Fog, Smoke, & Haze: The Swiss Army Knives of Cinematography Tools

FogContrary to popular belief, fog machines are not just helpful tools used to set the mood at awkward middle school dances. In fact, as many of you might know, fog (or haze, but we'll get to that later) is widely used on film sets for a number of reasons, one of which is, yes, to set a specific tone, but it can also be used to pull off many different stylistic, technical, and aesthetic effects. In this helpful video, Film Riot's Ryan Connolly shows us how using fog can help you add depth to your shots, diffuse light, or simply create a creepy atmosphere befitting of a slasher film. Also, learn how to get the most out of your fog machines with a couple of cheap, DIY tricks.

The first time I ever rented a fog machine was for a B-movie style monster movie I was shooting in college. My thought was, of course, "There's a monster on the loose stalking innocent teenagers. Of course there's fog." However, it never occurred to me that using fog could've helped that production, as well as countless others by diffusing light, softening shadows and highlights, and adding depth to my shots.

Again, there are many different ways fog can help create a specific look and set a tone for your film, but it also helps to give your scene, as Connolly says in the video, a "Spielbergian vibe", because it not only diffuses light, but it carries the color of the light throughout the space you're using for your scene.

Here are a few examples of "Spielbergian" fog from, you guessed it, Spielberg movies:

Here in E.T., Spielberg uses fog to not only diffuse the light from the spaceship, but to create a dreamlike mood.

Fog is used to create an abandoned-looking atmosphere, as well as to heighten the mystery and anticipation for what could be lying in wait in this scene from Jurassic Park. (Start at the "back in business" part at 1:58.)

Spielberg's use of fog in this scene from Lincoln is wonderful, because it not only shows how subtle the look can be, but also how effective it is. You can actually see it billowing from the left side of the screen when the camera is on Lincoln, but it's use in the background for the two-shot to create depth as well as solidify the film as a period piece.

I tried to find those iconic flashlight beams from Jurassic Park (I will call them fogsabers), but was unable to come across a scene online, but thankfully Film Riot includes just such a clip in their video. Connolly touches on the many ways fog can help the look of your film, so check it out below.

Now, if you're going for that quintessential zombies-in-a-cemetary fog, here are a few things you should know. First of all, the fog that comes out of a fog machine is probably going to be too thin for that luscious, thick fog you're looking for. The main reason for this is because the machine heats the fog juice to a temperature that thins it out, which will not only allow it to dissipate quicker, requiring you to keep pumping it out, but it won't be heavy enough to withstand even the smallest amount of wind (if you're shooting outside -- in a cemetery).

One solution for this thick, heavy "movie fog" would be to use dry ice, but if that's not your bag, there is an alternative: cool down the fog that comes out of your fog machine. This simple tutorial shows you one cheap, DIY way to pull it off using a PVC pipe, ice, and a cap with holes in it.

Fog machines are usually dirt cheap, ranging anywhere from $30 to $150 or so depending on how big/small it is and where you buy it, and renting is even less expensive. (If you want to go even cheaper, you can make your own fog juice by mixing 1 part food grade glycerine and 3 parts distilled water.) However, it should be noted that fog isn't generally used on big productions, like the Spielberg flicks I mentioned above. These bigger films usually use hazers, which evenly distribute a thinner, sometimes invisible haze. It's used mostly to make light beams appear on-camera and to apply light diffusion, but these machines require a huge investment -- anywhere from $300 to the thousands. Though, I have heard that adding a little bit of water to your fog juice can dilute the solution enough to give you something haze-like.

Fog isn't the only way to pull off light diffusion, depth of field, or even fog effects (you could apply it in post if you really wanted to), and you may not even want the look it produces. (Maybe you're going for the high contrast.) But, hopefully you can go forward with a little more understanding of just how versatile fog actually is, and use it in the future to create some awesome effects!

Share your thoughts on how you implement fog in your projects in the comments below!

[via Film Riot]

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Your Comment


LOL, I loved the phrase "Cool the fog down!" in the last video. I think I'll use that next time someone has a go at me: "Cool the fog down, dude!"

May 3, 2014 at 3:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


FOG!!! Great article! Watching those examples, it really shows how subtle tricks like these add depth to a scene.

May 3, 2014 at 5:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


love that DIY heavy fog effect! great solution.

I'd say just be weary of hot lights if you're going for this. they could heat up the fog and ruin the effect if they are too hot or placed too close to the fog.

May 3, 2014 at 12:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


In the past Hollywood used Bee Smokers to get a light haze on the set. Worked great for getting shafts-of-light coming through windows, etc. About as inexpensive as you can get.

May 4, 2014 at 3:13PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Anyone know anything about the safety of inhaling fake fog?

May 12, 2014 at 10:20AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The older fog from the 80's and some of the early 90's is carcinogenic. If I remember, it isn't even allowed by SAG anymore. The Rosco Fog juice (the most common movie/theatrical smoke) is "non-toxic", and labeled as such, but being on a few super smokey sets all day (where you can't see your hand in front of your face)...I definitely feel a little crappy the next day. Light smoke is generally fine and safe.

May 14, 2014 at 7:09PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Daniel Mimura

Yeh I've also noticed that if you have a bad throat or a cough and spend some time on a very foggy set the cough gets worse.

I'd really like to know if the haze/fog/smoke is bad for microphones - anything that's gas-based shouldn't be but if it's made of vapourised liquid or particles of solid then it probably is, just like getting any moisture or dust in the mic.

February 5, 2016 at 4:22AM

Rory Smith
Sound recordist

I shot a short-film, half a year ago, in a old café. To really get an old '90s café scene, I used the fog machine a lot. We used almost 10L of fog juice for only 2 days! A hazer would have helped a lot, but would cost so much more! Just a tip if you want to make this kind of scenery for a longer period of time, you might want to make your own fog juice.

November 27, 2016 at 10:33AM, Edited November 27, 10:33AM

Daan Venmans
Director of Photography & Editor

This guy also has some great fog tips in his earlier videos.

November 28, 2016 at 4:27PM, Edited November 28, 4:27PM


Any thoughts on oil based vs water based haze machines? And does the oil based gazer effect camera sensors, lenses and mics? Does everything require a serious wipe down?

April 1, 2017 at 8:26AM, Edited April 1, 8:26AM