There are few problems in videomaking life that cannot be solved by a suitable application of explosives.
Explosions can add drama, excitement, impact and humor to productions. A good bang can sustain or resolve suspense. And nothing makes a visual statement quite like blowing some object to smithereens.
I once produced a commercial for a computer dealer introducing a line of electronic abaci; the print ad support claimed the machines would “split the apple.”
Naturally, I wanted to find some way to dissect an apple with a laser beam. Unfortunately, I was unable to borrow a sufficiently powerful laser from the Air Force. Since the advertiser’s production budget was limited to a few hundred dollars, I eventually found a way to achieve the same effect with about 89 cents worth of props.
First, I bought an apple. I inserted a knife vertically into the side, through the core to within a half inch of the skin. Then I scored a vertical cross section through the meat so it would split like a clam shell when an appropriate level of force was applied along the resulting fissure. Then I brought out the firecrackers.
The questions now were: how many to use? How strongly does the skin of an apple bind it together? only one way to find out. And if it didn’t work, well, my 89-cent prop budget would allow me a couple more apples.
I inserted a single firecracker into the incision in the apple and placed the booby-trapped fruit onto a black seamless background. The fuse protruded on the side away from the camera.
My camera was set up about fifteen feet away. I zoomed in fairly tight on the apple, rolled tape, and lit the fuse. Before I could back up as far as I wished the apple exploded with incredible violence, splitting perfectly into two major pieces, hurling smaller chunks all over the studio and covering me with applesauce.
In post, we played back the explosion in slow motion then superimposed a prerecorded laser beam over the doomed fruit. We used a circular wipe to mask the luminance key where it intersected the apple, so the beam appeared to be passing through the split. The effect, and the commercial, succeeded quite spectacularly.
Small toy fireworks can be used to detonate all sorts of small ohjects. But what about blowing bigger things? The answer isn’t really larger explosives. It’s better directed explosives.
When a local radio station required a commercial announcing an “explosive” direct mail offer, I needed some way to blow up a mailbox in a violent and spectacular fashion. The props:
one rural mailbox, model rocket engines and ignition systems, and a short section of 2×4.
First, I drilled out the bit holding the mailbox door, so it would come off easily. Then I mounted the rocket engine securely onto the 2×4 with duct tape, inserting it into the box with the nozzle facing the door opening and the ignition wiring passing through the holes provided for the firing system and power supply. Finally, I put the door back on, just Securely enough to hold it in place.
I shot the box from the right front quarter with the wiring hidden on the back side. The positioning was such that neither camera nor operator would be struck by a flying mailbox door in the event the explosion was more forceful than anticipated. Lastly, I chromakeyed the box over an appropriate rural scene.
I rolled tape and hit the launch button. The door blew off and vast quantities of smoke appeared. Pretty, but not quite enough violence. On the second take, I added a couple of fistfuls of shredded paper. This take produced the proper carnage.
In post, we used digital effects to fly the actual direct mail piece out the box, so it appeared to tumble forth with the rest of the paper bits.
Safe and Sane
A word now about safety.
Any explosive, even a small one, can be horribly dangerous when used improperly-and it’s my guess that blowing up apples and mailboxes constitutes improper use in most people’s estimation. Following are a few rules that should always be followed when working with explosives.
Check local ordinances. If local laws prohibit sale, possession or use of fireworks, eschew. Try to obtain a permit on the basis of your professional intent and requirements. If that doesn’t work, go elsewhere.
Always use eye and ear protection.
Minimize the number of people on the set. The fewer people around, the fewer possible victims, and the less likely you’ll be distracted from the fiery business at hand.
Don’t work in areas where flammable materials are present. Always keep a fire extinguisher handy.
Eliminate any objects from the set-glass, rocks, small metal objectsthat might become dangerous projectiles 4Tlefl the bang goes boom.
Don’t attempt to create an effect with explosives you’re unfamiliar with. If you have no experience with fireworks or model rockets, don’t try to use them without an experienced technical advisor on hand. I strongly advise against the use of professional explosives without professional supervision. Don’t fool around with any of the homebrew explosives-period. Otherwise your video career could come to a spectacular and very abrupt conclusion.
Respect the power of explosives. Remember to always treat even the smallest firecracker as if it were a pound of TNT.
Now for some really big bangs.
Suppose you want to blow up a car, or a house, or an airplane. For the sake of economics-not to mention safety-it’s best to fake it. Imply the explosion off camera, or blow up something small in the place of something big.
Consider the case of network TV action/adventure shows. Budgets typically average around $1.5 million, so it’s economically unfeasible, to destroy functional aircraft or trains. That’s why you often see smoking airplanes fly away over a hill, followed by a violent gasoline explosion in the distance. Or you watch a plane flying against a clear blue sky, then see it suddenly explode.
The trick is in the editing. First you shoot a plane in flight with a clear blue sky as background. Then you tape a model plane, or even a cutout of a plane, loaded with firecrackers and suspended against the same sky. The model should also be loaded with packets of fine dust-talcum powder or flour will do-to create extra smoke and debris.
Now, blow the bugger.
Monofilament fishing line might seem ideal for suspension; but though it’s transparent it has a nasty habit of reflecting light. Thinner sewing thread of the same color as the background is better.
If there’s anything in the background besides the sky, don’t alter the shot. Just vary the distance to the camera to achieve the proper scale.
Edit the two scenes together. Congratulations. You’ve just succeeded in destroying millions of dollars worth of aviation hardware.
Burning Down the House
To blow up a house or car start with an 8×10 photo of the object slated for destruction. Mount on heavy cardboard stock with photo spray mount or white glue. Use a knife to carefully cut out doors and windows, even jagged sections of roof and walls. For maximum concealment of your trickery, cut along lines that occur naturally. Then replace the cutout sections, as though the picture were a jigsaw puzzle.
Make a “standee” of the whole setup by standing the cardboard upright and bracing it with concrete blocks on either side of the picture, front and back.
Now to construct a shaped charge.
Mount a large plastic funnel to the back of the standee, with the wide mouth against the back of the house. Load a generous amount of shredded paper bits and powder into the funnel. Finally, stuff a firecracker into the small end of the funnel.
A transparent or translucent funnel is best, allowing you to backlight the standee through an orange or red gel. Then, when the doors and windows go flying, the camera will see a terrible fire consuming the home’s interior.
Roll tape, light the fuse. First the doors and windows will blow out, followed by additional debris and smokeall backlit by the fire raging inside.
You can also construct a three-dimensional diorama in the foreground, with model cars, trees and streetlights to receive debris and glow in the light of the fire.
Whenever you use such a trick shot, remember not to dwell long upon it. The longer the eye examines the shot, the more the mind can analyze it. So immediately after an explosion, cut to another scene-a reaction shot of flickering orange light on the shocked faces of witnesses, people hitting the dirt and receiving the sting of falling debris.
Let’s Drop the Big One Now
The largest explosions of all-nuclear explosions-are perhaps the easiest to simulate on video.
To set off a nuclear explosion in space, construct a standee of black art card or poster with a small hole punched or drilled in the center. Position the hole at the center of the shot; set the iris on f4 in manual. Switch on a light behind the standee-your camera light, a bare incandescent bulb or even a powerful flashlight will do. Hold the light to one side of the hole, then move it suddenly into line with the hole; hold a second or two, then move it slowly off to one side and click off.
The camera will see a bright circle of light suddenly swell into being, then slowly fade-pretty much what a nuclear explosion looks like.
To achieve the effect of an airburst over a city in daylight, use a poster or photo of your favorite city. You’ll need intense light behind it, especially if you must hide the hole in the sky with a small piece of blue gel.
To produce an airburst at night, retrieve your black card. Cut out the skyline of a city from your poster or photo, and stick onto a sheet of glass or transparent plastic. Add some clouds made of some translucent material like wax paper or the side of a plastic milk jug. Construct a second standee of glass panel between the camera and the black card.
Illuminate the skyline with a minimum of light, screened off with a barndoor so no light hits the clouds from the front. Upon detonation, the city skyline and the clouds will be neatly backlit by the blast.
One Good Blast Deserves Another
Creating successful special effects is a matter of ingenuity and craftsmanship.
Start, as I did, by asking yourself a question as basic as “how, for under two bucks, can I split an apple with a laser beam?” You’ll find that on some occasions serendipity will come into play. An idea for a great effect may strike from out of the blue.
Craftsmanship involves combining your experience, judgement and mechanical ability to create and sustain iilusion. If you can develop a knack for special effects, you’ll find that one leads naturally to another, and each successive effect becomes more impressive than the last.
Kyle Bozeman is a TV production manager and creative services director.