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Blowing Chunks, Artistically

John Slauson • Answer Box • August 1, 2012

Left to right: Christie Vela, Sally Nystuen-Vahle, Chris Hury, and Hassan El-Amin in God of Carnage at Dallas Theater Center.

Left to right: Christie Vela, Sally Nystuen-Vahle, Chris Hury, and Hassan El-Amin in God of Carnage at Dallas Theater Center.

The vomit scene in God of Carnage means getting creative about getting disgusting

Over the last 20 years as a Prop Master, I have been asked to work on a lot of effects. But it wasn’t until I started working on God of Carnage at the Dallas Theater Center this summer that I was asked to create the illusion of someone vomiting on stage. Not only vomiting—but violently projectile vomiting. I had two mandates: It should look as real as possible, and it had to cover the coffee table on set. These two things were slightly at odds, as our coffee table was a 5-foot circle. I had to create realistic vomit that traveled more than 5 feet.

 

Dallas Theater Center Prop Master John Slauson testing the vomit rig.

Dallas Theater Center Prop Master John Slauson testing the vomit rig.

I started out by researching how other theatres have done this effect. Some companies built the vomit rig into the actress’ bra. This has obvious problems: The actress has to act with 2 to 3 pounds of moving liquid strapped to her, and after the effect her costume no longer fits properly. The second method used an off-stage pressurized system. A tube is run from off-stage and hidden in the sofa. The actress has another tube rigged into her costume which she plugs into the one in the sofa. After reviewing video of other productions using this system it was decided that this did not look realistic enough.

 

The last method is to hide the rig in a pillow. While acting sick, the actress clutches the pillow to herself for comfort. A bladder is sunk into a foam cushion form inside the pillow, and when the actress needs to vomit, she simply squeezes the pillow/bladder. Of all three methods, I decided to pursue this option.

 

The bota bag holding the “vomit” resting in a hollow in a foam form. The form was covered with a red pillow case to disguise it.

The bota bag holding the “vomit” resting in a hollow in a foam form. The form was covered with a red pillow case to disguise it.

I started out using a hot water bottle as my bladder, with a ball valve to keep it from activating early. This worked, but the actress could not get the distance we needed and activating the valve was tough. We switched to a cork that the actress could pull, but the water bottle was still not giving us the distance we needed, no matter how hard the actress squeezed it. This problem was solved by my assistant, Nicole Gaignat. She noticed that with the water bottle the vomit was directed into the corners of the bag and not out of the spout. We switched to a bota bag (water skin) and we were able to get far more distance than we needed. This allowed the actress to control the distance, and not have to squeeze with all of her might.

 

For vomit, we ruled out the obvious (pea soup, oatmeal, apple sauce) as they all failed the cleanup test. Some people have used a laundry detergent base. This is a bad idea. It can get in your mouth and eyes. We went with boiled corn starch. It had a nice controllable thickness, a good milky color, and it cleaned off costumes like a dream. We experimented with thicknesses and found that a vegetable oil consistency worked best. For chunks I ground pieces of upholstery foam in a blender. We made two three-gallon batches of vomit a week, and the rig released about a liter and a half each time. It worked well, left the audience in stitches, and didn’t need any sawdust to clean up.

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