How ‘Oppenheimer’ Pulled Off an Atomic Bomb Explosion Without CGI: A Giant Aquarium, Balloons and More

Instead of relying on visual effects, Christopher Nolan opted to recreate the Test Trinity without using them for his latest feature “Oppenheimer.” Similarly, in “Tenet,” his 2020 film, Nolan blew up a Boeing 747 without the use of visual effects.

According to Hoyte van Hoytema, the cinematographer, “We didn’t actually detonate a real atomic bomb, instead we used trickery to create the illusion of an explosion with a similar size to an actual explosion.”

The first-ever successful detonation of an atomic bomb was captured in a ten-minute sequence, in which many experiments were combined. It was given to Nolan to do in-camera. “We’re suckers for this absolute depth of resolution that IMAX gives us,” says van Hoytema. However, when you have to scan it and go into VFX, it loses half of its resolution in that moment.

Their objective was to maintain the caliber of the film inventory.

Despite not using VFX, Jackson Andrew, the supervisor of visual effects, and Scott Fisher, the supervisor of special effects, closely worked with Hoytema van and Nolan to see how a number of experiments could be played out in the scene.

“We experienced instances of items colliding and crashing into each other, like ping-pong balls, or witnessed objects rotating. We utilized illuminated metallic balloons that were internally lit. We released silver particles into the mix. We constructed aquariums with electricity incorporated. We conducted various scientific experiments,” Van Hoytema explains.

D.P. Recalls that the playground was like a giant for all of us. We had underexposure, overexposure, color negative, wide negative, short shutter speeds, and long shutter speeds.

On the screen, the collaboration showcased how Nolan and van Hoytema would appear with every trial. There still lingers an enigma as to how the team and Hoytema van How managed to achieve such a mind-blowingly stunning moment.

We slowly followed the specific directions in order to sequence all of these functions. My guidance, as well as Chris’s guidance, served to push us in certain directions. The Test Trinity was an experiment in science that was made up of miniatures that were cobbled together, resulting in something that came together.

The sequence in the film took several weeks to build up, as it explains Van Hoytema’s fragmented and cross-cutting approach to depicting a group of people from all over the country who, under the guidance of Oppenheimer, put their energy together and culminate in a final bang into the project. “It adds,” says the immense group of people.

Van Hoytema clarifies, “The focus was predominantly on the internal thoughts and emotions of the character, as well as the subtle expressions conveyed through his eyes. It was crucial for us to immerse ourselves in his perspective and develop this aspect consistently throughout the narrative.” Van Hoytema highlights that his objective in this particular project was to portray the sense of closeness and personal connection, given that the story is presented from Oppenheimer’s standpoint. Renowned for his ability to capture expansive panoramic views.

However, the confirmation hearings of Lewis Strauss were another story, played by Robert Downey Jr., Where Hoytema and Nolan chose to integrate white and black, it was a separate way to experience the color of the stuff from Strauss’ perspective, says D.P.

The cinematographer went to Kodak and asked if the manufacturer could supply the film that Exist did not have in stock. “They came out with test rolls for us to run through our camera,” says Van Hoytema.

We had never seen anything like it before, and it was just incredibly amazing. “I remember sitting in the cinema, watching the first test results of our white and black film,” says Hoytema.