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Big Effects From Small Packages

Don't laugh, but condoms have played key technical roles in movies from 'King Kong' to 'Perfect Storm.'

June 17, 2001|MICHAEL MALLORY | 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.

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