Big Effects From Small Packages

Michael Mallory is a regular contributor to Calendar

As Hollywood looks at another blockbuster, record-breaking summer, it's worthwhile to reflect on a few of the technical devices that have allowed filmmaking to progress as far as it has. Without such indispensable advances as the microphone boom, the optical printer, and more recently, the computer, movies probably would be very different. Then there's one of the most useful and versatile items to be found in any filmmaking kit bag, the condom. Yes, the condom .

Without the ordinary, household condom, some of the screen's most remarkable moments could not have been accomplished, at least not as effectively. If not for this versatile, cost-efficient and ever-present object, buildings and vehicles could not explode with such spectacular precision, gunfights would lack realism, and makeup and special effects miracles would be harder to accomplish. Purely in terms of Hollywood, the condom may be likened to the Veg-O-Matic: It has a million and one practical applications, and it really, really works.

Perhaps the most common application during the past 40 or so years has been as a blood sac in western and action movies. Movie blood is injected into condoms with a syringe. They are then tied and stretched over a tiny explosive charge called a squib, which in turn is fastened to a metal plate that protects the actor's body. When the squib is detonated electronically, it blows through the blood-filled condom and the costume fabric, creating a realistic bullet hole.

While some special effects technicians employ small plastic bags for blood sacs (literally sandwich bags from the supermarket), condoms appear to be the receptacle of choice, and for a very good reason.

"They don't leak," says special effects coordinator Tom Fisher, whose credits include 1990's "Total Recall." "You could use a balloon, but there's no standard to making balloons [so they are more prone to break]. There's always been a pretty strict standard to making a condom." For "Total Recall" alone, Fisher says he went through 2,000 to 3,000 prophylactics.

Special effects coordinator Matt Sweeney, a veteran of the "Lethal Weapon" films, favors plastic sandwich bags for blood packets, but sees the advantages of using condoms in some circumstances. "If you're going to do some really gory, Peckinpah sort of massacre film, a lot of special-effects guys will use condoms because you can put a lot more blood in them and the stretchiness of the latex in the condom will help expel the blood."

Condoms are also used to facilitate underwater explosions. For those, small charges are wrapped in condoms to make them waterproof, able to withstand submersion for as long as it takes to set up the shot. But even bigger bangs can be staged for the cameras by filling the condoms with gasoline and placing them over charges for use in exploding miniature sets or vehicles. (Kids, don't even think about trying this very dangerous activity at home!)

Special-effects coordinator Joe Viskocil, who has specialized in miniature pyrotechnics since detonating the Death Star model in 1977's "Star Wars," says that the inspiration to use condoms in his line of work came to him while pondering a logistical problem.

"I was thinking so hard, 'How can I rupture a bag of gasoline and make sure that it goes every single time?' " Viskocil says. "Well, lo and behold, you look in the weirdest places and then there it is, right in front of you--it's in my wallet!"

Viskocil used 42 gasoline-filled condoms, which are durable yet easily ruptured by a powder charge, to explode a miniature tanker truck in 1984's "The Terminator," one of that film's signature effects. When the charges burst the condoms, they threw the ignited gasoline up and out, creating a fireball effect. (Viskocil also says the gasoline does not dissolve the latex, as you might expect, at least not in the time between the setup and when the condoms are exploded.)

Viskocil used the same technique more than a decade later for 1996's "Independence Day," for which he won an Oscar. About 20 condom-based explosive devices were used to detonate a miniature White House for the film, creating what has become an iconic shot of the modern cinema.

Even Hollywood sound pros have gotten into the act, using condoms to waterproof microphone connections or, before the development of new water-resistant devices, to protect the pencil-like lavaliere microphones themselves. While working on last year's "The Perfect Storm," however, production sound mixer Keith A. Wester had to contend with the challenge of recording a dialogue scene with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg playing characters trapped in a rapidly sinking boat.

Since the set and actors ended up submerged, the microphone had to be submersible as well and sturdy enough to withstand repeated dunkings for multiple takes. After some experimentation, Wester mounted a small microphone in acoustic foam and inserted it into the back of a length of PVC tubing. The back, where the wires emerged, was sealed with hot glue. The front end was loosely covered with a condom.

"Having no tension at all [in the condom] was the secret," says Wester, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on "Perfect Storm." "If you had the diaphragm effect [by stretching the condom across the opening so that it would function much like an ear drum], the sound would be colored to the point where it was only good as reference. But having no tension on it allowed the sound to go through reasonably well with a minimum of coloration [or frequency distortion], which I could pretty much equalize out. The only problem that you have with the loose condom is that you occasionally hear it 'breathe' and crinkle, but that happens only at the moment of submersion, and it's of no concern, since any time the mike is underwater, there's no sound."

Wester proudly says that the mike worked perfectly throughout six or eight takes. "What would you call this?" he deadpans. "A major breakthrough with a condom seems strange, somehow."

Procuring condoms for filmmaking purposes is usually done in the conventional way: a trip to the local drugstore, often by young production assistants who suddenly find themselves treading ground never covered in film school. Viskocil recalls the time he sent a young female production assistant out for an order of a hundred or so. "She didn't want to go but she had to," he says, "and when she came back she was completely red in the face and she's never spoken to me since."

Others place their orders at Condomania, a specialty supplier on Melrose Avenue. "Over the last eight or nine years, we've sold a great deal of condoms to the entertainment industry," says Condomania Chief Executive Adam Glickman. "Most often the request is for real [plain] vanilla, non-lubricated condoms, nothing fancy. We've sold from a couple dozen at a time to cases of 1,000." (For the record, only non-lubricated condoms work in special effects; the brand is of less importance, although the brand most frequently mentioned would gladden the hearts of USC fans.)

Buying condoms in bulk, however, is not as difficult as explaining the purchase. "I got called on the carpet one day from the production manager, who was going through my petty cash receipts and found one for $50 worth of condoms," Viskocil recalls. "He said, 'What are you guys doing, having a party?' I said no, it was for a specific use, and he said, 'OK, but if I see any of those [receipts] for condoms and a six-pack of beer, I'm really going to call you in!"'

Solving on-set problems with condoms is hardly a new phenomenon. Since the earliest days of the sound era, and perhaps even before, they have been part of a filmmaker's bag of tricks. For decades, rear-projection screens were made of the same lightweight latex material, which offered clarity of picture that was easy to re-photograph with the actors in front of the projected background. In one documented instance, though, an actual condom was used as a projection screen.

The film was the 1933 classic "King Kong," and the scene involved leading man Bruce Cabot hiding in a cave in the side of a cliff, trapped between Kong, standing on a ledge above him and reaching down to grab him, and a giant lizard climbing up a vine from below. The set, of course, was miniature, as were Kong and the lizard, which were figures with moving joints that were animated through the stop-motion technique.

To marry the animation with the live action, footage of Cabot was rear-projected one frame at a time onto a tiny screen made from a carefully cut and stretched condom, and re-photographed frame by frame along with the movements of the puppets. The result was seamless--almost. Because of the amount of time stop-motion animation requires, the condom screen was under the lights much longer than a normal rear-projection screen would have been, and had a tendency to bow or melt. This effect can be detected in the film: For one frame, Cabot's image seems to jump because of the looseness of the screen.

Condoms were used in an even more ingenious fashion in the 1957 science-fiction film "The Incredible Shrinking Man," which was a virtual textbook of then state-of-the-art special effects. For a scene in which the lead character, who is quickly shrinking to the size of an insect, encounters water drops, the filmmakers initially puzzled over how to present the image of individual drops enlarged to monumental proportions. But wherever there is a filmmaking challenge, a condom is probably close by. It was decided to fill condoms with water and drop them from above, then film them as they splattered on the sound stage floor. The result, when projected behind actor Grant Williams, was the perfect realization of gigantic water drops.

Water-filled condoms are still in use in films, though for different purposes. Partially filled condoms were employed by makeup wizard Rick Baker to create a realistically jowly neck for Eddie Murphy as the overweight Sherman Klump in 1996's "The Nutty Professor" and last year's sequel, "The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." "The foam rubber [neck] piece was cored out so that it was hollow, and we filled the void with condoms filled with water and air," says the six-time Oscar winner. "It turned out they worked better if they weren't totally filled up with water."

Baker employed the same technique for the upcoming remake of "Planet of the Apes" to lend realism to the orangutan makeup. "Big male orangutans have these big cheek pads on the side of their face, so we did the same thing again, tied some condoms together with water and stuck them in there," he says.

Except for use as bladders, condoms have few applications in the makeup field (though out of desperation, makeup artist Frank Westmore glued cut-up condom pieces to Shirley MacLaine's face to maintain her Asian makeup in 1962's "My Geisha" when he ran out of the specially made eye tabs on location).

And after years of using them as bladders, Baker can recall only one incident of breakage, though it happened to be a fortuitous one.

The situation was a test makeup reel of Eddie Murphy, videotaped in part to persuade Universal Studios executives to not excise the "Nutty Professor" scene in which the actor was playing his entire family (the studio had gotten cold feet about the sequence, feeling it would be too expensive and problematic to shoot). Made up as middle-aged Mama Klump, Murphy was videotaped appealing directly to "Mr. Universal." Baker continues the story: "It was the very first makeup test we did with Eddie and we had his 'breasts' loaded with condoms. He did something to make one of them break, and he played off that, saying, 'Mr. Universal, my son Sherman brought me all the way out to California, and now you're going to cut me out of the movie ... and my [bust] burst!"'

The executives relented and the scene became a high point of the film.

In the process, yet another Hollywood-friendly application for this invaluable invention may have been discovered. Today, it's condoms for makeup, special effects and sound. Tomorrow ... the pitch meeting?

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