One of the most hyped movies of the year is hitting theaters with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, and, of course, the crowning scene is the incredibly lifelike recreation of the world’s first test of an atomic bomb. Led by Cillian Murphy in the titular role, Oppenheimer tells the story of the Manhattan Project and the secret race by a team of U.S. scientists to be the first in the world to build an atomic bomb to end WWII. It’s harrowing, it’s tense, it’s at times devastating, and it plays more like a psychological thriller than a biopic.

Nolan is famous for his use of practical effects where most directors would use CGI, and that’s still the case with this movie. The one thing that could not be recreated exactly practically, of course, is the infamous Trinity Test itself, where Oppenheimer and his team detonated the first test-run of an atomic bomb. It changed the world forever, most would say for the worse, and the scene needed to be as soul-shaking and impactful as the real explosion itself. If building the world’s first atomic bomb was scientific magic, then Nolan’s recreation of it was a different kind of magic in its own right. Here’s how Oppenheimer pulled it off.

The Success Of Oppenheimer Hinged On The Trinity Test Scene

Nolan knew that if they couldn’t get this scene right, then none of it mattered. The beauty, the horror, the dread, the anticipation, the tension, it all had to be there. Understand: at the time Oppenheimer and his team of scientists pushed the button, they feared there was a very small chance they could literally light the planet’s atmosphere on fire. That sort of tension and awe had to be conveyed to the screen. Nolan also knew it couldn’t be captured in one single image, like the iconic black-and-white still photos of a mushroom cloud we’ve come to associate with the Trinity Test.

“There was a definite feeling of what we are seeing is both beautiful and dangerous, in equal measure”, he said in an interview with IGN. “And that’s what we had asked for. So we always knew that the sequence would be a collage rather than one iconic shot. If there is an iconic shot, I think it’s the profile of Oppenheimer seeing it.”

CGI Simply Couldn’t Create The Feel Oppenheimer’s Atomic Bomb Needed

There was, however, one giant problem: CGI couldn’t create the sense of menace and chaos that the Trinity Test detonation required. Nolan has created smaller-scale explosions practically, like the airport explosion in Tenet. He’s also used CGI to recreate huge detonations from a distance, such as in The Dark Knight Rises. The catch-22 was that he needed something that was on the scale of Dark Knight Rises while being close-up like Tenet, and he simply couldn’t do that with CGI. As Nolan explained,

“But when I came to Oppenheimer and I thought, okay, how do we portray the Trinity Test? That first atomic device being detonated. That’s not going to work because computer graphics, they’re extremely versatile, and the detail that can be achieved and the variety of imagery that can be achieved is obviously unparalleled. But the results tend to feel a little anodyne, a little safe. It’s very difficult to have computer graphics convey threat, which is why they have to be used very carefully in horror movies, for example. It’s difficult to make CG threatening.”

Nolan’s Oppenheimer Solution: Build A Bomb For Real – Sort Of

To achieve the impossible, Nolan went to his special effects supervisor, Scott Fisher, and to his visual effects production supervisor, Andrew Jackson, and explained to them what he wanted: an atomic bomb without actually detonating an atomic bomb. Fisher’s practical effects and Jackson’s visual effects worked hand-in-hand to create the scene. Everything from black black powder explosions to magnesium flares mixed with gasoline, from ping pong balls smashed together to recreate the visual of atoms smashing together at a subatomic level, to luminous paint splashed on walls was used to create the look of an actual atomic bomb detonation that felt as real and messy and dangerous as it was in real life.

And, of course, there were real explosions. Along with the subatomic visuals, Nolan and his team painstakingly recreated a full-scale replica of Los Alamos out in the New Mexico desert. Part of that included actual explosions, large-scale detonations that required rigorous safety protocols and the concentration of the entire crew on set. The work of that crew, led by Jackson’s and Fisher’s visuals, with director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema’s eye over everything, visualizing it together with Nolan, brought it to life in a way that is visceral beyond anything put on screen in recent years.

There’s a famous anecdote of what went through Oppenheimer’s mind as the Trinity Test bomb detonated. It was a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Watching the explosion in Oppenheimer, you finally fully understand why.

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