Vapor Chill


A short film created by throwing cups of boiling water into the outdoor air with an ambient temperature of -12°F. The resulting vapor was lit from either side with 2 fresnels with different color gels.

With record low temperatures in Chicagoland dipping to more than -15°F, a fun science trick suddenly became possible (and quickly took over social media). Quite simply, a cup of boiling water is taken into the frigid outdoor air and tossed skyward. The boiling water instantly vaporizes into a cloud of steam and ice crystals. Not one to shy away from a party, I had to give this a go.


My first two tests with this science trick were very exciting, and immediately sent my imagination into overdrive.

I was stunned with the immediacy and size of the effect caused by little more than 400ml of water. The water vaporized almost instantly in an audible “whoosh”. The creative wheels in my mind immediately started to turn. After all, how often do you get to create a massive cloud of opaque ice crystals in the open air with little more than a flick of your wrist? I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a fireworks show, of sorts, using this effect synced to music?”

Achieving this would be almost as simple as creating the chilly effect itself. Waiting for nightfall, I’d shoot the water being thrown into the air against the dark sky, with the resulting cloud being lit from either side in various colors. The video would be shot at 60 frames per second to allow me to slow down the effect, so the transition from water to vapor and ice would be visible.

I chose to shoot the water being thrown against the dark sky to achieve a black background. This meant that the camera had to be mounted low to the ground looking up at about a 45 degree angle to avoid shooting power lines and rooftops. To mark my target area while composing the camera, I used a c-stand.

The c-stand provided a marker in space on which to light, focus, and expose. With the camera locked off, I removed the c-stand and threw the water in the general area where the top of the stand had been.

Three tea kettles full of water allowed me to toss a total of 34 300ml cupfuls into the air. I tried to vary the direction I threw the water, sometimes tossing it straight at the camera, while other times tossing it from the sides near my lights. Between kettles of water, I changed the gel colors on the Arri fresnels.


Once a full tea kettle of boiling water was ready, I simply rolled the camera and repeatedly tossed cupfuls of water into the air, aiming for the spot that I pre-focused on using the c-stand.

In post, I chose a song by Jon Hopkins called “Vessel,” and edited the various clips to the music using Final Cut Pro 7. I used a combination of Motion’s Optical Flow filter as well as Cinema Tools to conform the 60p footage down to 23.98p at various speeds. Other than color grading and some mirror effects, nothing else was done to the video. I didn’t alter the color of the footage from how it was lit.

Posted in Experimental, Lighting Design, Video Production by Guy Rhodes on January 7th, 2014.

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