Special effects workers put a charge in attack

Behind the scenes, special effects workers set off the bursts that brought Sunday's battle to life.

Behind the scenes, special effects workers set off the bursts that brought Sunday's battle to life.

September 16, 2002

Crouched about 5 feet behind an enemy line of Union soldiers, Tom Fife, dressed in a gray soldier's cap and coat, made eye contact with a soldier in blue.

Fife gave the thumbs-up sign, and the Union soldier, with a grin, gave it back.

Fife was one of several men handling special effects - the ground bursts and sky bursts set off during the 35-minute A.P. Hill's Attack Battle Sunday afternoon. It was the last of four major battles re-enacted during the three-day 140th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam.

Usually a special effects worker on movies, Fife took time off from a feature film he's doing in Washington, D.C., to help with the battlefield effects.


Matt Vogel, coordinator of the special effects, also usually works in movies. His credits include "Gods and Generals" and "Gettysburg."

Moving off a movie set offers a new set of challenges, Vogel said.

"On a film, you have a lot of control," Vogel said. "Here, it's 'go for it.'"

Twenty metal pots were scattered throughout the battlefield, each inside a hole dug in the earth. Inside each pot was a cardboard container called a "lifter," which resembled a hockey puck and contained 4 ounces of gunpowder.

On top of the lifter, Fife and Jim McPherson, another special effects assistant, dumped plastic bags of pre-mixed concrete powder, peat moss and coal dust.

Brown wire connected the pots to a "button box." Pushing one of the numbered buttons detonated the corresponding pot.

Fife and McPherson handled the 10 pots on the Confederate side of the field. Behind them, others handled the 10 pots on the Union side.

During the battle, after pots were detonated, Fife and McPherson had to run out to the field to refill. About five minutes beforehand, Fife put a gray Confederate coat over his black T-shirt and swapped his "Gods and Generals" baseball cap for a Confederate soldier's hat. McPherson wore similar garb, all to blend in with the action on the field.

As gunfire surrounded him, Fife looked up. "Sir! On the horse. Be careful, you're near a bomb field," he yelled to a cavalry man. To an approaching line of Union soldiers, he yelled, "Watch the wires, gentlemen."

Before grabbing a handful of lifters and running out onto the field to refill pots, Fife adopted a big smile and laugh. "Oh, it's getting freaky. Yeah, this ain't a movie."

Unbeknownst to the special effects crew, the bulk of the battle ended up centering right over the explosives field. It was supposed to be elsewhere, Fife said.

When a Confederate soldier fell too close to a pot, Fife yelled to him, "Corporal, die somewhere else." The soldier hobbled about 15 yards away and fell again.

Rain, which fell steadily but not heavily throughout the battle, did not affect the explosives.

"It just makes it dirtier," Fife said.

During the actual Battle of Antietam, Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill prevented what could have been a more substantial victory for the Union. On Sept. 17, 1862, he and his soldiers marched 17 miles in seven hours, arriving late in the afternoon. He drove Burnside's Union soldiers back over a stone bridge.

Vogel, who runs Matt Vogel Special Effects in New York, said the explosions are close to what one would have seen on a battlefield 140 years ago. At other re-enactments, dynamite and diesel fuel were used to produce unrealistic fireballs, he said.

Vogel's explosions produced an off-white cloud of smoke. During the Civil War, the explosion would have been "a white poof," he said.

"You take authenticity and you add dramatic license," he said.

After the battle, a couple dozen unused lifters were detonated away from some visitors who strolled onto the field, picking up souvenirs.

Fife will head back to Washington, D.C., tonight, where he is supposed to stage a big rain scene for an upcoming film starring comedian Chris Rock. Other films he has worked on include "Runaway Bride," which starred Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

McPherson said he plans to take some time off. If the HBO show "The Wire" is brought back for a second season, he said he will continue his work on that.

As soldiers filed off the field, many tipped their hats to the two men. "It was great. Thank you," one said. Ever cordial, Fife thanked them in return, telling them all that they did a great job.

"On a movie, the re-enactors are there for us. Here, we're there for them," said Fife, a former re-enactor who was an extra in the movie "Glory."

"We want to add to their enjoyment, not take away from it," he said. "Part of being a good pyro is making sure everybody goes home with the same number of eyes, toes and fingers that they came with."

The Herald-Mail Articles