s-f-x.com specialises in pyrotechnic, atmospheric, mechanical and electronic special effects for television, films, music videos and commercials. Since the 1980s the company has been involved in high-profile projects ranging from Top Gear and Taggart, to Dead Man Running and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. A common requirement is for dramatic sparks, which are traditionally produced using pyrotechnics. However, pyrotechnics have risks associated with them due to their highly combustible nature and the heat generated when they burn, plus they require safe storage and create a major administrative burden because they are classified as hazardous. Ten years ago Scott MacIntyre, the founder and now Special Effects Supervisor at s-f-x.com, decided to seek a better alternative and, being aware of industrial welding cutting equipment from a user’s perspective, asked his local distributor what might be available for use on-screen.
Scott MacIntyre was shown the Arcair SLICE Battery Pack exothermic cutting system, which is effectively a ‘baby’ thermic lance, and was immediately impressed by the machine’s power and ability to cut through almost anything. He could see this would be suitable for films where, for example, a bank robber needed to be shown cutting open a safe, or where a shower of sparks was required. When he was shown the Thermal Dynamics Drag-Gun Plus Plasma cutter, Scott MacIntyre saw that this could be used to show more precise cutting operations. A third item of equipment demonstrated was a Thermal Arc multiprocess welding inverter, and the potential for this was also realised straight away. Scott MacIntyre purchased all three sets of equipment and they were all immediately put to good use for fabrication and special effects on the Crash Test Dummies TV series.
Clearly there are hazards associated with equipment powerful enough to cut or weld metal, but the processes can be started and stopped at the press of a trigger and, provided the power source is isolated from the mains, the portable equipment is entirely safe and has no special licensing, storage, transportation or other regulatory requirements. All three of the cutting and welding sets s-f-x.com purchased are from brands that are now part of the ESAB Group – coincidentally, Scott MacIntyre had been a user of ESAB welding equipment for many years prior to the purchase of the new equipment for producing special effects.
Repeatable and controllable effects
Having experimented with the equipment and filmed a number of different special effects, Scott MacIntyre found that showing some footage to clients created a lot of excitement, not just because of the effects that could be produced repeatably and controllably, but also due to the greater safety compared with using pyrotechnics. Over the years, the engineers and technicians at s-f-x.com have used and ‘abused’ the equipment creatively to produce a range of effects. For example, by clamping the Mig welding gun in one position and feeding steel welding wire onto an incompatible material – often aluminium – the result is a continuous stream of sparks. The lightweight welding inverter can easily be carried up a ladder, set up in the desired position, and started and stopped via a radio controlled switch rigged up by one of the s-f-x.com team. The direction in which the sparks fall can be controlled by means of a short length of scaffold tube and, if the director asks for more sparks or fewer, it is simply a matter of adjusting the voltage/current knob as if it were a ‘volume’ control.
On other occasions s-f-x.com has used spare wire feed rollers and motors to drive two wires together for creating sparks powered with a car battery. This technique has even been used under water, with actors in the water tank, and avoids both the use of pyrotechnics and also the hazards associated with mains electricity in proximity to water.
The Arcair SLICE has featured a number of times on-screen to show vault break-ins, as well as for cutting through steel-reinforced doors, roller shutters and vehicles. Designed primarily for fire and rescue services, the Arcair SLICE is highly portable and needs no separate power supply, so it is very easy and quick to set up anywhere. Scott MacIntyre comments: “I was recently asked to help in a scene where one of the characters cuts a large hole through a roller shutter; I thought the Arcair SLICE would be ideal. The director loved it and was able to position a camera just behind my shoulder to capture the cutting action from my character’s viewpoint. The SLICE cut through the 2mm steel incredibly easily and enabled us to do much more with the scene than if we had used pyrotechnics.”
For lighter-duty applications, the Drag-Gun Plus Plasma cutter is useful, being fully self-contained with its own air compressor. Its visually impressive fine stream of bright plasma has also featured in films. In a particularly unusual application, the plasma cutter was used for ice carving.
Both the Arcair SLICE and the Drag-Gun Plus have been used for hundreds of other tasks. For instance, when filming on location in a disused warehouse that will be demolished after filming has finished, the Arcair SLICE has cut through steel joists that have been in the way; on other occasions, the Drag-Gun Plus has cut out profiles for silhouettes, and for cutting lettering for title sequences.
Scott MacIntyre is delighted with the ease of use of the equipment, saying: “All we need is a 240V supply and we can be working virtually anywhere. If we need more cutting rods, welding wire or oxygen bottles, we can always get these locally. And if the task is not safety-critical, the cutting and welding equipment is easy enough to be used by anyone with the bare minimum of training.”
Reliability is another very important issue for Scott MacIntyre, as he explains: “You might have 50–100 crew on set, all being paid their daily rate, and it might be a one-off opportunity to film on location, so you simply cannot have special effects that don’t work at the precise moment they are needed. We have been using the welding and cutting equipment for 10 years, and there can’t be a week that goes by when we are not using it either on-screen or off-screen. Often we are doing something with it far beyond what it was designed to do, but we have only ever had to replace a handful of consumable spares. These have been the most reliable pieces of equipment I have ever used.”
In total, the three pieces of equipment have been required in hundreds of films, television programmes, music videos and commercials. Recent examples include: Endeavour, the TV series starring Shaun Evans as a young DC Endeavour Morse, with the Thermal Arc welder producing sparks to add atmosphere to scene set in a missile factory; All Things to All Men with Gabriel Byrne, in which the Arcair SLICE cuts quickly and cleanly through the door of a safe; and in Peter Kay’s latest Cradle to Grave TV series, in which the Thermal Arc welder produces a large arc where the script calls for a substantial ‘electrical fault’.
More information about the welding and cutting equipment mentioned above is available free of charge from www.esab.co.uk.