. Tying a handkerchief over his mouth he staggers across to the fish tank, tears away the leads, and beating back the flames with a towel, carries Finney and O’Toole to safety.
This room would be erected outdoors, with no ceiling and only two walls. It wouldn’t even need a floor; since the camera never looks down we can’t see that Steed is performing on grass.
The bedclothes and the curtains could actually be set afire, because they’re only old junk items that can be replaced any number of times.
The advantages of staging a real fire outdoors are obvious. Actors can move around without fear of being trapped, fire can rage unfettered and all sorts of effects can be performed that wonld be
prohibited indoors. And the viewer need never know how this splendid sequence was obtained.
Remember, this article outlines methods used by professionals. Anyone shooting such sequences must themselves be responsible for all aspects of safety.
Keep buckets of water and fire extinguishers on hand and ensure that all personnel have unrestricted egress from danger zones.
Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.