The Bubble Bath of Death


Up from The Cape: 22 February 2019

The writer and film director S G Collins said once that “The apparent omnipotence of special visual effects increases linearly with the date of your birth.” This was intended to counter all of the conspiracy theorists who, lacking any knowledge of photography, lighting, video, perspective, or logic, are content to depend on a magic “lost” quantum leap in video technology to have supposedly faked the Apollo lunar landings. The younger someone is, the more likely they are to believe that the standard of CGI available today is something we had, in one form or another, in 1969. It isn’t.

I’m old enough to remember how in the late 1960s for example, “Lost in Space” (and in fact all Irwin Allen TV shows) solved about half of its special effects problems by letting off real controlled explosions on the set. It wasn’t because CGI was so expensive or complicated; it was because it didn’t exist. Bill Mumy, an actor in Lost in Space, commented that the man at 20th Century Fox actually responsible for the real explosions, Stu Moody, liked to assure the actors who were about to experience his work in uncomfortably close proximity “Don’t worry…’ll be fine”. He always emphasised this by holding up two calming hands that were missing various bits of fingers.

Where actual explosions weren’t adequate or appropriate (i.e. if the effect needed to be present for more than a couple of seconds), a lot of special effects directors reached for the next best thing; bubble bath. If it wasn’t bubble bath, it was industrial foam, which for practical purposes looked pretty much the same as bubble bath on-camera, even if it wasn’t something you’d want to settle back into after a long hard day.

From a director’s standpoint the attractive thing about foam (or the bubble bath of death as I came to know it), is that it was like a magician’s cloth thrown over a table. It covered actors while they crawled away off the set. Then the foam could be blown away and reveal……nothing! To anyone with an I.Q. of 12, or the mental age of about four, it appeared that someone had just been dissolved, or had vanished. I’ve always been a realist, so while I understood this was a ridiculous piece of subterfuge even when I was a child, I let it go because I didn’t really care. Most of the stories in the TV I watched were even more unbelievable than the special effects, so there didn’t seem to be much point in worrying about the plausibility of it all excessively.

I had a direct and unexpected encounter with the bubble bath of death in my kitchen one day. For reasons now lost to me (normally a signpost to them having been idiotic), I’d substituted washing-up liquid for washing tabs in my washing machine. I know when I made the substitution I wasn’t at all worried about it. It’s an interesting reprise of Stu Moody’s “Don’t Worry……it’ll be fine.” In this case instead of missing bits of my fingers, I must have been missing bits of my brain. Washing-up liquid is extremely concentrated. A little of it goes a very long way. I’ve a vague recollection of squirting it about liberally all over the washing, adding even more squirts because in my state of ignorance and delusion, I genuinely believed that “it’ll be fine.” I don’t know how many epitaphs have included those words. It’s probably quite a high number.

About fifteen minutes after the fateful start of the washing cycle, I thought it had “gone a bit quiet” in relation to the noises I was accustomed to hearing when the machine was running. I could hear something, but it sounded as if it were coming from very much father away than usual. Unless the machine had developed a Triffid-like ability to uproot itself and go for a walk, something was wrong. Curious, and perhaps with a seed of apprehension beginning to grow within me, I thought it might be prudent to check.

Upon entering the kitchen I saw a solid mass of whiteness that looked as if it had the density of concrete filling the machine’s circular window. Worse, an evil looking wall of foam was advancing silently across the kitchen floor like a new ice-age. It edged towards me in short staccato jolts, fed by the belching heartbeat of more foam discharging from the detergent drawer as the drum chugged around in an eerie silence. Situations like this call for quick thinking, and this one was a no-brainer. I switched off power to the machine and stood in the foam up to my knees wondering where to start to resolve this.

Normally I can get an impressive head of foam from a bowl of water with a short squirt of washing up liquid in it. Looking at it objectively, there must have been about a fifth of a bottle soaked into the clothes in the machine. Water and twenty minutes worth of relentless mechanised agitation had created this entirely predictable disaster. As I stood like someone trapped in an ice-pack, the machine was off and completely silent. Now I could hear the fizzing sound of millions of tiny bubbles bursting very quietly. It sounded like something was dissolving the floor, and I almost wished it had been.

The foam had penetrated into the machine’s vitals to such an extent that when I switched it on again to see if I could do anything to start an emergency drain/spin cycle, it began shorting out the electronics. My only recourse was to unload the machine and leave it to fizz like a distant fuse overnight, with the door open in an effort to dry it out. The clothes didn’t fare any better. I left them fizzing away in the bath.

Whenever a government IT department undertakes a project that fails so massively it’s too embarrassing for them to put any positive spin on it, various “knowing” officials present themselves for a press conference. They attempt to talk confidently about “lessons learned” without anything even approaching conviction. They smile a lot in that abrupt way chimps do when they’re frightened or agitated (though they draw the line at falling off their chairs or cupping themselves repeatedly on the head). These fools are justifiably roasted and ridiculed when that happens. That night there was something like it happening in my head. I won’t go into detail about the comments from my mental press corps, but most of them were words of one syllable, and I was inclined to agree. Not my finest hour.