A nuclear explosion without special effects? It’s possible?
Whether you are a fan of Christopher Nolan or not, you must have heard of his latest film: the famous Oppenheimer. Released on July 19 in theaters, the feature film tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the atomic bomb. With a star-studded cast including Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., and Florence Pugh, the film was highly anticipated and achieved great success despite facing competition from Barbie, which was released on the same day.
During the film’s promotional period, there were claims that the nuclear explosion in the movie was not fake. While Christopher Nolan’s fans would have loved to praise him for pulling off an authentic nuclear explosion in the middle of a desert, the reality is more complex. This confusion arose from mixing up two English terms: CGI and VFX.
Christopher Nolan did mention in an interview that the nuclear explosion was replicated “without CGI.” However, this term refers to digital effects generated entirely by a computer, usually using a green screen and a specialized team. While CGI is a widely used technique in modern cinema, it is not the only way to create special effects (referred to as VFX). In the case of Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb, special effects were used, but not generated by a computer.
But then how did Christopher Nolan film the explosion in Oppenheimer?
Before the advent of CGI, filmmakers employed various tricks to simulate large explosions. For example, to depict a moving train exploding, they would often film a miniature version and detonate it. This technique provided a visually appealing effect on screen without causing problems with the train or related authorities. Films like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter used miniature models to maintain authenticity throughout the years.
In the case of Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan asked his special effects supervisor, Scott R. Fisher (Oscar winner for his work in TENET and Interstellar), to create the nuclear explosion as realistically as possible without using computer-generated imagery. To achieve this, Fisher produced actual explosions using gasoline and propane. By combining these elements and setting them on fire, a large-scale pyrotechnic effect was achieved. Additionally, the inclusion of aluminum powder and magnesium produced the blinding flash characteristic of a nuclear explosion.