Cue Mother Nature...Go!

by Lisa Mulcahy
Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade at Roundabout Theatre Company.
Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade at Roundabout Theatre Company.

Wind, rain, fog, and smoke—these visually striking elements can enhance a production tremendously. But to do it right, you need to be sure you have a view toward how atmospheric effects should compliment your show as a whole—and leave lots of time for working out the kinks. You really need to understand how to properly plan and execute your effects, from both an aesthetic and a safety standpoint. You want to be thinking about the details of an atmospheric effect as early in the production as possible so all the other production elements can make any accommodations in advance for the atmospheric effect. SD sought out some expert advice on atmospheric effects by consulting J&M Special Effects in Brooklyn, New York.

Founded in 1985 by Gregory Meeh, (current company president and head designer), in association with Esquire Jauchem, J&M occupies an 11,000 square foot warehouse space with 10 full time employees and the largest variety of effects equipment and products for rental or sale on the East coast. The company has created innovative and amazing effects for scores of Broadway shows, including Angels In America, Frozen, Phantom Of The Opera, Cats, Les Miserables, The Book Of Mormon, War Horse, and Memphis, to name but a few. They also have done scores of Off-Broadway and touring productions, as well as working with regional theatres including the Goodspeed Opera House and the Geffen Playhouse. The company has pioneered some effects and uses, utilizing top-notch research and development, mock-up and demonstration, complete custom fabrication, customized effect systems, testing, and compliance. Jeremy Chernick, a leading J&M designer/project manager & pyrotechnician with an extensive list of show credits, spoke with us about the considerations of bring atmospheric effects to the stage. 

Stage Directions: What considerations should you take into account when deciding to use fog, rain, and wind in a show?
Jeremy Chernick: Reasoning is very important—an atmospheric effect needs to fit within the logic of a play’s story. Don’t add an atmospheric effect at all unless that effect is part of that story, or unless you have a really good abstract concept that will make sense within the context of the material. Otherwise, atmospheric effects add layers of complications you don’t need.

What do you need to consider about rain and water effects?
If I’m producing 38 feet of rain over a stage, making that water come down out of the grid or out of a fly loft is much easier than figuring out, where does that water go? You need to ask yourself, what are you doing to protect your understage? What kind of trough are you using, for example? What about protecting your stage surface from becoming warped, destroyed, or covered with mold?

Water is just hard. Water is an organic substance that just goes where it wants. When people don’t understand that, I’ve seen theaters flood. Another less obvious but equally problematic mistake people making when working with water is to think that they have a certain amount of water barrier down to protect a lower deck stage, but when they strike, they find there was leakage because the water barrier wasn’t sufficient. They find rotted wood, mold—all from tiny bits of leakage that add up over time. It ends up costing them money and time, and it can present health hazards, too. I think the best solution to this kind of problem is to line your stage with pond liner—it’s made of EPDM rubber, and you can glue and tape up all the seams so you get no leakage. It’s more expensive than the roofing insulation a lot of theaters use, but roofing insulation just isn’t sufficient—you put a drywall screw through it, or someone walks on it with something abrasive on their shoe, and water can go through. 

My favorite water effect is when all the rain that falls during a show is caught and completely sealed in a container. I also think what you need to do any time you have water in a show is to have a single person whose sole job is to be responsible for the water system.

And considerations for fog effects?
First, safety is such an important factor when you’re operating a fog machine. Recently, a technician died when a CO2 fog machine was used on a production. The technician was under the stage, in a small space where the machine was positioned; there was a CO2 leak that replaced the oxygen, and the technician asphyxiated. Fortunately, this kind of event is very rare—at least in the U.S. You always want to make sure, if you’re renting a fog machine, that you have all manuals and spec sheets explaining their safe operation—and read through them completely. Talk to your vendor to make sure you have all the information you need as well, and ask the vendor for pointers and tips.

You can use a JEM Glaciator, which produces refrigerated low fog that can come up from understage through grating. it doesn’t require liquid CO2 or dry ice, and uses a refrigerated chamber. But you need time to work out the effect. It’s really hard when someone is doing a musical for which they need a low fog effect, but they haven’t even started to work on it until a week before tech. A lot of effects machines are actually getting more and more complicated, in terms of data and control and added features, too. If you’re a technician who doesn’t have experience working with these machines, you might now be aware of how complicated they can be and not understand how to use them. Plus, fog machines come with separate add-ons you need to rent, so there are many different pieces and parts you need to know about. That’s why I always advise experimenting with a machine before tech. Workshop things—kick the tires for a couple of days.

What do you need to consider specifically when preparing a smoke effect?
There are a lot of ways you can execute a smoke effect, so I’ll ask, ‘Do we want the smoke to come from above, below, or from the sides?’ I also need to know the desired duration—‘do we want a fast blast of smoke, or do we want a dreamlike, slow effect, as in, the smoke will cover a person, and then disappear?’ Then, once I have the answers to these questions, I use a demo to plan and experiment. For example, I did an effect where smoke was going to rise up from the stage floor to cover an actor. I got myself some smoke machines, having researched Actors Equity smoke guidelines, which you can find in the AEA Stage Manager’s Resource. Equity has requirements as to what type of smoke machine needs what type of fluid, time and distance specifications as to how long and close an actor can be exposed to smoke—you need to carefully pick your machine. I follow these guidelines for non-Equity productions as well, by the way. 

People use rented smoke machines all of the time, and the biggest mistake I see them make, whether the smoke effect looks good or bad, is having that effect rejected by Equity. Use ESTA data also to make sure you’re up to date on all safety information, too.

So for this particular effect demo, I used a Viper NT machine, which comes with a duct adapter attached to it and connects to a four-inch duct. I took flexible duct, laid approximately three feet wide, cut holes in it, and blasted smoke out of it. I determined how fast the smoke would come out, how unpleasant the smoke might be to an actor—I worked all of this out for myself before taking the effect to the production. I also got some other machines, including cryogenic jets, which can produce big, loud, blasting plumes straight onto the floor. I played around with different ideas for the effect.

What’s one of the best atmospheric effects you’ve done that you’re particularly proud of?
In Frozen, I have an effect where smoke goes up, over, around, and down part of the stage—and it’s really hard for smoke to travel that way. We workshopped the effect for two years. After a tremendous amount of technology and research, the smoke moved up, over, and down as desired quietly and quickly. The integration with all departments made it work. I love seamless collaboration with other design departments, which is what we had here, in terms of blending this effect with lighting, video, and scenic. The effect came out of real storytelling, not because we just wanted to create some wow factor.