Caution: Videomaker does not recommend the use of hazardous materials in the making of special effects. Consult local authorities before experimenting with smoke or combustibles. Minors making hazardous effects should not do so without adult supervision.

What’s wrong with this scene: three kids frolic around the brie (an African barbecue) against a charming background of tall pines. They hold the long sausages wrapped in fresh bread in their eager little hands, moving the hot food from hand to hand and pretending it’s too hot to eat.

It should be interesting, lively and full of fun, but somehow the scene looks dead.

What’s missing?

Smoke. Here’s a scene played out mere feet from a sizzling charcoal fire–and not a smidgen of smoke anywhere. The close-ups should include at least the odd wisp; wide shots should show smoke drifting through the trees.

Smoke is the most common special effect of all–and with good reason. Without it, a scene is like a hot dog without mustard.

Smoke may be the last thing on your mind when planning a shoot, but without it you could miss one of the most important stylistic aids to videomaking.

You’re Smokin’ Now

Say you open with a scene in a small-town square. It’s snowing and people wrap up warm against the biting cold. You can tell it’s cold by the actors’ make-up and the occasional snowflakes settling on their clothing. But it’s the smoke that brings the scene to life. You position a large brazier in the middle of the square; smoke blows around in eddies.

What if you left out the smoke? Picture the scene now. Artificial snow covers the set; the actors move along their rehearsed routes as the camera, on tracks, follows them. But without the smoke, the atmosphere–the space between the characters–is lost.

Of course, you could use falling snow to enhance the scene, but this creates coverage and continuity problems.

Coverage concerns the size of the set–and the town square is a big one. You must determine how many snow-dispensing machines you need, a factor that could severely affect the budget.

Then there’s the time factor. Snow-machines hang above the set; you must recharge them with snow every so often. To replenish the hoppers, you must halt the action while you lower the machines, re-fill them and run them back up. Then, you must test them before resuming the action–while the clock ticks and the cash register runs.

The second problem is continuity. As everyone knows, action of this kind comprises many different shots, each one individually recorded and edited into the final sequence. The editor faced with this task will go mad if each shot shows differing amounts of snow on the actors’ costumes. It would be as plain as a disappearing mustache; even the least critical viewer would notice the blatantly changing conditions.

Continuity is a particular problem where falling snow scenes involve close-ups with dialogue–or indeed, any sequences that take time to shoot. It is even more troublesome where you must mix or match scenes with ones recorded earlier.

There’s always the blizzard ploy; but your scene in the square is a peaceful one, unsuitable for a blizzard.

So smoke is your answer; still, your problems aren’t over yet.

Smoke is flexible, but it, too, can present continuity problems. Fortunately, however, it is transient; as one wisp of smoke looks much like another, you can usually mix and match without difficulty.

In the town square scene, you can occasionally toss small flakes of snow into the gentle flow of a wind machine. This will enhance the effect and also move the smoke around. Without a wind machine, the smoke will go straight up–an effect more appropriate to a summer’s day–our scene around the African brie.

Give Me Atmosphere

A certain director–celebrated as much for his enfant terrible persona as the films he makes–produced some evocative and memorable sequences of composers and artists over the years. A study of his work shows how often these scenes depend on smoke for atmosphere.

Typical are sequences in which the principal character rides a horse through woods dappled with sunlight, or where characters in small boats drift romantically on mirrored lakes. In all such scenes, his carefully-controlled use of smoke turns video sequences into paintings.

Beams of sunlight through trees are invisible–unless a convenient mist happens to roll in. Artificially-created smoke is much more reliable.

You can simulate the effect of a low-lying, early morning mist on a lake by laying cooled smoke (pump it first across a bed of dry ice) onto the water. Wind conditions play a vital part in such effects; continuity is sometimes difficult to achieve in inclement weather.

Evocative scenes in beer halls and period theaters often depend on a smoke-laden atmosphere. One videomaker made smoke appear to rise from the footlights at the front of an old-time vaudeville stage, implying that behind their reflectors were kerosene-oil lamps. In reality they were simply electric floods, with tiny smoke devices set in front of each one.

In scenes depicting workshops or industrial complexes, smoke is a necessary clich. It says that all sorts of busy things are going on and that the place is humming with activity. On some locations smoke will be a natural by-product of the process, but in others you may have to make it yourself.

In industrial or workshop scenes, continuity may not be a problem–but there’s always the problem of build-up. Pump smoke continually into an area with insufficient ventilation, and it will eventually create a fog which will ruin the effect. Before including smoke in an indoor scene, make sure you can clear it by opening doors and windows or by switching on some sort of extract equipment. Smoke only looks crisp in clear air.

But the reverse applies when a build-up of smoke is exactly what you need. On these occasions you may have considerable difficulty trying to sustain the smokiness without revealing the source of the smoke.

Scenes that benefit from a build-up of smoke naturally include mist or fog sequences; this is an obvious necessity, most likely covered in the original shooting plan and equipment list.

What you may not anticipate is the benefit of using sustained smoke to 1) highlight the vastness of a scene or 2) depict menace. Typical of such scenes are empty factories, warehouses and old barns, which look so much better when beams of light from shattered windows or holes in the roof reveal thin smoke. A recent TV drama employed a thin misty smoke to provide a sunny atmosphere in a large modern office. When you use smoke in this context, keep it to a minimum; otherwise, it gives the impression that the characters are working in a cigarette smoke-filled atmosphere.

The fact that smoke picks up light is the principal reason for using it–neatly exemplified in another TV drama in which two characters hide in a tunnel. Cautiously, the actors make their way to the tunnel mouth and freedom. Despite the fact that it’s the middle of the day, the tunnel mouth appears undramatic. The problem: the tunnel mouth opens out to a high-sided culvert of overhanging trees and thick shadowy vegetation reflecting little light. Worse, the sun’s in the wrong position. However, the sequence, which could have been a nonevent, is saved by a few puffs of smoke squirted around the tunnel entrance. When the sun hits the smoke, it transforms the scene.

Examine each scene you intend to shoot to judge whether smoke, in any of its variations, can enhance the atmospheric effects. Have the means to provide it should an emergency arise.

While the use of smoke to create an idyllic situation serves dramatic scenes, it can also benefit more prosaic scenes. One example: a commentator stands on a busy street, microphone in hand. While autos and trucks thunder past, wisps of smoke between camera and speaker heighten the message of pollution.

“Why are we fouling up our atmosphere?” asks the commentator, coughing. We see smoke curling around him; the cough looks natural. Without smoke, the cough appears contrived.

Let There Be Light

Once considered dangerous for studio use, low-power laser beams now frequently grace sci-fi productions, dramas and technical/scientific demonstrations. (Often, they often depict the path of security beams.) Without smoke, the laser beams would be ineffectual; a thin, smoke-laden atmosphere enables them to show up clearly.

You can also make smoke look like rain or powdery snow for studio blizzard sequences. Here, it augments the rain drops blown by the wind or bulks out the artificial snow. But smoke not only saves on material, it also picks up the light and improves the effect. Without it, a rain blizzard appears thin and unconvincing.

A further bonus: you can arrange scenes in which water blows around so that there’s a smoke-only area where actors remain relatively dry. Seen from the camera’s POV, there’s a frontal area of smoke and rain; behind this area you use smoke alone. If the sequence involves a close-up, you can blow another layer of smoke and rain behind the action.

Where to Get Smoke

Safe and simple to use, smoke machines are available for lease from production companies. Some, for outdoor use, are large and powerful; others, small and portable, work for close-ups or scenes needing a light misting. Typically, they operate by heating a specially formulated smoke fluid; gas or electricity powers them.

Chemical or pyrotechnic smokes work well for both indoor and outdoor use; unlike smoke guns that switch on and off, pyrotechnics are more difficult to handle.

There are other types of smoke makers, one of the most convenient being the apiarist’s bee smoker. This little device is cheap–and if you take it out onto a shoot you can use it within a few minutes of ignition. They burn a variety of materials and provide enough smoke to fog up a small area. They are particularly useful for scenes like the commentator-in-heavy-traffic sequence mentioned above.

Smoke, being smoke, may affect some people who have to work with it. However, most–except the pyrotechnic variety–are regarded as harmless. The smoke oils sold for use in approved machines have been tested for adverse health effects and, provided you use them in accordance with supplier’s directions, should cause little discomfort. Bee smokers using an approved material are also regarded as non-toxic; always check to make sure your talent and crew will suffer no ill effects.

Certain scenes require the making of smoke by the actual props. For example: a close-up of someone using a soldering iron to do a repair job. The tip of a hot iron pressed onto a tiny pad of cloth impregnated with lubricating oil will produce a trace of smoke that says something is actually happening; without such a plume the action would appear lifeless, or even false.

Other, similar operations can benefit from the use of smoke. Counterfeiters, engravers, model-makers and hobbyists may work in an entirely smoke-free environment, but a wisp of smoke during the action proves that they really are doing something–and not just miming in front of the camera.

The Mystery of Smoke

One final example: visualize an empty farm yard. We see only a barn, some broken fencing and a rusty plough. If that’s all we see, then we can believe what the director is telling us–the farm is deserted.

But what if a pile of straw lying out in the yard is smoking vigorously?

Now we believe there’s someone around. Short of showing that someone, no other device can make the point so simply.

That’s the point of smoke.

Videomaker contributing editor Bernard Wilkie designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.

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