That Oppenheimer explosion…..

That Oppenheimer explosion

Contrary to Internet rumour, Christopher Nolan did not detonate an actual atomic bomb in New Mexico for that Oppenheimer explosion, just so he could film the nuclear fire and mushroom cloud of the iconic Trinity test. Instead, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema worked with special effects supervisors SCOTT FISHER (a Nolan vet who won Oscars® for Interstellar and Tenet) and ANDREW JACKSON (who also won an Oscar® for Tenet) to produce the film’s version of atomic explosion. Nolan gave them a limitation: Consistent with his aesthetic preference for practical effects, Nolan told them there could be no computer-generated imagery.

“I knew from the beginning that the Trinity test was going to be one of the most important things for us to figure out,” says Nolan. “I had done a nuclear explosion via computer graphics in The Dark Knight Rises, which worked very well for that film. But it also showed me that with a real-life event like Trinity, which was well documented using new cameras and formats developed for recording that event, computer graphics would never give you the sense of threat that you see in the real-life footage. There’s a visceral feeling to that footage. It becomes tactile, and in becoming tactile it can be threatening as well as awesome. So that was the challenge. To find what you might call analog methods to produce effects to evoke the requisite threat, awe, and horrible beauty of the Trinity test.”

That Oppenheimer explosion Jackson and Fisher began conducting experiments—smashing ping pong balls together, throwing paint at a wall, concocting luminous magnesium solutions, and more— and filming them on small digital cameras super close-up at various frame rates. “Then we’d show it to Chris,” says Fisher, “and he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s the right idea. Now figure out how to shoot it massive with IMAX® cameras.’” (That work required developing a long, fish- eyed probe lens that could be attached to IMAX® and Panavision® cameras.) How the actual atomic explosion images were created for the film remains top-secret, but it’s clear the work of making them was a Manhattan Project unto itself, and a rather fun one, too.

“Their whole unit was one, big science project,” says van Hoytema. “I was very jealous that they got to play around so much with all that kind of stuff.” Some of the techniques that Nolan’s f/x team used to produce the spectacle of nuclear fission were also used to help create the scenes that portray Oppenheimer’s inner world. Again, Nolan placed a premium on practical effects and eschewed CGI. “There’s one sense in which computer graphics is the obvious way to do it, but I didn’t feel we were going to get anything that would feel personal and unique to Oppenheimer’s character,” says Nolan. “We were able to generate this incredible library of idiosyncratic and personal and frightening and beautiful images to represent the thought process of somebody at the forefront of the paradigm shift from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics, who is looking into dull matter and seeing the extraordinary vibration of energy that’s within all things, and how it might be unleashed, and what it might bring.”

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