Geoff Binns-Calvey is a special effects wiz who makes everything from food to actors look all the more impressive on screen. His mechanical riggings have created the perfect pour for beer commercials and given flight to a 400-pound transvestite. In the 1990s, he helped former wrestling star Randy “Macho” Savage break through walls to sell Slim Jims.
“The crazier the project, we think of him,” Mary Langenfeld, a manager with Story production company in Chicago, said. “If there’s a challenge, he wants to take it on.”
But once in a while even Binns-Calvey hears a pitch that sounds too bizarre to be real.
In 2008, the Forest Park resident got a phone call asking for some props to be used in an upcoming movie, Baby on Board, starring Heather Graham and Jerry O’Connell. The list included an oxygen tank that would be used in a fight scene, a collapsible TV remote and – here’s where Binns-Calvey said he stumbled – “old man balls.”
Because it was a friend of his in the business, Binns-Calvey said he immediately suspected the third request was part of some joke. It was not, and he spent several hours fashioning a silicone rubber scrotum that was worn by an actor in the yet-to-be released movie.
“It’s more interesting than some guy who’s a middle manager at a bank somewhere,” Binns-Calvey said of his work.
Binns-Calvey lives with his wife and teenage daughter on the south side of Forest Park, and spends much of his time in the family’s garage. It is in this space that Binns-Calvey creates the effects that producers and directors are looking for. The job requires a fair amount of tinkering, and at first glance his cluttered workshop doesn’t reveal any connection to the movie industry or expensive photo shoots. There are wooden workbenches, hand tools and shelves packed to the gills with miscellaneous items. It is a room of rather ordinary bits and pieces that doesn’t come to life without Binns-Calvey’s imagination.
In addition to props, steam machines and controlled explosions, Binns-Calvey also uses his workshop to create art. Hanging from the walls in various stages of completion are castings of torsos and faces. It’s a medium that he’s been experimenting with for decades and he appreciates the detail the material provides – a model’s goose bumps can be captured in the cast.
“Geoff is probably one of the most delightful people to work with, both professionally and personally,” Tony D’Orio, a longtime colleague, said.
D’Orio owns his own production company in Chicago and is also a still photographer. He has worked with Binns-Calvey on various projects over the last 20 years and described him as an all-around nice guy with a knack for memorizing song lyrics.
For D’Orio, Binns-Calvey is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to mechanical effects, but his specialty is in creating the right atmosphere, he said. The two worked together on a TV commercial for Capital One that featured a Frankenstein-like lab. Binns-Calvey handled the sparks and lightning effects.
Of course, things don’t go smoothly on every shoot.
Binns-Calvey recently fashioned an air compressor into a pitching machine of sorts for a commercial featuring a Japanese beer brand. With the help of a minor league catcher appearing in the commercial, he tested the machine over and over again to make sure the baseball’s velocity was appropriate. The director wanted there to be a slight puff of dust when the ball the struck the glove.
With everything in place, the Japanese-speaking clients were brought into the room for the first take. Binns-Calvey fired up his machine and the baseball skipped off the floor, striking the catcher in the crotch.
It’s an unusual job that culls odd stories, and special effects rigging demands a wide set of skills. Mechanical engineering, chemistry, physics and art can all be part of a day’s work, he said.
“Computer programmers can work anywhere, but if you need an artificial scrotum, you can’t send to India for that,” Binns-Calvey said.