Just a minute or so into Sunday’s episode of The Brink, it’s clear that something is very, very wrong in U.S. naval aviator Zeke Tilson’s fighter jet. Tilson (Pablo Schreiber) is in the middle of an in-flight video call with the President of the United States, but behind him in the back seat, his co-pilot Glenn (Eric Ladin), accidentally under the influence, looks queasy.
“I’m gonna hurl,” Glenn chokes. Sure enough, moments later, splat—all over the windshield (and the president’s video call screen).
As the scene unfolds, Glenn’s puke turns into something of a running gag: the initial splash obscures Tilson’s view out the front of the jet, and vomit later drips from the ceiling after the plane does a couple of barrel rolls.
It’s a spectacle, to say the least—and special effects coordinator Danny Cangemi, who worked on shows like True Blood and Criminal Minds before The Brink, says it ranks among his proudest moments in onscreen barfing.
There are a number of ways to shoot a puke scene—and when to use what depends on just how epic the vomitage is.
“If it’s just a little blup,” Cangemi explains, you might just prepare a mouth-sized portion of, say, oatmeal or mashed-up spaghetti, “put that in [the actor’s] mouth, and they spit it out.” It’s important to give actors substances with familiar flavors, he points out, to minimize the distraction of having a foreign substance in their mouth. (In 2002, Rupert Grint made headlines when he disclosed that the notoriously gag-inducing slug-vomiting scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was actually something of a joy to film, as it involved slime with flavors like peppermint, chocolate, and orange that “tasted really good.”)
But as Michael Lantieri, a special effects supervisor who’s engineered vomit scenes like the memorable one in Little Fockers, explains, more eventful puking requires more elaborate planning. Often, special effects technicians affix a tube to the off-camera side of an actor’s face using spirit gum (an adhesive used on sets and stages for gluing things to human skin). Then, “[We] take a horse-feeding syringe, a great big tubular syringe [usually used] for feeding sick animals, and we fill that up like a big plunger and use that to force the custom-made puke out [through the tube].”
“[The technician] will rehearse with the actor, then kind of go, ‘One, two, three, get ready,’” Lantieri says. On three, the actor spits out his or her mouthful of pretend barf, “and on just a little past three, you’ll have the effects person hit the plunger and send the goop.” Sometimes actors—especially child actors—rehearse with water first.
This particular system a pretty common one, especially for scenes that require projectile vomiting. Which is why, Lantieri points out, “you always see these puke scenes in profile.”
(Another common technique, he adds, involves attaching tubes to the actor’s arms so that the character appears to be vomiting into his or her hands. “They’ll bring their hands up toward their mouth, palms under their chin,” Lantieri says. “They load some in their mouth and in both tubes, so it’ll start coming out their mouth—and then you pump through the tubes and it comes out in their hands and fingers.”)
For the team behind The Brink’s fighter-jet vom-splosion, the actor-technician choreography was less of a concern: The camera never sees the bile come out of Glenn’s mouth directly. But the scene came with its own unique set of challenges.
“When [the barf] hit the cockpit, it had to run down the side of the cockpit slowly all the way through the take,” Cangemi says. “We had to get it that consistency. If we’d used oatmeal, it would stick. It wouldn’t run.”
On past shoots, Cangemi has used real food substances like oatmeal, milk, spaghetti, and cut-up hard-boiled eggs to simulate vomit—and Lantieri fondly recalls loading up “a great big tube-and-plunger system” with gallons of “Boston baked beans mixed with a little bit of oatmeal and some fake blood and some pea soup” for The Witches of Eastwick’s relentless cherry-pit spewing scene. But for The Brink, Cangemi explains, “We had to use a non-food product because we were shooting inside an airplane.”
“Food can become rancid after a couple days, and this airplane was a rental,” he explains. “The last thing you’d want to have is something in a nook or a cranny that you couldn’t get to, like behind the dashboard or something. The next day you’d have this rancid smell.”
To create the perfect non-perishable, just-runny-enough puke concoction, Cangemi and his team wound up using a biodegradable, flavorless fake-vomit substance made by Blair Adhesives—a California-based company specializing in mud, blood, and slime for film sets—and customizing it. “I went out and got some sponges, yellow ones, and cut them up. Mixed in with the vomit, it kind of resembles an egg,” Cangemi says. “We added some green sponges that looked kind of like peas.”
Realistically capturing the act of booting from the back of a two-seater airplane also required careful forethought—and truly astonishing quantities of fake barf. To that end, The Brink’s special effects team built a fake windshield to splatter with puke rather than sullying the real airplane’s, and since “this one had to come from the back seat, we had to have four-foot tubes filled with this projectile stuff … so that we could get the volley,” Cangemi says.
All in all, “We had 15 gallons of it,” Cangemi recalls, laughing. “We probably used about three or four [gallons] testing it, and then we used probably another five in the actual shoot. We had about another five gallons left over.”
For people like Cangemi and Lantieri, though, challenges in onscreen puking are just new opportunities for innovation in onscreen puking. “You’re always trying to reinvent the wheel,” Cangemi says. “We make different nozzles rather than just tubes; we try a lot of different things.”
Ultimately, “it all depends upon what the director wants, and you have to try to create it,” Cangemi laughs. “That’s what I love about this business.”