The day I met Steve Tolin, his hands were stained with blood.

“We slit somebody’s neck last night,” he chuckles. “It was awesome.”

Tolin is vague on the details; he doesn’t want to upset his clients. It’s the same reason he wouldn’t let me take photos of the severed heads piled neatly on a workbench in his new Point Breeze studio.

Tolin runs his own special effects, design and fabrication studio, Tolin FX. He’s been contracted to work on a television series filming in town, and divulging whose head gets chopped off (or whose throat gets slit) could spoil an entire season of the show before it airs.

“I’ve tried really hard not to get pigeonholed as a blood-slinger,” says Tolin, “but a lot of my bread and butter has been either horror or action stuff. More and more I’m known for blood effects.”

Tolin, 36, has been in the special effects and fabrication business since 1999, the year before he graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He possesses a gentle demeanor, befitting a father of two young daughters, and an uncanny resemblance to Simon Pegg.

Over the years, Tolin and his small crew have made props, costumes, make-up effects and other custom creations for local productions of all sizes, including The Dark Knight Rises and Jack Reacher. He has co-produced his own science fiction action-adventure/creature-comedy, It Came from Yesterday. And in 2013, he was a contestant on Syfy’s special effects make-up reality show Face Off.

“I’m not a big proponent of real, hardcore horror,” says Tolin. “What I’m interested in is the simulation of violence to evoke sympathy or empathy,” he says, citing Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.

On the flip side, Tolin also has an interest in using over-the-top violence as levity. “When there’s too much of it,” he says, “you’re able to help people look at their own mortality in a unique way, and it’s funny to them and it’s not horrific.”

In 2007, Tolin was recruited to create effects for the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre’s version of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a black comedy/satire where characters die in Hamlet-ian proportions. The unique demands of the production led Tolin to design a wearable, non-explosive bullet hit mechanism that performers could trigger themselves and wear for long periods of time.

Some of SquibFX's non-explosive bullet hit rigs. Photo by Brian Conway.
Some of Squib FX’s non-explosive bullet hit rigs. Photo by Brian Conway.
Some of Squib FX’s non-explosive bullet hit rigs. Photo by Brian Conway.

“Theater has to be consistent and reliable,” he says. “The only way that effect had been approached for that show previously had been to build effects, like blood sprayers, into the set.”

Since then, Tolin’s non-explosive rigs have increased in popularity to the point that he launched a spin-off company last year, Squib FX, to supply demand. The rigs—cleverly named after famous action characters and directors, hence “The Bourne” and “The Tarantino”—use compressed air and tubing to create a gunshot effect that traditionally would require the use of a small blasting cap, or squib, placed directly on the actor to propel fake blood out of a bag.

Not only is Tolin’s pneumatic system safer, it also costs much less. Traditional squibs requires special supervision, licenses and even an on-site fire marshall—all of which makes them cost-prohibitive for smaller production budgets. This precludes most amateur and aspiring filmmakers from using squibs to inject an element of realistic violence into a climatic scene.

Squib FX currently has distributors in the UK, Australia, Brazil, and the United States. “Our pitch is that we’re making the best non-explosive bullet hits in the world,” says Tolin, while also mentioning that his rigs do not necessarily have to sling blood to create a lasting impression.

“One of the first gigs that we did in this space was for Anti-Flag’s new video, ‘Brandenberg Gate,’ and they had flowers and glitter and holi powder flying through the air, all from our non-explosive bullet hit rigs.”

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.