Christopher Nolan raised many eyebrows at the end of 2022 when he revealed that his upcoming World War II biopic – Oppenheimer (opening on the big screen on July 21) – had obtained the effect of a detonating atomic bomb without the use of CG.
This led many fans to jokingly speculate that the pioneering filmmaker with an eye for stark realism had somehow convinced Universal Pictures to purchase and detonate an actual nuclear device in the middle of the desert. Fortunately, that was not the case.
In an interview with Total movie for the June 2023 issue of the magazine (now on sale), special effects supervisor Scott R. Fisher has lifted the curtain on his sixth team with Nolan. Given the film’s grounded material, the special effects team enjoyed a much lighter workload compared to the larger than life visuals they were asked to create for previous outings like Interstellar And Principle.
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“It certainly wasn’t as rigorous with day-to-day filming,” Fisher said. “[Nolan] said: ‘There’s not as much for you on this as on the other one, but there are a couple of things we need to cover. And it was, of course, the trinity explosionand some prop builds, and elements of different things that we had throughout the movie.”
For the Trinity Test (the world’s very first atomic explosion), Fisher and his team used one of the oldest tricks in the Hollywood playbook: forced perspective. “We don’t call them miniatures; we call them ‘large natures,'” he explained. “We make them as big as possible, but we scale it down so it’s manageable. It’s about getting it closer to the camera and making it as big as possible in the environment.”
As for the pyrotechnic side of things, the intense fire was “mostly” a combination of gasoline and propane “because you get so much for your money,” Fisher said (we’ll assume the pun was very intentional). Aluminum powder and magnesium were then added to the conflagration to approximate the instantaneous blinding flash that accompanies a nuclear explosion. “We really wanted everyone to talk about that flash, that brightness. So we tried to replicate that as much as possible.”
Simulating the flash and the mushroom was just a taste of the real challenge: visualizing the fiery abstraction in Oppenheimer’s brilliant mind – “his ability to look into matter, to see and feel energy that’s there,” Nolan said. We would expect nothing less from a man whose desire to give the world an accurate representation of a black hole gave a scientific study of the real world.
“The most obvious thing to do would be to do everything with infographics,” the writer-director concluded. “But I knew it wasn’t going to achieve the kind of tactile, jagged, real nature of what I wanted… The goal was to photograph everything that appears in the film. And for the computer to be used for that what it’s best for, i.e. composing and putting ideas together; removing stuff you don’t want; putting layers of stuff together.”
Oppenheimer arrives exclusively in theaters on Friday, July 21.
Jonesing for another thriller based on true events? A Family Friend is now streaming on Peacock.