to the Apache Indians, fire was brought to the world by Fox, who
stole it from the fireflies. The ancient Greeks believed that
Prometheus stole fire from the gods and brought it to man. He was
punished for this by being bound to a rock for all eternity, and
having his liver pecked out daily by a giant bird. Almost every
ancient culture had a story explaining how fire first came to man.
with fire continues to the present day, and it's a good thing for
those of us in the special effects industry! A single flame, on
stage, can focus an audience's attention in a way that even the most
expensive intelligent light cannot. And, because fire was our first
"controllable" source of light, it makes an excellent
practical light source for scenes set before the invention of the
There is, however,
an inherent danger in using a live flame on stage. Even a carefully
planned fire effect can go awry, possibly damaging the theatre and
harming the people inside it. I always advise people planning to use
fire in their shows to use a live flame as a last resort. Now,
thankfully, there are a number of effects devices that can create
realistic flame effects on stage without the use of an actual flame.
special is one of them, of course. LeMaitre's Le Flame is really a
variation on a device that theatre electricians and prop-builders
have been making for years. The principle is simple: a piece of
fabric (two pieces of white silk, in the case of Le Flame) is mounted
above a small fan. Colored lights illuminate the fabric as it
flutters in the draft of the fan. The combination of the moving
fabric and the colored lights creates a realistic looking flame
effect. Variations on this simple device have been used to create
artificial campfires, torches and braziers.
LeMaitre has done
two important things in their device, however. First, they have
combined all of the components into one, ready-to-use, kit. This has
been a boon to designers who want the effect, but lack the time or
skills to create it themselves. The second, and perhaps more
important, thing is that LeMaitre obviously spent a great deal of
time designing Le Flame to produce as realistic a flame as possible.
From a distance of ten-to-fifteen feet-the distance most front-row
audience members would be-Le Flame is indistinguishable from a live
flame. Three MR16 lamps, two with orange gel and one with blue,
provide an accurate simulation of the color of a flame. The shape and
size of the silk pieces, combined with the action of the fan, create
a flame that looks and behaves realistically.
LeMaitre is not the only company making artificial flame units.
Many other companies have created devices that create effects similar
to Le Flame, and usually for less money. The new "Bob" and
"Bob Jr" products are good examples of budget-oriented
flame units. Both devices use the same principles as Le Flame-a piece
of fabric, colored lights and a fan- but sell for considerably less.
The less expensive instruments, on the whole do not look as realistic
as Le Flame, but if cost is a limiting factor, they may be the way to go.
Some tips for
getting the best look out of any of these devices:
Make sure that the
device is positioned in such a way that the audience cannot see the
"guts" of the device. Nothing will ruin the effect of an
artificial flame like being able to see the lamps and fan that create
the illusion. In haunted houses, nightclubs, and other
"walk-through" environments, hang or mount the fixtures so
that the lamps are above eye level. On most stages, this should not
be much of an issue, as the audience is usually seated lower than the stage.
As with any effect
light, these units will look best in a dim space. On stage, however,
you may want to supplement the light of the flame units with some
spotlights, even if the flame is supposed to be the light source for
that scene. I'd recommend a few spots dimmed to about 50% intensity
and colored with amber/orange gel. This will preserve the look of the
flame while illuminating your performers.
There is some
noise associated with these units because of the fan. If you'
re using them
during a very quiet scene, you may need to add some soft
music to cover the
noise. In many theatres, however, the ambient noise of the theatre
itself (dimmers, air-handlers, sound system hiss) will be louder than
the flame units.
These devices are
certainly not a new concept. Theatre workers have been making them
for years and they're inspired by something that's been with us
almost since the beginning of human history. What Le Flame, Bob, and
Bob Jr. all represent is a step forward in our relationship with
fire. Acknowledging our fascination with the flame, these
devices give us a way to safely incorporate it into our events.
Prometheus for your theatre! Be the wily Fox of your local haunted
house! Bring the secret of fire to your people and you, too, may be
remembered forever. Just keep an eye on your liver!