Monday, April 10, 2006

Mr. Special Effects

Yesterday I talked about the need for showrunners to hold down the budget. What I didn’t mention was how difficult that can sometimes be. Hollywood is notorious for huge mark ups. Studios charging their own shows outrageous rent for their stages and facilities, etc. And if God forbid you need a special effect look out. In writing rooms whenever we propose even the smallest stunt we turn to my partner, David Isaacs, who has created a great character – Mr. Special Effects. He will then describe what is required to pull the stunt off and how much it will cost.

Here is an example, in the form of a memo. And believe me when I say this is TYPICAL.


Report from TV Special Effects Department:

RE: Frasier

Situation: In a dream sequence, Frasier is on the air and his board explodes.

Proposal---If I'm to understand correctly from our conversation you all want the entire radio board to explode in Frasier's (Mr. Gramner's) face. filling the studio room with smoke. It's quite a coincidence since my dad created the same effect for Mr. Al Ruddy for an episode of 'The Monkee's. (For your reference it's the one where the Monkees try to outfox a Russian agent played by Mr. Lloyd Bochner). The good news is that with all the advancements in explosive delivery it's a much easier effect. (The real reason you never saw Mr. Mike Nesmith at any Monkees reunion is that he had four fingers of his left hand blown off. It's certainly not true that he was sick of being a part of a third rate Beatles knockoff. That and feeling responsible for Yakima Canutt losing a testicle on "How the West was Won" haunted my father till he fell to his death rigging Mr. Demetrious 'George' Savalas for a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in 'Kojack.)

Anyway, the effect is fairly simple, but of course we want it foolproof and safe. (within reason) First of all we will rig a series of explosive charges across the board. That will control the blast as oppossed to one big blast which is harder to control. I will set off the charges in sequence from a specially designed phaser. That should supply our explosion and still create the effect. We also set a charge inside the board so that in the case of a fire breaking out from the initial explosion (small possibility) I'll blow that charge which in turn would smother the flames. That, of course, would also preclude a second take.

Now I'm to understand that Mr. Gramner would like to do the stunt himself (concurrent with an 'Entertainment Tonight' segment profiling sitcom actors who do their own stunts.) That's fine but we will take the precaution of covering his body in an inch to an inch and a half of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly under a flame retardant herringbone suit. (It's uncomfortable but the guy works, what, twelve hours a week?) That will protect him vis a vis a mistake in explosion deployment. (Just to warn you in spite of caution it can happen---Sometimes to a serendipitous result. My dad worked for Mr. George Roy Hill on 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KId." Liitle known fact, the boxcar being blown to smithereens was not in the script. It was what we call in the S.E. business a happy accident. Thankfully the only injury was a prosthetic arm that was mangaled up pretty good. It belonged to my dad's assistant 'Spider' who had lost his real arm and half a foot working with my dad on 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Long story)

So we will protect Mr. Gramner. Safety for the cameramen and crew are at your discretion. Should be a do it every day, piece of cake effect. Still it's S.O.P. for me to ask you one question that's in the order of a final safeguard. Was there originally an actor you really felt could have played Frasier in the event that Mr. Gramner was unavailable or... "a handful"? Have to ask. It many times makes a tougher call but I will remind you of 'happy accidents'.

I'm going to ball park a cost for you then come up with a final tally later. I know you have budget concerns but it's a heck of a stunt. Figuring explosives , equipment rented from the studio electrical dept., special costuming from the studio costume dept., crew, overtime, dummy board and console from studio props, studio fire chief standing by, and I figure you'll want to throw in pizza for a hard working S.E. bunch, I think I can bring the whole thing off for you, on the cheap, for about 110 thousand dollars. Again that's if we're not figuring on another take.

Loved the script by the way.

Mr. S.E.


Rene said...

Here's an oldy but a goody:

In film production, clothes pins are often used to attach gels and diffusion material to lights. Just regular, run of the mill, less than a dollar clothes pins.

They're commonly referred to as C-47's.

Why? Because the suppliers realized that they could charge upwards of $50 per C-47 just by changing the name.

Not sure if it's true or not, but in light of this post, it doesn't seem impossible.

Anonymous said...

Was that explosion idea in YOUR script, by the way? What kind of memo did you get if you wanted to have Frasier trip on a carpet?

Mary Stella said...

"Forget it" would have been simpler, but not nearly as entertaining. Something to be said for a man who can make you laugh while telling you no.

Sam said...

I'll do it for 50k - and thrown in a free towel and bottle of Perrier.

Anonymous said...

Gee, and I always heard that it was because of Eddie that the FRASIER episodes were so expensive -- well, the second Eddie, not the first one. I guess the first one was fine, but the second one started making a lot of unreasonable demands -- Ever see a dog kennel with mirrors on the ceiling?....

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the old story:

A director asks his special effects guy how much it would cost to part the Red Sea for a film about the Bible. The effects guy says: "You have three options. Plan A is one million dollars. Plan B is half a million dollars. And Plan C is fifty dollars.

"What do I get in each option?" asks the director.

"Well, for one million I can part both sides of the Red Sea. For half a million I can part one side of the Red Sea."

"What about the fifty dollar option?" asks the director.

"We film a guy yelling: "Holy shit the Red Sea is parting!""

Bobby Ocean said...

I've been blowing up radio station consoles for over 40 years by merely knocking over a cup of free half cold company coffee. Clearly I'm in the wrong business.

Robert Hogan said...

It's funny you mention the parting of the Red Sea. My grandfather's one and only experience in the film business was working on the special effects crew for that film. Somewhere my family has 8mm footage shot by his sister (who worked on the film as an assistant for the studio) of the effects crew preparing for and pulling off the Red Sea effect.


Joel Davis said...

That's hilarious. Mr. Special Effects is spot on, he's the kind of guy that measures how good an effect is by how many car alarms it sets off on the backlot.

Inspired by your post, I've written up some thoughts on my blog about writing with digital special effects in mind.


Shit. Down here in Florida, I know people who'll do that pyro-shit free, almost.