Friday, August 21, 2009

On vomiting

We live in a film age where nothing is impossible, where almost anything a director can dream up can be created through digital special effects and what not. Yes, I said almost anything. For there is an action that is still pitifully recreated in film, and is no more realistic now than 30 years ago -- an action which for some people is an every-weekend occurence! I am speaking, of course, of the human vomit.

It's tough to say when the first vomit was depicted on screen, but it's safe to say that for decades it was tabboo to have a character in your movie vomit -- I mean, in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE James Stewart can't even bring himself to utter the word "pregnant," much less have ounces of bile shoot out of his mouth! But I would think this troubled Hollywood, because the act of vomiting held great comedic and dramatic potential.

It may not have even been a question of morals, but execution -- if an actor could not be convinced to throw up, could it be faked? At some point, it was agreed for an actor to fill their mouth with disgusting fluids, and then spit it out -- hoping the audience would buy it as an actual vomit. The disappointing thing is, vomit special effects have only made inches of progress (if that), since whenever that first on-screen vomit was.

There is little written about the history of movie vomit, but I think we can agree that three movies stand above the rest, in terms of vomit significance: STAND BY ME, ALIENS and THE EXORCIST. How did these movies do it? They broke the mold, because the old vomit vanguard would not have worked. In STAND BY ME, the movie needed to convince the audience that a person was emitting five blueberry pies from their mouth, and simply spitting out a mouthful of pie would have been pathetic. The solution was old fashioned and practical: place a hose to shoot out fake vomit on the opposite side of the actor's head. While this successfully created the illusion of tremendous amounts of vomit, it was limited in that the actor had to stand perfectly still, and in most of the shots, it's obvious the liquid is not coming out of their mouth. I think it ends up working for the most part.

Director James Cameron is a master of outside-the-box practical special effects, and his android bile eruption from Lance Henrikson is no different. The ALIENS scene appears to be a mix of old and new school wizardry, seamlessly cutting from Henrikson spewing out a mouthful of white goo, to a mold of Henrikson where much more is being mechanically forced out. The transition works so well you never have time to wonder if you're looking at a foam rubber Henrikson. (Note: this scene is also one of my rare quibbles with ALIENS, in a movie where the bar is set so high for special effects, it's one of the rare instances when the illusion fails, if only slightly. When the Queen Alien rips Bishop in two, her hands barely touch him. It's the one time where you think "Hey Martha, that's no alien, that's a puppet!").

THE EXORCIST appears to use this same technique, and it works perfectly because Regan is sitting upright in her bed, a pose easily mirrored by a foam rubber dummy.

These are the exceptions, because in nearly every other instance, Hollywood would like us to believe that the act of vomiting is a quick and nearly painless exercise where a shotglass worth of stuff is ejected from the body. Will there ever be an instance where the actor simply says "I got this one," and donates his God-given special effects to the movie? A great opportunity for this would have been APOLLO 13, where Bill Paxton gives us the first zero-gravity fake vomit. I say great opportunity because the zero-gravity scenes were filmed in the so-called Vomit Comet, where you would think such a feat would come easily. I'm sure the Apollo 13 crew laughed at the movie's pitiful take on zero-gravity vomit, "yeah, we wish Fred Haise only coughed that much up!" This brings to mind how awful it would be trying to dodge a cloud of cosmic vomit -- and how memorable a scene it would have been.

So what's the point with all the vomit talk? Am I really complaining? I just find it interesting that movies inflate every other bodily function to ridiculous hyperbole (bleeding, belching, farting, exploding heads, lost limbs), yet one of the human body's most fantastic displays is reduced to almost nothing in almost every example. Will there ever be a special effects breakthrough? Is Hollywood even trying any more? It makes me want to puke.


  1. Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life preceded both Aliens and Stand By Me.

    Brian L.

  2. Absolutely huilarious article, Ross. I always get frowns from friends when I'm pleased about the puke unscreen. Thanks for sharing my concerns!

  3. Just found your very entertaining blog (by way of your old one). I wanted to add that vomiting has become the most overworked of cliches in film. Characters upchuck as a kind of visual shorthand for intense reactions--in place of acting. It's become so commonplace that you can count on it happening in almost every film. Makes me wanna puke.

  4. The movie Super Troopers has a great authentic vomit scene. If memory serves, Kevin Heffernan (playing Farva) deliberately drank to the point where he was sick enough that he could actually puke for the scene.