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Vacuum Pumps Help Make Movie Magic

When a director asks for the impossible, a vacuum pump can make it happen

With all the advancements in computer movie editing, we often assume that the special effects on the silver screen are created digitally. And while many of them are, there is still a place in cinema for real special effects.

Special effects (SFX) coordinators have hundreds of tricks up their sleeves, but did you know that several of these involve a vacuum pump? Across film and television, the vacuum pump can be used for a variety of effects such as creating extreme weather, simulating injuries, and fabricating movie sets.

A Perfect Storm

One of the more dramatic SFX uses of the vacuum pump is to simulate weather. Many films use pumps to create atmosphere such as fog and ice, but even more interesting is using vacuum to design water-based storms. Variations in the size, number, and placement of vacuum pumps can create different effects from calm ocean waves to a raging storm.

One great example is a water vortex. In one recent film, a director called for a large water vortex to be built on set, and the production team figured out how to use multiple vacuum pumps for the entire operation. Four six-inch wide pumps were used to create the vortex as well as to drain the tank at the end of the shoot.

From Scrubs to Vampire Diaries

What do horror movies and medical dramas have in common? If you guessed “blood” you’d be right. As the film industry has grown, those working behind the scenes often turn to other industries for screen effects, and SFX makeup is no different.

For example, a submersible vacuum pump typically used by a plumber to remove excess water can be repurposed for some rather gory use cases. Micro-volume pumps can simulate spurting blood like you’ve seen in your favorite medical drama. Depending on the attachments used, the vacuum pump can create a large flood of blood from an artery or a quick release of blood and tissue to simulate a bullet hit. (Cool or gross…you decide.)

Another great example is using a vacuum pump to simulate a slow trickle of blood, like when someone is crying blood in horror films. A small pump can be covered up by the costume and a small tube attached to the face under makeup, for seamless leaking, so vampires and ghouls alike can realistically cry blood.

Behind the Scenes

The third movie magic trick is to use vacuum to create sets. Building a complete set can be both expensive and time-consuming. So instead, many sets designers use lightweight, rigid plastic that is sculpted by applying vacuum to look like the real thing. Anything from fantasy flicks to period westerns to modern-day houses can be created with vacuum-formed plastic.

Here’s how it works:
• First, molds of the sets are either hand-sculpted from high-density foam or are taken from plaster casts of real items.
• Then large white sheets of light, thick thermoplastic alloy with a smooth, matte finish are painted with water-based latex paint and pre-heated to 315 to 335°F.
• Next, while the plastic sheet is pulled over the mold, vacuum is applied below it, and when it cools sufficiently, it retains every detail of the mold’s shape and surface. During this process, the paint bonds with the plastic.
• Once complete, stage crews trim the panels and mount them to wood paneling, sheetrock walls, and theatrical flats using staples, adhesives, screws, or nails.

The lightweight design still retains its strength, allowing it to take a beating in an action film and be repurposed for future scenes. It turns out that Rome can be built in a day (or a few days).

Lights! Camera! Vacuum!

Creative storytelling requires even more creative means of getting the shot. Often this requires turning to unexpected items and methods, (think the well-known fun fact that it was chocolate syrup in the Psycho shower scene.) Such is the case with the vacuum pump—an unsung hero of our entertainment industry. 

It doesn’t matter if you prefer romcoms or horror, historical re-enactments or sitcoms, your favorite shows and movies have most-likely used a vacuum pump in some capacity. So, the next time you watch, see if you can spot the heavy lifting done by the vacuum pump.