Most of the time, special effects go as planned because of a skilled team of experts. However, when dealing with unpredictable elements like explosives and fire, there’s always a risk of something going wrong.
Don’t ever participate in a special effect if you feel uncomfortable about the safety of it. It’s not worth risking injury for a movie.
On sets where there are special effects such as squibs or fire, there should also be a safety adviser/expert. If you are ever concerned, talk to them. They can either accommodate your concerns or walk you through what is going to happen so you know how to react appropriately.
Once you feel safe, take these appropriate measures to keep your equipment from getting damaged as well.
Blood Special Effects
The most common blood effects use squibs to simulate wounds. A squib is a small device that will propel fake blood from an actor through pyrotechnics, compressed air, or any other varieties of do-it-yourself methods.
No matter the technique used to make the squib explode, there is going to be some fake blood that releases into the air. For the camera assistant, the concern should immediately be for the camera and the lens. Make sure the gear doesn’t get ruined by this special effect.
Cover the camera and lens
Plastic contractors sheeting (like this) from a Lowe’s or Home Depot works wonderfully for this. It’s cheap and you can slip it into the expendables budget. If you don’t have access to this material, trash bags will work as well as the ever useful space blanket. On a movie called Red Herring, I used plastic sheeting to cover both cameras during a scene that involved a fairly explosive squib.
As you can see, I made sure the entire camera was covered except the lens which, for obvious reasons, had to be exposed. On that particular shoot, we did not have an optical flat filter or any other minimal effect filter to cover the lens. But if you have these at your disposal, you should use one in the camera’s mattebox. Cleaning a filter is a lot less risky than cleaning a lens — and in the worst case scenario, cheaper to replace.
Clean the camera after every take
Most special effects will have multiple opportunities to get it right. During the reset time between every take you should check your equipment to make sure none of the blood ended up on it. If the effect is especially heavy, this may involve covering the camera with a new sheet of plastic or wiping off the old one.
If some of the blood did end up on the camera or the lens, clean them immediately. Most fake blood recipes involve a lot of syrup or sugars and will not be friendly to camera equipment. When the setup is finally over after the last take, make your cleaning more thorough and inspect every part of the camera.
Fire Special Effects
Flames are some of the most visually appealing forces of nature. How many times have you stood in front of a fire and simply watched it burn? Fire does, however, also cause considerable damage when out of control.
Extinguishing the Fire
In another scene on Red Herring, we were preparing for a fire burning stunt in which a trash can would light on fire then tip over to spread the flames. To get a close up of the trash can burning, the director of photography (DP) and I were positioned with the camera about 6 feet away.
I felt safe because there was a team of four men standing by with fire extinguishers, but I was also on edge because I didn’t know what to expect. The cameras rolled and I was relieved when everything went fine.
I had a big ol’ smile across my face when the director yelled cut until, before I could realize, the four men were blasting their fire extinguishers into the trash can. They had not warned anybody they were going to do this. At least, I was not part of that conversation and neither was the DP.
Immediately I popped my hand in front of the lens, but their brazenness had already caused a good amount of fluid to end up on the front of the lens. I quickly went to work cleaning it as fast as I could. The next take, I learned from my mistake and had the slate ready to cover the lens.
Be on the Lookout
The danger with fire burning stunts is that fire can quickly get out of control. I understand why those men went in so fast to extinguish the flames — they wanted to control the fire while it could still be tamed. You should be prepared to take action at a moment’s notice, whether that means running from flames to save your life or protecting your camera from the fluid of fire extinguishers.
Lastly, with fire, temperature can become a concern. Having a space blanket with its reflective side out covering the camera is not a bad idea if you will be shooting near flames for an extended period of time. For Red Herring, I didn’t do this since the stunts were brief, but during the takes I could feel the extreme heat licking off the flames.
Again, the theme is to prepare for the worst.
Worst Case Scenario
Special effects, while amazing on screen, have to be taken seriously on set as a safety measure for you and the camera. You should always prepare for the worst case scenario for yourself and for the equipment you’re tasked to maintain, unless you’re trying to get out of this blood-bursting, fire-burning business. Gotta love Hollywood, right?
What measures do you take to protect the camera? Have any of your methods helped when a stunt has gone wrong?