Whoosh! Issue 38 - November 1999

WHY THINGS BLOW UP ON XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS
IAXS project #729
By Ryan Dever
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
3026 words



Author's Note: Even though this article has a light tone, it addresses some very dangerous subjects, namely setting things on fire blowing them up. Do not attempt to test or reproduce anything described in here. Black powder is very dangerous, as is fire breathing and dropping things off five story buildings. The author refuses to be held responsible for your safety if you think that your life has more in common with Loony Tunes than Trauma Center.

Some of the information in this article regarding how certain effects were achieved may be wrong as the author was unable to contact the people actually responsible for creating the effects.




Definitions (01-03)
Fire Spitting (04-07)
Contents Under Pressure... (08)
THE XENA SCROLLS (09-12)
A NECESSARY EVIL (13)
THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN, THE DELIVERER, and MATERNAL INSTINCTS (14-19)
Catapults and Roman Napalm (20-25)
Things Blow Because... (26)
Biography



Why Things Blow Up On Xena: Warrior Princess




Definitions

[1] We all know why we are here, right? We want to know why things blow-up on Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP). I made the mistake of attempting some survey/research with the members of sonofabacchae@onelist.com and discovered that I need to be more precise in my definition of "blow-up", to wit?

[2] From Merriam Webster's online Dictionary:

Main Entry: exúploúsion

Pronunciation: ik-'splO-zh&n
Function: noun
Etymology: Latin - explosio act of driving off by clapping, from explodere
Date: circa 1616

  1. the act or an instance of exploding (injured in a laboratory explosion)
  2. a large-scale, rapid, or spectacular expansion or bursting out or forth (the explosion of suburbia, for example, or an explosion of red hair)
  3. the release of occluded breath that occurs in one kind of articulation of stop consonants

[3] Definition number one is the one I will be addressing most often for the remainder of this article. I know there are some of you out there who say, "But things didn't blow up back then," and then you grumble about how Season Two was better. Or you say, "...why don't they blow up Joxer?" If you honestly believe that things did not blow up back then, then living on this end of the industrial revolution has made you a techno-snob. For example, grain silos are not meant to act like twelve story sticks of TNT (trinitrotoluene), but they sometimes do.


Fire Spitting

[4] The first thing I remember seeing explode on my favorite show was alcohol. Xena's bar room trick of spitting potent potables across burning brassieres is an excellent example of an elementary explosion. In reality, of course Lucy Lawless is not really spitting alcohol across that torch for a nasty reason known as "trace back". Trace back occurs when the stuff you're spitting burns faster than you can spit it. The flame traces back up the flow to your face. For a more detailed look at this see "Xena's Breath Of Fire", IAXS project #485 By Donald Plunkett (Whoosh! Issue 18).

Coming up next week: Juggling chain saws

Xena unleashes some mighty breath at a harpy.
[5] As for why this happens, the chemistry is simple: Alcohol (probably kerosene for staging purposes) + Oxygen + Energy of reaction = fire. It also looks very impressive and could garner you some ratings points:

Announcer: "Next time on Xena!" (Fwoosh! All over the camera).
You: "Oooo, I should watch that one".

[6] In MORTAL BELOVED (16/116) we got an interesting extension on this trick. Xena was battling with the harpies in the domain of Hades, and she set one alight by breathing on it. Instead of tumbling to the ground like an unfortunate moth, thanks to the people at Flat Earth Productions, the harpy screamed horribly and exploded. Why did that happen? Well, as near as I can figure it, it happened because the harpy was evil.

[7] That is right: evil things explode. Just look at what happened to all of those cloaked persecutors at the end of THE BITTER SUITE (58/312). Love and forgiveness made them all blow up, and blow up real good! It is a long standing tradition in movies with small budgets that bad things explode because it is cheaper than trying to melt them or have them decay before your very eyes. It is also much more satisfying. Admit it! We all get a cheap thrill when Xena blows up the baddies.


Contents Under Pressure...

[8] The next instance of exploding was in THE GREATER GOOD (21/121). Salmoneus, as Lord Seltzer, was into bottling "fizzy water" that tickled your nose. When push came to shove and the villagers had to defend themselves, projectiles accelerated by the rapidly expanding carbon dioxide from the fizzy spring water did the trick. It was also a nice slapstick moment in a fairly dark episode where Xena apparently dies for the first time.


THE XENA SCROLLS

[9] The next time we see things blow up is in THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210). I'll bet a bunch of you were thinking this would be the first one. That is what I though when I first came up with the idea for this article. In THE XENA SCROLLS, things blow up in the traditional Hollywood fashion: smudge pots to produce sudden bursts of smoke, plastic bags or balloons filled with gasoline and pure oxygen with tiny squibs (small explosive charges) taped to the outside to produce great balls of fire. There are machine guns and pistols aplenty, and apparently the production crew was really happy to do this sort of thing because they thought they would never get the chance on this kind of a show.

[10] Gun powder, a.k.a. Black powder, was invented by the alchemists of the Ch'in dynasty circa 221 B.C.E. Depending on which anachronistic line of dates you wish to follow, that is well within the scope of this show as the event occurred more than a century before the life of Julius Caesar (100 - 44 B.C.E.). Not that this really matters because THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210) is supposed to have taken place in 1940.

[11] Black powder is a simple compound of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), charcoal (carbon), and brimstone (sulphur). If you want to know how they figured this out, all I can say is humans are a strange and curious species. Circa 6000 B.C.E we invented beer, and things just have not been the same since. That does not even take into account those of us who are really weird. You know the ones I mean: the ones who sniff steaming cracks in the earth to learn what gases are leaking out of them, the ones who lick the rocks to taste how much gold is in them, the alchemists, metallurgists, and geologists! But I digress. Back to the gun powder thing.

[12] Black powder worked very simply. It burned faster than anything else anyone had ever seen, and when a solid burns, it releases a gas. Just like the gas escaping the fizzy spring water and making corks fly, the gas from burning black powder propels heavier projectiles. The faster the powder burns, the faster the firework or bullet flies.


A NECESSARY EVIL

[13] In A NECESSARY EVIL (38/214) we got some more of the usual Hollywood pyro-effects as Velasca became a god and started lobbing lightning bolts at Amazonian heiresses. These blow-ups were done in two parts. First a pyro crew rigged the doomed hut in question with explosives. These explosives are really nothing more than custom designed fireworks with lots of aluminum oxide and magnesium to produce those bright glittery bits that fly out of the fireball (produced by the previously mentioned bag of gasoline technique) and make the blast look nice for the camera. The second stage was when the folks at Flat Earth got their hands on the footage and added in the cause of the explosion, a computer generated (CG) lightning bolt, to make the whole thing look even prettier.


DIRTY HALF DOZEN, THE DELIVERER, and MATERNAL INSTINCTS

[14] Flat Earth was at it again in THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303). Xena was battling the baddies in the cockles of the castle. You know the castle I mean: the one from BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (12/112), BLIND FAITH (42/218), and every other adventure that required walls and parapets. This time there was something different about the castle though. This time it was a scale model (at least parts of it were).

[15] After Lucy did what I suspect is her last fire breathing stunt for a while, which lasts nearly two seconds and nearly catches her in the face (I have frame control on my VCR. Do you?), Xena stopped up the vent for the forge, and she obviously knew what she was doing. If you cut off the supply of oxygen to a fire, it should use what is left and then extinguish itself. If burning the last of the oxygen creates a vacuum, then the stuff that was burning will retain its heat for a longer time than it normally would, but why would it explode?

[16] One possibility is that the excessive heat in a closed system would cause whatever gases were in the forge to expand until they caused a structural failure, and when the super hot materials gain access to oxygen again, they burn much faster than normal. In short, they blow up "real good". The other possibility is that blowing up the castle in this episode was a trial run for blowing up the temple of Dahak in THE DELIVERER (50/304), so any old reason was good enough just AS long as they learned what they needed to about blowing up models to make the next one look good.

[17] There are many similarities between the two scenes. In DIRTY HALF... when the actual blocks of the forge itself explode, it seems to be the exact technique and set pieces used for blowing up the altar in DELIVERER. What we get on the outside of the castle appears to be a simpler version of the techniques Flat Earth used for the temple. What we see is Xena and the gang hightailing it across the foreground as the inside of the castle is engulfed in a humongous fireball, but we know from experience that the castle is nothing more than its outer walls. All the spires and fancy exterior bits are added as the episodes call for them by matting them in later. (Note: It is possible that they use matte glass paintings, but I doubt they have the time for that). In this case the spires and fancy bits are combined with a miniature pyro effect to make it appear as though the castle is blowing its top. The doors being blown off the castle look to have been done full scale. No doubt it was a satisfying case of, "I've been staring at these things for three years. I'm sick of 'em! Blow 'em up!"

[Author's note: For another example of a test run, see the gratuitous but very funny musical bit from WARRIOR, PRIESTESS...TRAMP (55/309) as they warm up for THE BITTER SUITE (58/312).]

[18] What they learned from this test run would be the finer points of these basic rules. First, a model is smaller than the real thing, so the exploding bits travel the proportionate distances faster. To overcome this, you film the event faster than the usual 24 frames per second. If the model is half scale, you shoot at 48 fps. If it is one quarter scale, then 96 fps, and so on. You also have to adjust your lenses and aperture setting to mimic what would be the usual depth of field for that shot in real life. This is tricky stuff, more of an art than a science; and to further complicate things in THE DELIVERER (50/304) Xena and Gabrielle appear to actually be right in the explosion and its aftermath. Kudos to Flat Earth and the on set pyro people for keeping the ladies safe but still blowing them up good.

[19] With the return of Callisto in MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311) we got more of the same techniques used for Velasca in A NECESSARY EVIL (38/214). The major difference this time was that Callisto liked fire, so Flat Earth used CG-ed streams of fire instead of lightning bolts.


Catapults and Roman Napalm

[20] There is one thing left to discuss, and I suspect that it is the one thing that annoys those of you who think that things did not blow up back then. In A GOOD DAY (73/405) "the powers that be" wanted to convey the total mayhem of a full scale battle between armies, and they finally had the budget to show us what Roman warfare was like. The giant catapults and stone-throwers they unveiled in that episode (previously seen in a few Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episodes) are based on designs used by Alexander the Great's engineers.

[21] The big balls of fire being thrown by these war machines could be Greek Fire, a hellish concoction of sulfur, naphtha, and quicklime. Essentially, it is napalm. Naphtha (nap'tha) is used to refer to a whole range of colorless, flammable, liquid hydrocarbons. It can be obtained through the fractional distillation of wood, coal tar, or petroleum products. There are records of it simply percolating up out of the ground in ancient Persia. It shares many characteristics with both gasoline and crude oil. All of them float on water and will burn while in contact with water, which makes them effective naval weapons. All of them are sticky, so once they are on a surface and burning, they will stay there and continue to do so. The sulfur and quicklime act to give the concoction two more nasty traits: an unbearably suffocating stench and an impenetrable smoke screen. As an added bonus, they also increase the burning temperature.

This is your wake-up call, Mister Caesar

Xena's villagers rain some fire down on the Romans.
[22] As to why it would explode on impact, those of you who were lucky enough to witness David Letterman's "Things thrown from a 5 story tower" will recall the five pound bag of flour (remember those grain silos I mentioned?) soaked in gasoline. He set the bag on fire and dropped it off the tower. Upon striking the ground, a sizable cloud of flour erupted from the bag. With increased access to oxygen the flour immediately became a fireball. If we extrapolate this to the Romans, it is likely that the sulfur and quicklime mixture was transported in bags (much easier and more flexible than large urns or jars). They could then soak them in naphtha and launch them at the enemy. Boom! Just like the flour, only worse.

[23] There is also the artistic factor. The explosions are used very dramatically in the final battle of A GOOD DAY (73/405). As Xena wades through the fray looking for Gabrielle, every unseamed stomach and slit throat is punctuated with a plume of fire in the background. Every kick and punch is counterpointed by a slow motion burst of light and sound. As Gabrielle, who had been violated by the fire of Dahak, gazes in horror about the field, it is fire they cross-fade with her face. Conflict and conflagration.

[24] There is, however, a flaw with the Greek Fire theory. Its first recorded large scale usage was by the Byzantines against the Saracen fleet in 672 C.E. So is it a YAXI (Yet Another Xena Inconsistency), or are the Romans lobbing something else around? Perhaps they accumulate the methane rich waste of the animals they use to pull the catapults. Throw in some stones for mass and some oil for easier lighting, and it would be just as nasty as any of the other compounds I have discussed, not to mention demoralizing and infectiously hazardous to the wounded. There is also the possibility that they are hurling giant flaming marshmallows at their foes. Oh sure, it's not as cute as that pillow fight at the end of A SOLSTICE CAROL (33/209), but it would make for a kinder gentler Caesar, posthumously of course.

[25] "The powers that be" apparently really like the catapults and their fire because they keep using them. They show up again in PAST IMPERFECT (77/409) and ENDGAME (88/420), and there appear to be a number of techniques used to bring them to life. The full scale catapults are used as set pieces with the actors standing around them and flaming material is placed in their buckets for show. I have no idea how far this stuff goes when they pull that lever, but obviously not far enough because, once again, Flat Earth comes into the picture. The long shots of these fire balls being launched in PAST IMPERFECT seem to be done by compositing small scale fire balls (possibly computer generated or possibly just ball bearings wrapped in kerosene soaked cotton) into the live action shots of the real catapults going through the throwing motion.


Things Blow Because...

[26] That is pretty much it. In review, things blow up on Xena because:

  1. They are evil
  2. It is dramatically effective
  3. It could garner higher ratings because everyone likes fireworks
  4. Last, but not least, because, "Yeee-haw, Rob! Ya see that one?" "D*mn nice, Steve. Think we could get 'em to do it again?"


Bibliography

http://www.infoplease.com
Desmond, Kevin. A Timetable Of Inventions And Discovers. New York: M. Evans and Company.



Biography

Ryan Dever Ryan Dever
I'm just some Xenite like the rest of you. Like most of you I have a page http://members.home.net/quoth/OTHERHEAD/default.htm and like some of you I'm owned by two cats; Charles and Biscuit.
Favorite episode: It's a tie, CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102), THE DEBT (52-53/306-307) and THE BITTER SUITE (58/312)... oh and now THE WAY (84/416) as well. Why am I so indecisive?
Favorite line: "Who do I have to hit to get a drink around here?!" Gabrielle, TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (32/208)
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: A TALE OF TWO MUSES (74/406) and IF THE SHOE FITS (80/412)

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