JEREMY CHERNICK (Special Effects Designer) has worked on over 50 Broadway productions. Highlights include Sweeney Todd, The Outsiders, Beetlejuice, & Hadestown. Jeremy has worked with the Disney Theatrical Group creating effects for Hercules, Frozen, Aladdin, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tarzan. In London’s West End, Jeremy designed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Let the Right One In. Jeremy’s work has been featured in prominent performing and visual arts institutions across the United States and the globe. Jeremy serves as head designer for J&M Special Effects in Brooklyn. www.jmfx.net / www.jeremychernickdesigns.com
In this podcast, Jeremy Chernick talks with Helen Osborne about:
- The challenges (and joy) of crafting stage blood for the theatrical world
- How it all began in 2003 with an offer to make 2000 gallons of blood for $1.75 a gallon for a show called the Orphan of Zhao
- How fake blood is a theatrical element that bears little resemblance to real blood
Music by Skilsel from Pixabay.
Producer and audio editor: Clair Morgan
HELEN: Welcome to Talking About Blood. I’m Helen Osborne, host of this podcast series and a member of the advisory board for the Blood Project. I also produce and host my own podcast series about many aspects of health communication, and it’s called Health Literacy Out Loud. The Blood Project’s website includes a lot of important science and medical information. This often focuses on the interplay of humanities and science. A stellar example of doing so is today’s topic, the Art of Creating Fake Blood in Theatric Productions. Our guest is Jeremy Chernik, who has been designing special effects and theatrical moments for more than 25 years. His work has been featured in over 50 Broadway productions, many of which have been reproduced and recreated across the globe. From eye-popping stage effects and magic to minimalist and subtle moments, Jeremy seamlessly incorporates special effects into productions. This includes his work crafting the stage blood used in the Broadway show, Sweeney Todd.
Well, I not only find this topic absolutely fascinating. I also have tickets to see Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Welcome Jeremy to Talking About Blood.
JEREMY: Thank you, Helen. I’m excited to talk about blood.
HELEN: So you’re the only one doing what you’re doing I’ve ever talked to in my whole life. How does one get into the art of creating fake blood?
JEREMY: That is a great question, and I don’t know that there’s a single answer, but I know my answer.
HELEN: I want to hear yours. Yeah.
JEREMY: So I was working in theater. This is in around I would guess 2003. And I had made a bunch of my own sort of wacky shows in the late nineties into 2000 that used a fair amount of blood and gore as theatrical tools. And it was in 2003 that I was asked by a producer friend of mine at Lincoln Center to make 2000 gallons of blood. 2000 gallons of blood for $1.75 a gallon, and could I do it? Could I figure out a recipe that would do that for them? And so, I said, sure, of course. And then I experimented with recipes using peanut butter, using corn syrup, using all different types of different pigments and paint products. And I showed up with gallon buckets of different types, and this director, who was a Chinese director named Chen Shi-Zheng, would stick his hand in and say like, oh, this is too runny or the color is wrong. And we settled on a blood, and then I made 2000 gallons of blood with the help of many stagehands.
And essentially in this show called the Orphan of Zhao, we made a 2000 gallon lake of blood that the actors would walk through to get up onto the stage.
HELEN: So they’d walk through. So wait, I’m just trying to picture this.
HELEN: I can’t even picture what 2000 gallons of blood looks like. I can just picture those containers people drum on on Broadway.
JEREMY: No, I think, so it was a thrust stage at LaGuardia High School. So I would say that the stage was like 25 or 30 feet wide by probably 25 or 30 feet in depth. And the blood itself was ankle deep. So the actors would literally walk through this ankle deep pond. But when you walked into the theater, the lake was still, so it was almost like a shiny red surface with a white platform in the middle. And that platform was, I think about eight feet by eight feet. And the actors would wade through this blood and then they would step up onto the platform and they were moving in very specific patterns in which to sort of leave patterns of blood on the stage.
HELEN: So there’s no going to Dr. Google to figure out how to do all those thousands of gallons of blood 20 years ago. But you did it, and then you said it was a fantastic show. So whatever recipe you cooked up, not even knowing what you were doing, or you knew a little bit, it worked.
JEREMY: It worked.
HELEN: Now it’s 20 years later, you are doing it from the most spectacular productions. You are known for this. Tell us more about the story.
JEREMY: So, I mean, it’s all a bunch of fun experiments and accidents in some ways. So in a good way, that was a really excellent sort of start off to that career, because I did make my own blood and that blood was made out of high fructose corn syrup and the pigment used in children’s finger paint. So not the finger paint itself, but the pigments that are used, because that will tend to come out of fabrics and it won’t stain as much, because fake-
HELEN: Oh, you had to worry about staining too.
JEREMY: Staining of skin. Actors don’t like to be pink or orange depending on the consistency of the blood. And so, we worried about staining, and then on top of that actually the show was very short. I think it only ran for two weeks, but we were worried about all kind, we’re in New York City, we were worried about are there going to be bugs in the blood or what else could be in the blood? None of that ever happened, like knock on wood, it was not a biological catastrophe. It ended up just being fine. And strangely, that job, I didn’t realize when that producer called me and asked me to do that, I didn’t realize that there were many other people who had actually wanted that job who were older than I am and much more seasoned. And I got that job because I was young, and excited, and willing to experiment in a way that-
HELEN: And do it for $1.75.
JEREMY: And more importantly, do it for $1.75. And pretty much from that moment on, I have been doing special effects and I’ve learned tons since then. Special effects covers a lot of things that aren’t blood, like fog and smoke and pyrotechnics and flame, and raining on stage, and snow on stage. I do all of that, but this is a podcast about blood.
HELEN: It is.
JEREMY: So I can talk about how blood in many, many ways has been the sort of through line to much of my career actually, which is-
HELEN: I was going to say it was the lifeblood of your career.
JEREMY: Even better.
HELEN: But I probably shouldn’t.
JEREMY: No, that’s so good.
HELEN: I probably shouldn’t say that one. So Jeremy, when we started talking about this, you were telling me that fake blood is truly fake. It’s not building in the properties of real blood. I think that our podcast listeners would be really interested in that. And our podcast listeners, many of them are hematologists, been working in blood and focus on blood their whole medical career. They might also be those entering the science and people just like me who are totally curious about this, but what properties do you look for in fake blood and how is that like or unlike real blood?
JEREMY: The science behind how actual blood works is not anything that I pay any attention too actually. So blood as a theatrical element is very much a product that needs to tell the story in any environment that I’m working in. So that could be comedy, it could be tragedy, it could be realistic, and I’m putting that in quotes, violence. It’s used in so many different ways in our entertainment environment, and I’ve sort of become a student of those different ways in which it can behave and different ways it can be symbolic in storytelling.
HELEN: Please give us an example there.
JEREMY: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So I’m guessing that the blood that I would tend to use on stage is 100% thicker than real blood would ever be. I think it behaves in ways that pop culture has told us it’s supposed to behave. Meaning from the earliest days where blood was used, which was in black and white, or even before that, in the earliest days I think of what I know as blood on stage, you would take a handkerchief out of your shirt and a reveal a red handkerchief. And in Hitchcock in the shower scene, there was sort of the hand prints and there was mild splatter. There’s Quentin Tarantino who splatters blood like it’s in buckets everywhere. And so, I tend to look at the storytelling and the scenes in those ways as well.
So, I’m going to tell a few different versions. I did a production of The Exorcist a couple of years ago, and it was very abstract and over the stage was a tremendous cross. It was like a 12-foot cross, almost like a ceiling piece over the stage. At the final moment of The Exorcist as the main priest takes in the spirit of the devil and frees the girl, Reagan, from her possession, the cross had to bleed and they wanted the cross to bleed out of the, it’s sort of tilted at a 45-degree angle with the high point towards the audience. And they wanted the blood to kind of pour out of it, and they wanted it to pour out and be symbolic of this sort of violence of the moment. But they also wanted it to feel like the blood or the wine that you would pour in a communion. And so, we played around with consistency and how rich a red color we could get for a long time, because the way it poured and the way it flowed was important to the entire storytelling process to sort of blur the lines between wine and blood. So there’s an example-
HELEN: Can I just, I have an image of that, is that the last scene in the show, because what do you do after the blood drips all over the stage? Do people walk through it like a rain?
JEREMY: You’re asking all the right questions. So these are the questions that I have to ask of myself. In this particular case, it fell through a grate, so there was sort of grating on the stage that it poured through. But yes, it was the second to last scene of the show and the scene that followed it was very still, and no one was really tromping around potentially getting their footprints in all the blood. But, you asked a great question, because I have to think about not just the scene where the blood occurs, and we can talk about Sweeney Todd in terms of this because it’s the perfect one.
HELEN: Oh, I want to hear about Sweeney Todd.
JEREMY: Yeah, it’s the perfect one, but you have to consider how does that blood get on stage before it’s seen by the audience? How does it get released? Where does it go and how do we control where it goes? And what happens in the following scene? So Sweeney is very specific. He’s a barber. He slits throats. That’s what he does. Traditionally, I also tried to break some of the rules that have traditionally gone with Sweeney Todd, because I’m a rule breaker by nature. So Sweeney Todd traditionally was always done with a razor blade that squirted blood out of it so that the actor would hold the razor blade and it would squirt a thin line of blood onto a person’s neck, but I felt that in sort of our more modern version, people wanted more out of the bleeding than they got from that just thin slice. So we-
HELEN: Nothing subtle, huh?
JEREMY: No. No subtlety. Also, it puts a lot on the actor playing Sweeney, in this case, Josh Groban, to have to manipulate a prop that could be dripping and leaking all over him. And I just felt like Josh has got to act, he’s got to sing, there’s a lot of action that he’s already responsible for, let’s take this part away and give it to the other actor. So the way that that’s sort of carried out is that the blood is in the barber cape. So there’s a-
HELEN: Oh, in the barber cape?
JEREMY: Yes, because we had to put that around their neck, and it’s right there at the neck. And then the actor who’s actually getting their throat slit can control that instead of the actor playing Sweeney. And also-
HELEN: How? How, how? I would have to know what to watch for.
JEREMY: Well, you won’t be able to see because they’re that good, but there’s a mechanism in there that essentially has a small pressurized amount of blood and the actor flips a switch. But as they’re moving that cape around prior to it going onto the actor, it’s got blood in it. They’re very careful. Everyone’s working really hard to make sure that it’s very subtle. But they’re also, the capes are all piled and folded perfectly so that it’s a really easy move to just go onto the person’s neck. And then at the queued moment, the actor releases the blood and the cape, essentially the blood pours down the cape. And then the question was how much? Well, we don’t want it pouring all over the floor because the blood, it can be sticky, and therefore for the rest of the show, if it’s on the floor when an actor steps in it, you get this noise as their feet are sort of sticky. We don’t want blood on the floor for a musical because there’s a lot of dancing involved.
HELEN: Oh my goodness.
JEREMY: Yeah. So we made sure that the cape A, they’re seated, so their cape catches most of, all of the blood.
HELEN: Oh, okay.
JEREMY: There’s also the cape is made of very absorbent fabric that the blood will soak into, and we even spray the capes with a little bit of water before they go on stage, so they’re slightly damp so that the blood actually soaks in even quicker because the water sort of helps to absorb it. So these are the layers in which we go through to just do some funny and horrifying throat slitting in a musical.
HELEN: And this is what you do for a living.
JEREMY: This is what I do for a living. We also played with consistency. So we played with how much water to blood mixture so that it flows correctly. It has to happen in a musical session. So in other words, he does the action, and then there’s only a few musical beats until those performers are disposed of in Sweeney Todd. So you need to see the blood and it needs to be over in only a certain amount of musical counts. So we’re working within the counts of music to make sure that like, okay, we can see enough blood, we see it happen, and now we’ve moved on.
HELEN: I love this. I have so many questions to ask. Now, you talked about abstract. You talked about blood in a musical. You talked about funny or tragic, or is there another story you want to share?
JEREMY: I mean, theatrically, blood means so many different things. So I certainly have done my fair share of shows that are really supposed to horrify, both in terms of actual feeling like a horror, and that was done-
HELEN: Well, tell us about a little bit of horror.
JEREMY: Yeah, sure.
HELEN: It’s not my thing, but I’m sure other people want to hear.
JEREMY: I did a production of Let the Right One In, which is a vampire story. And in that particular show it’s called Let the Right One In because the vampire in vampire lore has to get invited in. If they’re not invited in, then it’s very painful for them. In that particular show, the main characters appeared to be a very young girl who was the vampire, and she was not invited in, and she came in anyway. And I had built this very complex apparatus that actually lived inside of her hair so that as she walked in, she appeared, she acted like she was in a lot of pain, a lot of agony, and then her face just suddenly bled. And so literally you couldn’t see this apparatus underneath her hair, but then her blood essentially poured down her face. That’s a horror.
I did a very realistic show. There’s often very realistic gun violence was popular, it’s less popular now, but there’s certainly shows written with realistic gun violence. That is telling a very short, a terrible and short story, but that often requires a certain level of what I guess would be called movie realism. I doubt it’s anything like realistic gunshots.
We definitely try and tell that story in the most terrifying way. Honestly, also, the sound of a gunshot in any theater is a terrifying thing no matter what you do. And I imagine the sound of a gunshot in any real environment is also terrible, but that’s certainly something that unfortunately has to be addressed in theater. And then, there are lots of, I would say, dark comedies that are full of blood, whether they’re Shakespeare or the Lieutenant of Inishmore is a show that’s just full of violence for-
HELEN: Oh, I just watched that movie.
JEREMY: Yeah, in a very dark way. So the way that it’s used is honestly different every time. And for me, the excitement is how do we deliver it? What is the system that gets it there, and what is the impact?
A good example of that experimentation is I did Macbeth a little more than a year ago, and it starred Daniel Craig, and that was, Macbeth is a terribly bloody show no matter how you slice it. No pun intended. But Daniel Craig really wanted to die as Macbeth in a very gruesome way. And he died by being, he wanted to be stabbed in the groin and then remove the knife from his groin and really have a ton of blood come pouring out. And so he did that up against the wall. We were able to push, essentially pump blood through the wall. But at first, this is where the weird experimentation is. For one, every time you do it, you’re covered in blood. You have to get all cleaned up and start again. It’s quite the process. But-
HELEN: You mean every time you practice it?
JEREMY: Every time you practice, yeah, because once you’re fully covered in fake blood, you’re just covered. You can’t quite see the same way. So you need to start sort of with fresh clothing. But I kept having the water kind of pour down like a faucet and it never looked real. And in a moment of frustration, I said, what if we pumped it up into his pants would it look better? And literally, so we took the whole faucet apparatus and just turned it so that instead of shooting down at the floor, it was now shooting up into his crotch and it looked terrible, like the blood would spray everywhere. So the experimentation is sort of the fun of finding the realism or the sort of abstract realism in this case of fake blood.
HELEN: I love your stories. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for you if you’re slicing a bagel and you cut your finger a little bit. If you look at it and it probably looks nothing like you’re oozing, spurting, bright red, goopy blood.
JEREMY: Nothing. It is nothing. Unfortunately I’ve seen people who are actually bloody, I assume we all have, but I’ve seen people who have actually been cut or injured in some way, and I’m amazed at how much blood is suddenly there and how you don’t see it thickly dripping. It’s so much thinner and it clots so much faster than fake blood, which doesn’t clot at all.
HELEN: I could keep listening to your stories, but I don’t want to keep holding you up. I think you’ve shared these wonderful examples. Our listening audience, as I told you, a lot of them are practicing hematologists, quite a few are people entering into the health world, whether they’re in medical school or residency, or just thinking about going into a health profession, and those just with a big curiosity out there. Is there anything you’d want any of us to know about blood from your perspective of someone who tries to embody it in different forms?
JEREMY: I mean, for met, it’s a storytelling device and in no way representational of anything realistic, even when we’re going for what I would call realism. Often when I make something that’s theatrical, theatrically realistic, or even if I’ve researched what it might look like in real life, once we look at it on stage or on film, it never looks realistic to us. The way that blood really seems to behave has nothing to do with what we’ve been trained that blood behaves like. And it’s absolutely a fascinating thing and somewhat dark to look at some of the things that we’re trying to recreate and trying to find some photo or video research of it. And every time I’m like, oh my God, I should never look at this. It’s not helpful at all. Blood behaves so much, this is such a different world than this strange story that I’m very specifically trying to tell. It’s just not at all related. And so, when you see theatrical blood, don’t judge us for our being totally wrong. We’re just trying to tell a story.
HELEN: And you’re a wonderful storyteller and I can’t wait to see Sweeney Todd. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing with us kind of the inside story of what happens and that external story. I don’t know if any of us will be the same theatergoers after hearing you as we were before. I think when I’m sitting in my seat, I’m going to keep looking like what’s under that cape that the person about to die is wearing. Jeremy, you are terrific. Thank you so much for being a guest on Talking About Blood.
JEREMY: Thanks, Helen.
HELEN: As we just heard from Jeremy Chernik, it’s interesting and important to be thinking about fake blood too, how blood is depicted in movies and in theatric presentations. But to learn more about the real side of blood, go to the Blood Project and explore its many resources for professionals, and trainees, and patients. To learn more about The Blood Project and explore its many resources for professionals and trainees and patients. That’s at thebloodproject.com. I invite you to also listen to my podcast series about health communication, and that’s at healthliteracyoutloud.com. Please help spread the word about this podcast series talking about blood and the Blood Project. Thank you for listening. Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.