Transitioning to night shoots is always a feat. When you have to do it in a day’s time — for a two week span — it’s a Herculean effort.
That was the case on a horror film I was shooting. And in the midst of these dark nights, we had to do some blood effects using squibs, or fake vessels of blood that explode and simulate wounds opening. Squibs range from the realisitcally subtle to the overblown absurd.
There are also two types of squibs I’ve run into in my day: the compressed air squib and the explosive squid. Each has their advantages and disadvantages (mainly cheap vs. pricey), but there’s a good reason why I have always considered compressed air squibs to be a waste of time.
Here’s that story.
Heated Tempers and Temperatures
It was a hot sticky Virginia summer when we were in the throes of these long night shoots.
Everything started out all fine and dandy — the coffee cups got brandished in the air, people celebrated their nocturnality — but after seeing the sunset as we wakeup and sunrise as we laid down, 10 days in a row, things got jumbled and twisted.
The smallest tasks on set became bothersome and any kink in the road, of which there were plenty, was met with more irritation than usual.
With the air conditioning off for sound purposes, the temperatures were rising well past 80 degrees and frustrations were rising ever further than that.
It was the prototypical case of a low-budget indie film stretching its legs a bit too far. We didn’t have the time, manpower, nor the budget to accomplish all that the ambitious production team wanted to.
It didn’t matter that the crew was a tight knit family willing to work 18 hours a day, it just wasn’t going to be a battle we could win.
In particular, that night we brought in the fake gun and squibs became an illustration of how the movie Gods often bring lightning when you want rainbows.
The Most Horrifying Noise I’ve Ever Heard
The makeup guy, who wore another hat as a special effects guy, was put in charge of accomplishing the squib effect the director wanted. The effect was not too crazy — a guy gets shot in the arm, the blood squirts out, and he falls against a wall behind him.
This wasn’t Kill Bill with gushing waterfalls of red or oozing piles of puss. No this was: Bam! Squirt! Fall down! A 30 second shot, to be generous.
Busy as a camera assistant on the shoot, I wasn’t around for any testing, but I’m inclined to think there wasn’t any testing done at all.
As the makeup guy plugged in the tubes to the compressed air tank, ran them alongside the actor’s backside, and filled his Jules Verne type apparatus with fake blood, I echoed the sentiments of the skeptical director:
“So, this is going to work, right John?”
“Yeah, of course it will. It might be loud, but you’ll tell me when and then — ” he made a loud splat noise, “all over the wall!”
John was in the great tradition of special effects/makeup slashies who are as eccentric as the makeup they cake on their characters. Though I trusted what he said and believed in his experience, the octopus type life-support machine powering this blood splat looked like it came out of a yard sale.
Still, preparations continued without any major rehearsals of the blood firing to both save blood and to prevent from having to clean over the white walls of the location.
To this day, I remember gripping the slate as I tensed up in the corner of the room at 3 AM when they called “Action,” and though I usually don’t watch scenes so I don’t disrupt any eyelines, my curiosity was too strong to hold back in this case.
The actor sauntered forward, the gun was raised, and then “BAM,” said the director and from there it was John’s cue to fire the blood fueled cannon!
That’s the noise that came from the arm of the actor.
Let me tell you know, it was the most horrifying noise I’ve ever heard. It was extremely loud in the beginning and terrifyingly gross in the end.
The initial blast of air made me jump while the gurgle of blood slowly oozing from the tube sounded like someone dying from tuberculosis — and that is no exaggeration.
You should gather by now that the compressed air squib absolutely failed. It didn’t make any splat — at least not one the camera picked up — and only managed to soil the shirt of the actor.
30 minutes of reset time later and we were ready to shoot again. And an hour later we were still shooting a third take. Both were unsuccessful.
There was a pow-wow between the production crew while John tried helplessly to get his tubes tighter, make the air stronger, and thin out the fake blood. But all in all we had now devoted somewhere close to 2 hours of the night to this one shot and I was getting kind of tired of watching everyone argue why the blood wasnt working.
In that hot, sticky, den of failure I was ready to get the hell out and go to sleep.
An Explosive Ending to an Endless Scene
The trials and tribulations continued for a little bit longer before it was decided to bring it a true special effects expert, someone who didn’t also do makeup and who specialized in squibs.
So with a bit of humility, we all moved on to the next scene.
The next night I arrived and was not so happy to hear we’d be returning to the squib scene again. It had failed so many times that I wasn’t sure anything was going to work.
That is until I heard the expert was bringing in explosive squibs.
We set up the shot in the exact same location, with the exact same marks, and with the exact same fake blood. The only difference was the power source of the squib was not air, but a small charge.
I slated the scene, scooted out of the way, and again took a front row seat and prepared to be dissapointed again.
The actor sauntered forward, the gun was raised, and then “BAM,” when suddenly a huge burst of blood rocketed out of his arm, splattered on the wall, and he tumbled backwards into it!
As he fell against the wall, his body dragged streaks of blood down with him, staining the wall and creating a spectacular shot.
“Cut!” the director yelled.
Immediately everyone burst into applause.
It was a simultaneous reaction of surprise, astonishment, but most of all, relief that we got the shot that wasn’t meant to be. When I saw the finished product, I was proud to see how it cut into the scene seamlessly and made the moment a dramatic highlight of the film.
Perhaps the payoff to that moment was so large because we were compounded by frustrations from the night shoots, tired from the hours spent questioning what was when, and flaring tempers from the rising heat.
It all came to a combustible end when that gun pointed towards the actor and the blood fired out of the other end of his arm.
It was a rare occasion of movie magic borne out of a determination from the crew and a commitment to a single shot.
And if there’s one thing I learned from it, it’s that compressed air squibs are both relentlessly ineffective and make horrifying noises.