Published: March 1, 2015 By

liquid nitrogen at concert

Goodbye, Liquid Nitrogen

October 1982. Los Angeles. Ghouls rise from a fog-fingered graveyard and join a zombified Michael Jackson in one of history’s most iconic bits of choreography in the watershed “Thriller” video, a mini-horror flick built around the eponymous hit song.

All that fog crawling through the tombstones looks deliciously creepy. But to special-effects hand Jim Doyle (Thtr’78) and crew, it was also “an expensive pain in the ass.”

“We used tons of liquid nitrogen, which froze the set solid for 20 hours,” says Doyle, who later won an Academy Award in technical achievement. “The guys had a terrible time breaking it apart. I thought, ‘There has got to be an easier way to do that.’”

Doyle went home determined to invent a theatrical fog machine that would neither freeze a set nor choke performers. Months later, he introduced a prototype on the set of the TV show Kids, Inc.

His “dry fogger” blasts cold, dry nitrogen over a hot-water source in a small cloud chamber. The nitrogen attracts molecular water, condenses it into tiny droplets and vents cool, dry fog.

Doyle arrived at a formula allowing him to build dry foggers on any scale.

“This device provides an atmosphere at 100 percent relative humidity, so it is wringing all the fog possible per unit of [nitrogen],” he says. “The bigger the machine, the more efficient and controllable it becomes. Theoretically one could make one the size of a semitrailer.”

Later he met a props assistant for shock rocker Alice Cooper.

“He wanted to have dancers lying in the fog for four to six minutes,” Doyle says.

Cooper’s producer, Joe Gannon, fronted money for a machine that could fog a large stage, which Doyle delivered in time for the Santa Barbara opening of Cooper’s 1986 “Nightmare Returns” tour.

“That was the first one,” says Doyle, 59, who also created Freddy Krueger’s blade-fingered glove for the Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

Once operated manually and now automated, the technology became and remains the industry standard. It has been used in countless films, by musicians as varied as Alabama and Janet Jackson, and in major opera and Broadway productions, such as The Lion King. Doyle received the 1992 Academy Award for the dry fogger’s use in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2.

Today Doyle designs high-tech water features for Los Angeles-based WET Design. He was lead engineer on the fire-and-water cauldron for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and he designed the fountain for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He’s created dream-sequence effects for Le Rêve at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel and a pool in the University Theatre for CU’s 2014 production of Metamorphoses.

“Water, fire, fog, smoke, ice,” Doyle says, “I do it all.

© Karpov Sergei/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis