Special Effects

special effects

A variety of special effects can be found in performing arts productions. The list is extensive and includes, but is not limited to, atmospheric smoke, fog, and haze; confetti; snow; foam; lasers; strobe lighting; pyrotechnics; fire; explosives; pits; trap doors; changes in elevation; flying and rigging performers and other objects; and suspended items above the audience.

Special effects pose hazards that increase the risk of personal injury and property damage; therefore, the use of designated special effects may need to be reviewed and approved by the Campus Risk Manager, the Campus EH&S Office, and in some cases the Campus Fire Marshal. In addition, the Performing Arts Code of Safe Practices Matrix identifies the applicable Performing Arts Codes of Safe Practices you are required to read for special effects operations.

Atmospheric Smoke, Fog, and Haze

Smoke is an atmospheric effect composed of solid particulate produced by combustion, where fog or haze is composed of liquid droplets. Smoke is produced using pyrotechnic materials, such as white or color smoke cartridges, or other flammable substances. Fog or haze can be produced using a variety of commercially available machines using glycol, glycol/water mixtures, water, mineral oil, or dry ice. The use of the equipment to produce these special effects can result in operator injury from chemical exposure, fire, or explosive discharge. Train all operators prior to permitting them to work with the chemicals, equipment, and devices that produce these special effects.

Many people are sensitive to smoke or the airborne constituents of smoke, fog, or haze equipment. When smoke, fog, or haze is approved for use in a production, warnings must be posted at the front of the house, at entrance doors to the theater, and in the program. As an example, the following communication could be posted: “WARNING: Synthetic fog is used during this performance.”

The use of atmospheric smoke, fog and/or haze may change a non-hazardous confined space into a hazardous confined space. Consult with your Campus EH&S Department prior to using atmospheric smoke, fog, or haze. For more information on confined space entry and its hazards, see the Set Construction chapter of this manual and consult your Campus Confined Space Entry Program and the Code of Safe Practice regarding confined space entry.

Laser and Strobe Lights

Laser and strobe lights can induce seizure in some people with epilepsy or photosensitivity. When laser and/or strobe lights are approved for use in a production, warnings must be posted at the front of the house or entrance doors to the theater and in the program. As an example, the following communication could be posted: “WARNING: Laser and/or strobe lights are used during this performance.”

Class 2 Lasers – Standard Laser Pointers

Some laser lights have the potential to cause eye damage if a person was to stare at the light, and some lasers can cause skin burns if too strong or too close. Consult with your Campus Risk Manager and the Campus Laser Safety Officer prior to using laser lights in the production. Only Class 2 lasers may be used. Approved laser lights must meet requirements set forth by the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Center for Devices and Radiological Health. Only employees trained to do so may operate the laser lights. Inform all performers and crew in advance, and educate them regarding the hazards and safety precautions associated with the use of lasers and strobe lights.

The use of laser lights in outdoor theaters can present a threat to aircraft operators. Therefore, the use of laser lights in outdoor theaters is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained in writing from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Open Flame, Pyrotechnics & Explosives

The use of open flame, pyrotechnics, or explosives can result in tragedy. Consequently, the use of open flame and pyrotechnics is discouraged and may only be used when approved by the Campus Risk Manager and Campus Fire Marshal. The use of explosives is prohibited. Fire permits are required in most jurisdictions for the use of open flame in an assembly area and for the use of fireworks and pyrotechnics. Contact the Campus Fire Marshal at least four weeks in advance of the performance for assistance in obtaining the required fire permit.

Open Flame 

Open flames include candles, lanterns, camp stoves, cigars, cigarettes (herbal, tobacco, and vegetable based), pipes, incense, and basically anything else that is burning. Contact the Campus Fire Marshal when planning to use an open flame in a production. Provide the specifics of the scenarios and obtain written permission for its use from the Fire Marshal. Once approved, follow the directions provided by the Fire Marshal. These directions may include:

  1. Maintain two stage crew members with fire extinguishers in hand (one on each side of the stage) whenever an open flame is present. 
  2. Maintain buckets of moist sand on either side of the stage for the immediate extinguishment of smoking materials (cigars, cigarettes, pipes). 
  3. Empty any ashtray props into the moist sand buckets as soon as they are removed from the stage and again at the end of each performance or rehearsal. 
  4. Never permit smoking back stage, in the dressing rooms, in the audience area, or in the lobby. The University of California is a smoke and tobacco free system. Consult your local Campus smoke and tobacco free resources for additional information. 
  5. Use flickering lights (theatrical) in place of candles whenever possible. 
  6. Maintain a wall-mounted fire blanket. 


All use of pyrotechnic devices before a proximate audience in California must meet the requirements found in the California Health and Safety Code, Title 19, under the jurisdiction of the California State Fire Marshal (CSFM); by reference, Title 19 includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 27 and the Department of Transportation (DOT), CFR, Title 49, which regulate pyrotechnic materials nationally, NFPA Standard 1126 and any local municipal requirements. In addition, the State of California requires the user of pyrotechnic material to hold a current license issued by the California State Fire Marshal’s Office. The appropriate license for theater use is the “Special Effects First Class.”

If the use of pyrotechnics is desired, a written plan must be submitted to the Campus Risk Manager and Campus Fire Marshal for approval. The plan must include:

  1. Name of the person in charge of or sponsoring the production 
  2. Name of the campus venue to be used 
  3. Dates and times of the production 
  4. Name of the pyrotechnic operator(s) who will be firing the pyrotechnics 
  5. Photocopies of the current pyrotechnic licenses held by the pyrotechnic operator(s) 
  6. Names and ages of all assistants who will be present 
  7. Certificate of insurance, endorsement of the University as an additional insured, and a copy of the insurance policy when the venue is leased or otherwise used by an outside entity 
  8. Diagram of the venue that shows: a. each location from where the pyrotechnics will be fired b. the fallout radius for each pyrotechnic device used c. the lines delineating where the audience will be restrained d. the location where the pyrotechnics will be assembled 
  9. Description of the storage location and measures taken to secure the pyrotechnic materials and devices 
  10. Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for the pyrotechnic materials 
  11. Certification statements that performers in the fallout area wear costumes that are made of inherently flame- retardant materials or that the materials have been treated in accordance with State Fire Code requirements to be flame retardant 
  12. Certification statements that the set, scenery, and rigging materials are inherently flame-retardant or have been treated in accordance with State Fire Code requirements to be flame retardant 
  13. The designation of at least two fire watch attendants. 

 Once a permit is obtained from the Fire Marshal, a demonstration of the pyrotechnic effect must be conducted for the fire officials.


No use of explosives is allowed.

Snow, Confetti & Foam 

Artificial snow may be made from chemical mixes, shredded paper, or plastic. Chemically produced snow may pose hazards such as skin and eye irritation or internal ingestion risks. Check the SDS for any warnings and safe use directions, and share these warnings and directions with the performers and crew.

Shredded paper, shredded plastic, or foam may be used as confetti or artificial snow. These materials can produce dust that can be a fire hazard, and/or result in eye or respiratory irritation.

  1. Never use these materials when an open flame or other ignition source is present. 
  2. Provide dust masks to crews assigned to clean up the material. 
  3. Never reuse disbursed material, as it can become contaminated with moisture or other debris from the floor. 
  4. Clean up the disbursed material immediately following each performance or rehearsal. 
  5. Dispose of the material in closed metal containers. 
  6. Use flame-proofed materials when possible. 

 Pits, Trap Doors & Changes in Elevation

Pits, trap doors, and changes in elevation (stairs, ladders, etc.) pose trip/fall hazards. To reduce the risks of trip/fall incidents:

  1. Mark changes in elevation, including the edge of the stage, with phosphorescent tape or LED lights as appropriate. 
  2. Inspect ladders and stairs for stability prior to each performance and rehearsal. 
  3. Lock trap doors in place when not in use. 
  4. Lock pits in place when not in use. 
  5. Use barricades and other signs to restrict under-stage access to pits and trap door operations to authorized crew and performers. 

Temporary fall protection measures may be required during rehearsals around open traps, elevated stage platforms, or at the leading edges of the stage or orchestra pit. Identify these hazards during the production planning process and install temporary rails or create a controlled access zone to prevent individuals from falling into or off of these features. Consult the Code of Safe Practices on trigger heights and controlled access zones for additional information.

Flying & Rigging Performers and Other Objects 

Flying and rigging performers and other objects poses a hazard to the performers and crew below. It also poses a hazard for the performers being flown. Contact the Campus Risk Manager for approval when planning to fly any performers in a production. Use the services of a company with a professional technical engineer with suitable experience in rigging performers and flying overhead objects.

Suspended Items Above the Audience

If an unusual item or particularly challenging items are to be suspended above an audience, contact the Campus Risk Manager for approval. Examples of these situations might include when planning to suspend very heavy or large items above the audience. Follow the rules for rigging set pieces and consider contracting with an outside company if this is beyond the normal scope of your rigging operations.

Managing Chemical Waste

The chemicals used to generate some special effects may result in the generation of hazardous waste. Dispose of waste as directed by the product manufacturer and in accordance with your Campus Hazardous Waste Management Program. You can contact the EH&S Department for more information and guidance regarding hazardous waste management. They will provide guidance regarding:

  • Proper storage of the waste until it is collected 
  • Proper labeling of the waste containers 
  • Special handling requirements based on the hazard characteristics of the waste