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'Oppenheimer': No CGI For Explosion Shots, But at What Cost to The Environment?

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

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After much anticipation, Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer finally hit the big screens on 21 July and opened to exceptionally good reviews. But let's talk about something that seems to have slipped under the radar in all the fanfare surrounding the film – the potential environmental damage caused by it.

Based on the life of J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, Nolan's latest created quite a buzz for his "ground-breaking" decision to practically mimic the Trinity Test, the world's first-ever atomic explosion, without the use of CGI.

But have you ever stopped to consider what goes on behind the scenes of these thrilling, explosive sequences? Let us take you through.

'Oppenheimer': No CGI For Explosion Shots, But at What Cost to The Environment?

  1. 1. Filming Explosions in Cinema

    Big explosions in films have always been a crowd-pleaser. The spectacle can be exhilarating to watch on the big screen. From legendary action films to stunning war classics, explosions have brought some of the most memorable moments to the big screen.

    • Typically, explosions in films are achieved through the use of controlled pyrotechnics, which mimic the effects of real detonations.

    • Pyrotechnics is a blanket term for special effects tools used in the film industry since the 1900s.

    • Any fire-related effect that you see in the films falls under it, including bomb explosions, demolitions, combusting materials, fire ignitions and even fireworks.

    For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

    A still from behind-the-scenes of Spectre.

    (Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

    In 2015, James Bond's Spectre set a Guinness World Record for the largest ever explosion staged for a film stunt.
    • The shot required 2,224 gallons of fuel and 73 pounds of explosives, equivalent to a total yield of 68.47 tonnes of TNT.

    • In 2019, the franchise's last installment, No Time To Die, broke the record with a total of 136.4 kg of TNT equivalent to shoot the climactic ending.

    However, what many don't realise is that the filming of these scenes can come at a significant cost, both financially and ecologically.

    Expand
  2. 2. This is Not a First for Nolan

    For Christopher Nolan, realism is key. This is not the first time the director has used practical effects to create explosions without using any computer graphics.

    For context, the filmmaker blew up an actual Boeing 474 for Tenet and set up an entire snowy alpine fortress on fire for Inception.

    For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

    (L to R) Stills from Tenet and Inception.

    (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

    Coming back to Oppenheimer, Nolan shared in an interview with Collider, "I don't want to use computer graphics because they tend to be inherently safe. They don't give you that threat of things in the real world. So the crew worked on all methods of doing things."

    "So, we certainly did have a lot of very large explosions on set, but none of them were of the atomic variety. I can't say what it cost, no," the director added.

    Nolan also revealed that he re-created Los Alamos in New Mexico with his team in "extraordinary harsh weather" but did not use CGI.

    For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

    Christopher Nolan behind-the-scenes of Oppenheimer.

    (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

    Expand
  3. 3. But How Did Nolan Film the Nuclear Explosion Without CGI?

    Oppenheimer's Special Effects Supervisor Scott R Fisher revealed that they used one of the oldest tricks in Hollywood to mimic the nuclear explosion on screen: forced perspective.

    • Forced perspective is a technique of employing optical illusion to make objects look bigger, smaller, farther, or closer than they are.

    • It manipulates human visual perception by examining the correlation between scaled objects and the perspective point of the camera or spectator.

    For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

    A still from Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

    (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

    Explaining how the trick worked for Oppenheimer, Fisher told Total Film Magazine:

    "We don't call them miniatures; we call them 'big-atures'. We do them as big as we possibly can, but we do reduce the scale so it's manageable. It's getting it closer to the camera, and doing it as big as you can in the environment. We really wanted everyone to talk about that flash, that brightness. So we tried to replicate that as much as we could."
    Scott R Fisher
    • According to Fisher, the intense blaze in the explosion sequence was "mostly" a combination of gasoline and propane.

    • It was then mixed with Aluminium powder and magnesium to create the blinding flash.

    Nolan revealed to Empire, "Some on a giant scale using explosives and magnesium flares and big, black powder explosions of petrol, etc. And then some absolutely tiny, using interactions of different particles, different oils, different liquids."

    Well, that sounds not so eco-friendly. Does it?
    Expand
  4. 4. Here's How It Is Harming the Environment

    Explosives can have unintended consequences, even in controlled settings. According to Reliefweb, any small- to large-scale explosion can lead to increased carbon emissions in more ways than one. Here are some points from the report:

    • Practical effects can generate a large amount of waste during production, be it debris from collapsing sets or pyrotechnic materials used in explosions.

    • These materials often end up in landfills and contribute to land and soil pollution.

    • A big-scale explosion can also cause poisons to leach into rivers.

    For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

    (L to R) Poison in rivers; soil contamination; air pollution; land pollution.

    (Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

    • The resources required to create and maintain these practical effects require a significant amount of water usage and energy consumption for powering large-scale mechanical props.

    • The transportation of heavy props and equipment requires fuel-burning vehicles that also emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

    • Practical effects often involve dangerous stunts and risky situations that put both actors and crew members' safety at risk.

    Expand
  5. 5. The Film Industry Is Already a Big Polluter

    As per a report by The Guardian, the British Film Institute (BFI), in their 2020 landmark study, called for the film industry to step up attempts to address its environmental impact. The study was produced in collaboration with the BAFTA-led consortium behind the carbon calculator Albert.

    • It gathered data from 19 tentpole productions in the US and the UK related to two different production companies and interviews with 50 people from across the industry.

    • The study revealed that big-budget blockbusters produce 2,840 tonnes of carbon dioxide, a sum equal to what 3,700 acres of forest would consume in a year.

    For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

    Cillian Murphy in a still from Oppenheimer.

    (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

    • The report found out that 51 percent of the emissions were related to transport – 30 per cent of that accounted for air travel and 70 percent by land.

    • 34 per cent of the average blockbusters' CO2 emissions were from mains electricity and gas, and 15 percent from diesel generators.

    The environmental impact of the film industry is often underreported; in some cases, not reported at all. In the case of Oppenheimer, we can only imagine the impact such large-scale explosions can leave on our planet.

    Could CGI prevent all this? While some may argue that practical effects provide a tangible authenticity that CGI lacks, it's crucial to weigh this against the potential harm caused by their use.

    For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

    The official poster for Oppenheimer.

    (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

    • For Oppenheimer, CGI could presumably have largely helped in preventing the potential ecological harm caused by the use of practical effects in creating these explosions.

    • By embracing modern technology like CGI, filmmakers have the opportunity to not only minimise waste and reduce carbon footprints but also push creative boundaries in ways previously unimaginable.

    Especially, at a time when we're dealing with rapid climate change, shouldn't filmmakers strike a balance between telling a compelling story and being mindful of our environment?

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Filming Explosions in Cinema

Big explosions in films have always been a crowd-pleaser. The spectacle can be exhilarating to watch on the big screen. From legendary action films to stunning war classics, explosions have brought some of the most memorable moments to the big screen.

  • Typically, explosions in films are achieved through the use of controlled pyrotechnics, which mimic the effects of real detonations.

  • Pyrotechnics is a blanket term for special effects tools used in the film industry since the 1900s.

  • Any fire-related effect that you see in the films falls under it, including bomb explosions, demolitions, combusting materials, fire ignitions and even fireworks.

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

A still from behind-the-scenes of Spectre.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

In 2015, James Bond's Spectre set a Guinness World Record for the largest ever explosion staged for a film stunt.
  • The shot required 2,224 gallons of fuel and 73 pounds of explosives, equivalent to a total yield of 68.47 tonnes of TNT.

  • In 2019, the franchise's last installment, No Time To Die, broke the record with a total of 136.4 kg of TNT equivalent to shoot the climactic ending.

However, what many don't realise is that the filming of these scenes can come at a significant cost, both financially and ecologically.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

This is Not a First for Nolan

For Christopher Nolan, realism is key. This is not the first time the director has used practical effects to create explosions without using any computer graphics.

For context, the filmmaker blew up an actual Boeing 474 for Tenet and set up an entire snowy alpine fortress on fire for Inception.

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

(L to R) Stills from Tenet and Inception.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Coming back to Oppenheimer, Nolan shared in an interview with Collider, "I don't want to use computer graphics because they tend to be inherently safe. They don't give you that threat of things in the real world. So the crew worked on all methods of doing things."

"So, we certainly did have a lot of very large explosions on set, but none of them were of the atomic variety. I can't say what it cost, no," the director added.

Nolan also revealed that he re-created Los Alamos in New Mexico with his team in "extraordinary harsh weather" but did not use CGI.

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

Christopher Nolan behind-the-scenes of Oppenheimer.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

0

But How Did Nolan Film the Nuclear Explosion Without CGI?

Oppenheimer's Special Effects Supervisor Scott R Fisher revealed that they used one of the oldest tricks in Hollywood to mimic the nuclear explosion on screen: forced perspective.

  • Forced perspective is a technique of employing optical illusion to make objects look bigger, smaller, farther, or closer than they are.

  • It manipulates human visual perception by examining the correlation between scaled objects and the perspective point of the camera or spectator.

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

A still from Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

Explaining how the trick worked for Oppenheimer, Fisher told Total Film Magazine:

"We don't call them miniatures; we call them 'big-atures'. We do them as big as we possibly can, but we do reduce the scale so it's manageable. It's getting it closer to the camera, and doing it as big as you can in the environment. We really wanted everyone to talk about that flash, that brightness. So we tried to replicate that as much as we could."
Scott R Fisher
  • According to Fisher, the intense blaze in the explosion sequence was "mostly" a combination of gasoline and propane.

  • It was then mixed with Aluminium powder and magnesium to create the blinding flash.

Nolan revealed to Empire, "Some on a giant scale using explosives and magnesium flares and big, black powder explosions of petrol, etc. And then some absolutely tiny, using interactions of different particles, different oils, different liquids."

Well, that sounds not so eco-friendly. Does it?
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Here's How It Is Harming the Environment

Explosives can have unintended consequences, even in controlled settings. According to Reliefweb, any small- to large-scale explosion can lead to increased carbon emissions in more ways than one. Here are some points from the report:

  • Practical effects can generate a large amount of waste during production, be it debris from collapsing sets or pyrotechnic materials used in explosions.

  • These materials often end up in landfills and contribute to land and soil pollution.

  • A big-scale explosion can also cause poisons to leach into rivers.

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

(L to R) Poison in rivers; soil contamination; air pollution; land pollution.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

  • The resources required to create and maintain these practical effects require a significant amount of water usage and energy consumption for powering large-scale mechanical props.

  • The transportation of heavy props and equipment requires fuel-burning vehicles that also emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

  • Practical effects often involve dangerous stunts and risky situations that put both actors and crew members' safety at risk.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

The Film Industry Is Already a Big Polluter

As per a report by The Guardian, the British Film Institute (BFI), in their 2020 landmark study, called for the film industry to step up attempts to address its environmental impact. The study was produced in collaboration with the BAFTA-led consortium behind the carbon calculator Albert.

  • It gathered data from 19 tentpole productions in the US and the UK related to two different production companies and interviews with 50 people from across the industry.

  • The study revealed that big-budget blockbusters produce 2,840 tonnes of carbon dioxide, a sum equal to what 3,700 acres of forest would consume in a year.

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

Cillian Murphy in a still from Oppenheimer.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

  • The report found out that 51 percent of the emissions were related to transport – 30 per cent of that accounted for air travel and 70 percent by land.

  • 34 per cent of the average blockbusters' CO2 emissions were from mains electricity and gas, and 15 percent from diesel generators.

The environmental impact of the film industry is often underreported; in some cases, not reported at all. In the case of Oppenheimer, we can only imagine the impact such large-scale explosions can leave on our planet.

Could CGI prevent all this? While some may argue that practical effects provide a tangible authenticity that CGI lacks, it's crucial to weigh this against the potential harm caused by their use.

For 'Oppenheimer', Christopher Nolan used practical effects to mimic the Trinity Test on the big screen.

The official poster for Oppenheimer.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

  • For Oppenheimer, CGI could presumably have largely helped in preventing the potential ecological harm caused by the use of practical effects in creating these explosions.

  • By embracing modern technology like CGI, filmmakers have the opportunity to not only minimise waste and reduce carbon footprints but also push creative boundaries in ways previously unimaginable.

Especially, at a time when we're dealing with rapid climate change, shouldn't filmmakers strike a balance between telling a compelling story and being mindful of our environment?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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