Wilkie’s Law: the greater the intensity of a situation, the more likely it is the surrounding machines will go down.

Soil the shirt you need to wear tonight and the washing machine will immediately go kerfutt! An urgent letter must go outwithin the hour: the printer will shed a belt.

In real life these inevitabilities are crushing, frustrating, maddening. But for the comedy videomaker such screwups can be a source of inspiration.

Not that simple breakdowns are the stuff of comedy-oh no. For true laughs we need to see the vacuum cleaner not simply cough to a stop, but explode in a great billowing cloud of dust. The dishwasher must not just clank lustily, but fully flood the kitchen floor.


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This month we examine ways in which things fly apart, leap into the air, shake, rattle and roll-but always under our direction.

Vacuum Storm

Every vacuum cleaner has an outlet from which the air emerges. Some feature a hole in the back where the hose can befitted to blow back and remove blockages. This can be very useful for raising a cloud of dust that suggests the cleaner has destroyed itself.

The same gadget is a useful means of simulating such disasters as a window flying open in a howling gale or a tent flap lifting in a sandstorm. Look: Junior winds down the auto back window; the handle comes off he can’t wind it up again. Outside rages a blizzard. Causing the terrible storm is the cleaner reverse jet directed at a tray of tom-up paper.

Or how about a scene outside the henhouse?

Pa, trying to gather the eggs, must face down the fearsome cock. From a skylight in the roof flies a sudden burst of feathers, testifying to the awesome battle occuring inside.

Because the hose is instantly directional, for such brief sequences the cleaner is a bit more versatile than a standard wind machine.

For clouds of dust Fuller’s Earth is the recommended material although cement may be used on outdoor locations.

With cleaners where the vent is less defined it’s often possible to channel the flow of air with baffles of hardboard or plywood.

To create a sudden whoosh it’s only necessary to place a deflector in front of the flow, then pull it away on cue.

In some sequences the cleaner itself will have a starring role. Say it sucks up something accidentally, like the family cat.

Then, of course, we must see a bulge in the hose.

Such a bulge can be simulated by wrapping with cloth or foam plastic, covering the lump with material similar in color and texture to the hose. If it can’t be matched exactly, adopt the special effects trick of coloring the old to match the new-paint the hose and lump in one color.

It might be amusing to see some wriggling in the bulge. This can be accomplished by setting the hose on a board, through which an operator sticks a hand.

Runaway Lawnmower

The lawnmower which doesn’t start is too ordinary to present much novelty, but the mower that suddenly zooms off and careens through the side of a shed is sure to raise a guffaw.

If the scene is shot in a normal garden there are three contingencies to consider. First, the mower requires free-rolling wheels or a non-coupled roller so it can be moved quickly. Second, there must be a suitable destination for it to smash. Third, you need some means to propel the machine at speed without the use of the engine.

In a studio or on location it would be a simple matter to provide a shed with a breakaway balsa wood wall. It would also be simple to position the shed so a tough nylon fishing line could be taken through or under it to pull the mower cross the grass. But Wilkie’s law will require the shed to lie at the very back of the garden, built of unbreakable teak.

The answer in this case could be the construction of a false wall of thin boards fit into the open doorway. The sequence would then go something like this: Pa, with mounting frustration, continuously pulls the starting cord. Then, without warning, the mower takes off like an Indy car. Pa runs to grab the handle, falls over a rake, lands face down on the turf. Shot of the mower hurtling toward the shed, seen from Pa’s point of view, which conveniently masks the pulling line behind the mower.

Cut to the false wall in the shed, where we see the mower leap into the air and crash through the boards. Of course the mower was lifted by two burly participants and simply thrust through the breakaway section.

The final scene could feature smoke drifting from the wrecked mower, still embedded in the broken woodwork.

The reason for producing such a sequence might not be apparent to many scriptwriters, who would regard it as highly contrived. But imagine it as an unexpected payoff to a sequence in which little or nothing has happened.

Picture five-year-old Junior asking Pa why he’s covered in grease, bits of mower lying on the path. Pa patiently explains that things do occasionally go wrong, and that then, he, the Man of the House, must mend them. He shows Junior how the carburetor is blocked, how the spark plug needs a clean. But Junior soon loses interest and wanders off.

Pa stands up, cleaning his hands on a rag, whispering sadly, “you’ll have to learn someday, son, for one day you’ll be a man and have to fix things for your family.”

He pulls the cord…the rest we know.

Tumblin’ Toast

It might seem odd the effects guys would build a toaster with an internal device to make it smoke when it would be far simpler to just burn some bread.

The reason for all the trouble: to ensure the smoke curls up on cue. Videomakers with more time and tape and therefore less need for split-second timing can simply torch the toast.

But how to make sure the charred wheat products fly three feet in the air?

Nylon line and a fishing rod should do it. Of course it would be possible to build a spring device, or even to boost the internal ejector mechanism, but the first rule in this game is simple solutions first.

Don’t work with the toaster plugged in when performing these gags, and don’t try burning the toast before the pull. Have someone blow cigarette smoke into the toaster just before the take, or, better still, use a bee-smoker, the ideal device for producing small amounts of smoke.

Perhaps the smoke would be best left for the payoff, when two blackened, smoking slices of bread are seen in closeup lying on the kitchen floor. Treat the bread with oil to maximize the smoke, but keep a wet cloth handy to douse any flames.

Don’t forget the sound when those slices of toast fly out of the toaster. Hit a tin with a spoon.

Rogue Washer

Because washing machines are designed to keep their doors locked while the tub is full of water, special arrangements must be made to achieve a catastrophic deluge.

One method is to place a sheet of clear polyethylene inside the drum, its sides held up to form a reservoir.

With the door partially shut it’s possible to pipe in water with a funnel and length of hose until the machine is three-quarters full. With the door closed-and the machine switched off, of course-the water will remain trapped inside. But when the door is opened the plastic sheet will collapse and the water pour out upon the ground. A few items of clothing surging out with the water will disguise the polyethylene.

Sometimes it’s required to follow such a disaster with a shot of the kitchen flooded with water. The simplest trick here is to place a mirror just below the camera to reflect the upper half of the washing machine. It looks good, though the “water” can’t be made to move.

To make the effect even more convincing cut up an old garment until it has a straight edge. With this edge carefully arranged on a large mirror it will appear the garment is hanging out the machine with its lower part in the water.

For extravaganzas in which we really do have to see the area flooded it’s back to shooting outdoors. Build a shallow walled box, lay a large waterproof sheet inside, then position a scrap washing machine and a cupboard or two. Fill with water and surround with boards to resemble the walls of a room.

This is one of those sequences which might cause some videomakers to wonder if going to such lengths is really worth the trouble.

These people should immediately hand over their camcorders to those of us who’ve discovered there’s more fun in taping rampaging washers than in all the weddings in the world laid end to end.

Bases for the Berserk

It’s a tough job making a washing machine go rogue when it’s switched on because there are weights inside designed to keep it still, even when the drum is flying round with a load of clothes. Usually anything of this size must be specially built.

Other pieces of equipment can more easily be made to vibrate. Food mixers, printers, sewing machines and the like need only be placed on a suspended base.

A suspended base is simply a board resting on springs or partially inflated balloons; it requires nothing more sophisticated than a handle which can be agitated out of shot.

Another shaking effect involves shelves loaded with vibrating crockery. We see just a tremor at first, then the shaking becomes more pronounced. In the end items are falling like rain. Is this an earthquake, or just our friendly neighbor’s hi-fi?

It’s possible to shake a dummy set of kitchen shelves by hand, but a much better effect is obtained by affixing an electric motor with an off-center weight locked to the spindle. Low-voltage motors ideal for these types of effects can be found in auto scrap yards.

Drill Sparking

Come weekends the human male can be found puttering about, carrying out home improvements. Power saws, elecinc drills and do-it-yourself equipment of all kinds are heard whining and whining throughout the land. And somewhere, something is bound to go wrong.

If the genius with the electric drill falls off the steps he’ll yank on the cable, pulling the plug from the wall which, in turn, will be attached to a fair-sized piece of plaster, as well as the wiring
behind it.

The problem here is to provide a shower of sparks; the solution can be found in the electric drill itself. Using a medium sanding disc it’s only necessary to apply a piece of wood or metal drilled to accommodate a number of cigarette lighter flints. This, operated behind a hole in a dummy section of wall, will give at least some indication of malfunction. It’s quite feasible for the flint holder to be pulled across the rotating sand wheel by the wiring snatched from the wall.

Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC For over 2l years.

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