Dry Ice and Movie Smoke Effects

In the article “What exactly is dry ice?” http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mdryice.html the questioner mentioned “I know it’s used to make a cool fog effect for movies…”.

Wrongo bucko. While it might have been used in days gone by, and is might still be in use if your theater is your basement and the audience is made up of neighborhood kids, no one else uses it any longer.

The fog effect these days is caused by a “fog machine”. Pretty trickie name huh. These gadgets heat up a liguid “smoke” (made up of glycols, glycerine, and/or mineral oil, with varying amounts of distilled water) which is forced onto stage by a fan.

There are many advantages the most obvious is that the liquid smoke can be kept in storage at room temperature waiting for your next performance. Dry Ice must be kept in a really good refrigerator. The smoke machines come in every conceivable size and run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. See any decent theatrical supply house.

Also see http://chemistry.about.com/library/weekly/aa010603a.htm for a good description about how the machines work.

Enjoy, John

Living in Oblivion has a great scene about the problems with using one of the oil based smoke machines.

But note that Dry Ice in water for “smoke” still occurs a lot in movies and in TV. If you want that Mad Scientist ™ bubbling blue water with mist coming off of it, you use Dry Ice, not a smoke machine. Also used in discos of yore, possibly due to the smell factor???

Right you are. The cheap F/X of dry ice in water is a staple of 1950’s scary movies. I think I saw that effect last used in the great Black/White Mel Brook’s comedy “Young Frankenstiein”, done simply for the nostalgia feel. Nothing like drinking the potion that turns you into a werewolf. Man, it has to bubble. Now any bartender can get a better affect by mixing Ameretto and Bailey’s.

I don’t quite get your “smell factor” reference. Do you mean that the smoke machines smell. Yes, the oil based ones can but the newer models don’t have this problem.

Thanks, John

When I worked tech in college there was an old guy in charge of the fog juice. He was nearly blind and had massive cataracts. We called him Foggy. We did this one play that had lots of fog, and our fog machines were old and crappy and kept leaking, requiring constant refills of fog juice. Every time one of them would run out, someone would get in the intercom and shout, “Foggy, stage right! Foggy, stage right!”

It was pretty funny watching that guy make his way through all the actors and scenery back stage, usually managing to knock something over in the process of refilling the fog machine.

Hey there CEMX86SD. Couple things you left out. Dry Ice fog is still used quite often in theatre and movies. It is the only fog effect that stays low to the ground and actually pools and flows. Most chemical fogs tend to thin out and float away. Dry ice fog will flow down steps, pool on the floor to give the illusion of a pond, etc. It also has a certain quality or feel that many designers enjoy. Also, Equity (the stage actors and stage managers union) has very strict guidelines regarding fog and haze effects. Dry ice and Rosco brand fogs are the two most commonly used, and there must be loads of information posted if either effect is going to be used. Read more here (pdf file). All of the Equity approved foggers that I have used (non-dry ice)have some sort of smell, some better, some worse. I could go on for hours, but I think you get the idea. Let me know if you have any questions.