Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mr. Special Effects

Yes, this is a re-post from over two years ago. But it's one of my favorites and

I've 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.

Tomorrow: my Summer Movie Preview. Oscar season begins... in the fall.


Christina said...

When I attended your Sitcom Room
Seminar, one of the highlights of the weekend was watching David Isaacs act out Mr. Special Effects in person. I laughed so hard that my already sore midsection felt herniated. I think the example he used was one in which "Mr. Gramner" would be hit by a fake snowball. That stunt also involved petroleum jelly as a protective agent, and had a proposed cost of approximately $70k.

Ha Ha Ha Ha!!

Glenn said...

You posted this at 9:08 pm with the game still hanging in the balance, and I'm the one mailing it in?

Anonymous said...

There are external uses for petroleum jelly?

The trick with expensive stunts is to make it up on the back end. (Please note, no reference to anything in the previous sentence intended.) I think I once saw this on television. What you do is strategically place a series of smaller charges so that the board collapses inward. Then when the smoke clears, you build a new larger casino on the same site.

The one enjoyable stunt-gone-bad I remember was on an American Playhouse directed by Fred Barzyk at WGBH. Al Potter, the UPM thought they could economize a little on an effigy that was to be pushed off the turret of a castle. The resultant prop was insubstantial enough that when push came to shove the wind took it and the victim fell UP.

impwork said...

Reminds me of the reverse situation with plays when I was at university. The group I was part of operated a nice little 100ish seat theatre that various other groups could use for putting on their plays, musicals, reviews etc. We basicly made sure the sound system, lights etc worked and operated them. We could do various effects...

The most common one that we'd be asked for was flying someone. We had to hire in a rig for this (cost about £100) that included the cables and a harness. The producer would inevitably turn up with a length of washing line that they bought (if they hadn't stollen it from someones back yard) and ask why we couldn't just tie it under their actors armpits and put a couple of rugby players on the end of the line.

Then there was a producer who wanted to know why we had to buy dry ice for doing their dry ice effect (chemical smoke just didn't look right for what he wanted). Couldn't we just make it ourselves?

My favourit though didn't happen to our group but to a friend who worked at a local college of performing arts. They had a production where a female student/actor was going to lie naked on a table on stage covered in a light weight cloth with fruit laid on top of it. Behind her a set of pyrotechnics would be set off. The friend asked repeatedly if the cloth had been fire tested, had appropriate fire safety jell been bought since she was in the area the pyros would shower with buring metal and if the appropriate permission for public nudity had been obtained. Each time he was told yes until he took out a lighter and advanced onto stage during a rehersal to check the cloth himself just as a senior member of college staff walked in to shut the whole show down because college rules, the theater licence and that old awkward thing, the law, prohibited an under aged actor appearing naked.

Brock said...

thats basically how we did Hangar No. 5.... except we had to stop ourselves... ugh.thats basically how we did Hangar No. 5.... except we had to stop ourselves... ugh.

LouOCNY said...

Great stuff- If anyone wants to read a book that is almost nothing BUT memos like this, find a copy of Stephen E. Whitfield's THE MAKING OF STAR TREK.. Even if you are not into Trek, it is worth it as a sometimes hysterical look at the making of of one of the most difficult shows ever to be produced. The 'Vulcan Names' memos are are funny as anything ever written. Also check the book written by Robert Justman, the legendary producer and Herb Solow, the head of Desilu television, called INSIDE STAR TREK - the only behind the scenes book beisdes 'Making' to be worth anything.

Anonymous said...

Mike Bell said...
I couldn't even find Caucasia on a map.

I got around that by referring to myself as “Caucasoid.” Until people started thinking that meant I was born in Iowa. (So who else has his Mother’s Day calendar pretty much free, because the wife prefers being with her horse to the Dustbuster you didn’t get at Jarrod’s “The Galleria of Jewelry?” Should have caved and sprung for that friggin' Journey Necklace they’re all pushin’ – because we all know how much women enjoy wearing the identical thing every other woman whose husband’s feeling a little insecure is also sporting?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Sure would be keen if David would perform Mr. Special Effects for a YouTube posting.

Anonymous said...

How to further occupy one's Mother's Day while awaiting Mr. Isaacs' Youtube appearance....

In the unlikely event someone out there has yet to experience the famous 1970 Florence, Oregon exploding whale news story, or would like to revisit that on Youtube:

Hell, this sucker even has it’s own website:

Anonymous said...

Related to nothing here, but this would have made a hell of a story for the Onion had it been, you know, not true. This is from an article from the Santa Clarita newspaper, The Signal, about Princess Cruises opening up centralized rehearsal studios for their onboard shows, and what guests of the opening celebration were treated to:

"To illustrate what the studios will be used for, guests were able to watch a run through of the newest Princess Cruises show, "Adrian Zmed in Concert," starring Zmed, who appeared in "Grease 2" and "T.J. Hooker" in the early 1980s.

The show is expected to debut on board a Princess Cruises ship in early June."

A link to the full article:

(Today's word verification is "jgick," and Jiminy Glick is mighty pissed that someone missed a letter.)

Annie said...

I'm guessing most of the $110K cost was the billable time it took this schmo to write his memo.
Happy Mother's Day, all.
(psst, glenn - you can forward-date blog posts - maybe that's what Ken did.)

April said...

Totally unrelated question, but something I've been wondering: how did pilots get to be called pilots?

Ger Apeldoorn said...


Pilots are named 'pilot' after Joe Pillot, the first writer who wrote a trail script for a sitcom not soon after the succes of I Love Lucy. Like that show it was about a man trying to survive the antics of his wife and was called Shut Up Already! After being presented to the ad agency who were in fact running the networks in those days, it was rewritten 74 times before it was used as the basis for a summer replacement series Anything You Say, Dear in 1953.

Joe Pillot was never heard from again. He is not to be confused with Phil Spec. But that's a whole different story.