Up In Smoke: Steve Wolf

Everyone loves a good explosion, but only those with a mind for science and the work ethic of an ox can make a booming career says pyro expert Steve Wolf.

Artists have paints and canvases to create their work. Directors have cameras and actors. Steve Wolf has black powder, electronic matches, and enough dynamite to blow his Austin, Texas-based pyro ranch to smithereens. A pyrotechnic and special effects coordinator whose lengthy resume includes work on films such as The Firm, A Time to Kill, Hustle and Flow, and Colombiana, Wolf says that mastering the art of making things go boom boils down to a solid grasp of the science behind chemical reactions, a thorough knowledge of safety measures, and the ability to improvise when necessary equipment isn’t available.

Wolf holds two world records – one for firing the most explosives (180 charges) off of a single person, and the other for sending five people in tandem across county lines via a 900-foot zip line – but he says that making it in his field isn’t always about creating the biggest, baddest stunts. Whether he’s churning out “atmospherics” like fake snow or fog or recreating the Hindenburg disaster for the Discovery Channel, the one thing all of Wolf’s work has in common is that it’s always a blast.

Get In Media: You have a degree in screenwriting, but you didn’t go into writing. How did you move into pyrotechnics?
Steve Wolf: My first work on movie sets was working as a set medic. I had purchased an ambulance and started a company called Cinemedics with the intention of making movie sets safer. It really just turned out to be treating stunt men after they got hurt because they wouldn’t listen to good safety advice and they didn’t use very much science. Having seen people getting hurt in many ways, I was pretty good at anticipating which stunts would end successfully and which would end in injury, so I started offering consultation services to the production companies.

When I realized I wanted to work in special effects, I started reading the credits on movies and writing down the names of people who were responsible for the effects I was most impressed by. I saw Gary’s [Zeller, Academy Award-winning chemist-turned-special effects coordinator] name come up several times and decided to get in touch with him. I called him up and said “Hi Gary, I’m Steve Wolf and I’d like to be your new coffee boy, work with you on set whenever you’re working, and whatever help you need around your shop. I’m not looking for a job, just an opportunity to learn and to contribute.” He said “Fine.” Based on Woody Allen’s quote that 80 percent of success is showing up, I kept showing up wherever Gary was and working with him and within a couple of weeks, he had me on payroll as an assistant. 

After a couple of years, we ended up forming a production company together to do commercials that had lots of special effects in them. I realized that a lot of commercials were really all about the special effect and any production company could film it, but only Gary knew how to do it. So I said “You’re leaving 95 percent of the money on the table to be taken by production companies that have no idea what they’re doing. You could really go directly to the agency, create the effect they want and then we hire somebody to film it.” That worked out quite well and we worked together like that for some time. Then Gary was interested in moving on out of the film industry because so much of what’s done is really quite silly and really not meaningful. So when Paramount Pictures called and they were looking for a special effects coordinator for the movie The Firm, he told me to take it. The Firm was the first big movie that I was a special effects coordinator on. When your resume starts with a Tom Cruise movie, the rest of the work comes pretty easily.

GIM: Walk us through the process of working with a director to create a specific effect.

SW: The production company, if they’re considering hiring us, they send us a script. We read through the script and we make a list of all the special effects. A little secret that I use when reading the script is that I read the script from last page to the first page so that I don’t get caught up in the story. It’s much easier to spot the effects that way. I also delete all the dialogue because the special effects don’t have dialogue. So if it’s “Jennifer comes outside, there’s a light mist as rain begins to fall,” we write that down on a spreadsheet –light mist, rain, scene one – and work our way backwards through the script until we have a spreadsheet of all of the effects. 

Then we figure out how many days we plan to shoot that over and what materials are going to be needed to make that happen. We put together a budget and submit it to the production company and if we’re within their budget, then we go to the next step, which is coming in for a meeting. The meeting is really usually discussing your experience and their expectations and their needs. If we go from there, we get hired and we have a meeting with the director where they describe specifically what they’re looking for and often aid it with storyboard. Then the director will often throw it back in our court and say, “This is the first time I’ve done a house explosion. Can you give me any suggestions on what’s going to make it look better? What angles we should film from? Which lenses we should use? Should we film it in the daytime? Nighttime? At sunset?” They know what they want, they just don’t know how to get it. 

Then we may work with the locations department because if a locations department decides that the house they like is right downtown in the middle of State and Main, we’re probably going to have a problem getting a permit to do explosive work there. We would recommend which county is going to be most favorable, where it’s going to be easiest to get permits. Can we find a similar house in a remote location where the logistics are going to be simpler? Then we can discuss the very, very specifics of the effect: When the explosion happens, what order do you want the windows to blow out in? Do you want them all to blow out at once? What color do you want the flames? Do you want to see smoke immediately? Do you want the smoke to come in a little bit later? We can really tailor the recipe of how a particular effect is done based on the whims of the director.

GIM: For projects like the Discovery Channel’s Expedition: Bismarck or What Destroyed the Hindenburg? where you are recreating a disaster that already happened, is the process different?

SW: In some cases there is historical footage that we can go to. In other cases, there are witness statements or recorded histories of what happened. We’ll study those extensively and figure out what we have to do to re-enact an event in a way that’s true to history. Our challenge in the Hindenburg special was to analyze the various hypotheses that had been put forward as to what caused the fire. Allegations have been made regarding one shooting it down with a rifle, planting a grenade inside, valves that overheated, static electricity inside the ship, static electricity between the frame and the skin of the ship, a cigarette, a flashbulb. Our job was to take a look at each of these hypotheses and, through a series of lab experiments, find out which were plausible and which were not. USS North Carolina on set of Expedition: BismarkUSS North Carolina on set of Expedition: Bismark

GIM: For somebody who is moving into special effects, is there anything specific that they need in terms of licenses or insurances?

SW: Before you can participate in any type of pyrotechnics, you first have to get a clearance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives indicating that you have no prior explosives-related convictions and that you’re not on any terrorist watch lists. The next thing you need is to get licensed and get a special effect operator’s license and a flame effect operator’s license. If you’re going to work independently, you have to have pyrotechnic insurance. You don’t have to have it if you’re working for someone who has it. 

GIM: Do you have any surprising tips and tricks that you’ve learned in your career?

SW: It’s more important to understand the principle of how a special effect works than it is to own the equipment; the equipment can always be substituted if you know what you’re doing. If your smoke machine breaks and you have no idea what the smoke machine does – you think you just plug it in and push the button and smoke comes out – then when your machine goes down, you’re screwed. But if you understand that all that a smoke machine does is add heat to a liquid to turns the liquid into a gas, you realize that a frying pan and a blowtorch can become a smoke machine. But if you don’t understand the principles of how [your equipment] works, then you can’t fix it or make substitutes.

GIM: What do you recommend for someone who wants to follow in your career path?

SW: From an academic standpoint, I recommend learning as much physics and chemistry as possible and then complementing that with some physical trade skills like welding, fabricating, electrical work, plumbing, and carpentry, because very often, there are not devices that do what we need them to do to create an effect. We have to build most of the equipment that we use on set. 

On the practical side, there is virtually no substitute for an internship. An internship provides you with, first of all, the opportunity to see if the job is what you imagined it is. The other thing that it does is it allows you to meet and work with the people who you’re going to want to employ you. It allows you to build relationships with people who are in the industry. Those relationships are essential to getting work. It’s not a function of nepotism or we hire you because we know you or because you have an in. It’s because so much trust of the people you work with is needed and that trust can only be built with one-on-one time.

Steve Wolf also offers pyrotechnic training classes in Austin, Texas. For more information, head to Pyroschool.com



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