Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how the special effects explosives known as squibs are used to simulate bullet impact.
In filmmaking, it’s often the little things that really sell a special effect. Whether we’re talking sound effects, lighting design, or the reactions of actors, every little bit counts. Even when an effect is performed in-camera, these subtle details can really take things to the next level.
For instance: if you wanted to film someone shooting a tree with a gun, how would you sell that effect? Would an audience’s immersion shatter into a million pieces if you cut between an image of someone pointing a firearm at a tree … and another image of a tree with a hole in it? Probably not. But what if you could show someone shooting a tree without having to cut away? And what if splinters, sap, and bark flew out the exit wound, emphasizing that the bullet made contact with its arboreal victim?
Well, if your predilection is for practical effects, you’re going to want to use a squib.
Despite their — let’s call it what it is — adorable name, squibs are responsible for some of the most shocking depictions of violence ever committed to film. Sonny Corleone getting gunned down in The Godfather? Squibs. That poor corporate shmuck in RoboCop who gets turned into Swiss cheese by ED-209? Squibs. The climactic ambush in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde? You guessed it: squibs.
As far as in-camera practical effects go, squibs are a cinematic staple. They can sell the hell out of physical impact. And when deployed correctly, they can facilitate some of cinema’s most memorable moments.
But how do they actually work?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
A bullet hit squib involves a remotely detonated pyrotechnic explosion. Squibs coupled with blood packs can simulate a gunshot impact on a living body.
Long story long:
At its most basic, a bullet-hit squib effect is made up of at least two parts: a tiny, often flat encapsulated explosive device (which is the actual “squib” so to speak) and an integrated detonator. This is then outfitted with a battery pack and a remote, which allows the squib (or a sequence of squibs) to be triggered by another cast or crew member. Speaking of sequences of squibs, the current record for the most squibs successfully detonated on one individual at a single time is 157.
Wired squibs also exist, though they can restrict an actor’s movement/flailing/death throes, which are an important part of the equation. Concealing squibs (and protective padding) in “dead character costumes” requires a lot of planning and collaboration between the SFX and costume departments. These devices are inserted into a weakened or scored hole in an actor’s clothing (or affixed to a prop or a set element). This pre-made hole is especially important when squibs are used on actors, as it prevents the explosion from wandering within the costume. When detonated, they give an impression of bullet impact, especially when actors jostle their bodies to simulate a reaction to each individual bullet hit.
I say “impression” because even at their most realistic, bullet-hit squibs are still dramatized compared to the real deal. And if anyone ever tries to tell you that the only purpose of squibs is to emulate realism, remind them that Paul Verhoeven exists. Bullet-hit squibs are as much of an aesthetic and stylistic opportunity as they are a gesture toward “realism.” An effect in which bloodied feathers billow out of a down jacket has a totally different feel than a dry puff of dust erupting out of the chest of a zombie. This is to say nothing of modern CGI post-production, which can be used to invisibilize visible parts of the effect and emphasize desired elements digitally. All to say: there’s a lot of artistry involved!
If you cannot afford — or do not want — to go the high-end route (traditional explosives aren’t always accessible and require extra insurance), fear not, for you have options. Namely: superglued washers combined with electric matches, rocket igniters, or even fly-fishing lines. Dick Smith’s work on The Godfather for Sonny’s execution is especially noteworthy for featuring over 100 tearaway “moles” attached to invisible lines. Another alternative in the 21st Century is the pneumatic squib, which would threaten its pyrotechnic forefathers if they weren’t so bulky and inconsistent.
While their exact invention isn’t clearly documented, it’s clear that bullet-hit squibs have been around since at least the 1940s. As Stuart Marshall Bender remarks in his 2014 essay “Blood Splats and Bodily Collapse,” one of the earliest instances of bullet-hit squibs was the 1945 World War II film Back to Bataan, which used the pyrotechnic to lend authenticity to a conflict still fresh in the minds of audiences. As Bender suggests, this borrowed prestige from the war genre is perhaps part of why the inherent violence of the bullet-hit squib was able to ingratiate itself in Hollywood in spite of the censorious Hayes Code.
That said, Hayes Code be damned, the blood squib arrived in Hollywood in 1957. A pitch-black Western starring Rod Steiger and Charles Bronson, Run of the Arrow’s inaugural use of the blood squib is disputed. Then again, if anyone was going to introduce American audiences to the blood squib we can’t think of a better option than low-budget genre genius/World War II veteran Samuel Fuller. For what it’s worth, blood squibs’ true debut was a little earlier, in Andrzej Wajda’s 1955 Polish movie Pokolenie. Ain’t it just like the Europeans to be three steps ahead of us?
As students of film history are doubtlessly aware, the Hayes Code was abolished a mere year after the release of the film commonly considered to be the beginning of the New Hollywood era: Bonnie and Clyde. And it’s no coincidence that Arthur Penn’s 1967 crime film ends with one of the most infamous squib sequences in Western film history, in which our titular lovers are ambushed and machine-gunned into a bloody pulp. With the gauntlet firmly thrown down, Sam Peckinpah upped the ante two years later with the shootout scenes in The Wild Bunch, which brought raw meat launching out of exit wounds into the equation. Thanks, Sam.
The precedent for squibs
As long as there have been commercial moving pictures, there have been guns on-screen. Indeed, the gun’s cinematic debut took place in 1894, a paltry three years after Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope. In Annie Oakley, the titular gunslinger, playing herself, performs a series of trick shots from her live show using a real firearm. Well over a century later, the 90-second showcase remains an impressive non-fiction testament to the entertainment value of marksmanship. But, as cinema matured and began to tackle more narrative subjects, the question inevitably arose: how do you simulate the impact of gunfire on film?
Somewhat unsurprisingly, early Hollywood’s answer was to simply not simulate gunfire. If you’re watching a gunfight in a film before the 1940s and you see a bullet make contact with something … that’s likely exactly what you’re seeing. Sure, blanks existed. But if you wanted to film a bullet being fired into props or scenery, you just … shot at it.
If you’re thinking to yourself: “Gosh, that sounds like a recipe for disaster,” you’re absolutely right. One of the more infamous early tragedies took place on the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 film The Captive during a set piece in which actors were instructed to fire at a door with real bullets and then use blanks for the indoor shootout. DeMille addresses the incident in his autobiography:
One of the players had neglected to make the change I had ordered from live ammunition to blank. The muzzle of his gun happened to be pointed squarely at the head of another man. And that man was dead. It was pure accident, of course. No examination of the guns could show which one had killed him since several of them had discharged their blanks at the same time. No one ever knew, officially, who had carelessly omitted to unload one of the rifles; but there was one of our soldiers who failed to appear for work at the studio again, whom no one ever saw again in Hollywood.
Regrettably, despite the modern innovation of so-called “gun safety” and despite decades of incidents similar to what took place on The Captive, live ammo on sets is still a thing. The most charitable reading is that, like DeMille before them, irresponsible filmmakers genuinely believe the real thing looks cooler and that this is more important than potential injury. If we’re feeling especially cynical, we might question whether Hollywood’s long-standing, lucrative relationship with the gun industry has anything to do with the prioritization of firearm aesthetics over on-set safety.
Before the advent of bullet-hit squibs, actors typically conveyed the act of being hit by a bullet by clutching the wounded area and collapsing. Snappy editing between a literal smoking gun and the victim, coupled with a carryover sound of the shot being fired, can get the point across effectively. By today’s standards, the pantomime feels dated. But I think we can all agree that the alternative was far, far worse.