Andrew Jackson looks back on his role in orchestrating the Trinity Test of the Manhattan Project, emphasizing that computer-generated imagery (CG) played no part in it.
Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ features a significant amount of “hidden” visual effects work, yet even more than a month after its release, this fact remains obscure to many viewers.
Before the film’s release, headlines spread when Nolan stated that there were no computer-generated images (CGI) in ‘Oppenheimer.’ However, it’s important to note that this statement is quite distinct from asserting that the film contains no visual effects shots.
“Some individuals have misconstrued this and interpreted it as meaning that there are no visual effects, which is clearly inaccurate,” emphasized Andrew Jackson, the Oscar-winning VFX supervisor for ‘Oppenheimer,’ in an interview “Visual effects encompass a wide range of elements.” This includes both computer-generated imagery and practical effects created on the set.
One of the notable VFX moments in the film is the recreation of the Trinity Test scene, where scientists, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer (portrayed by Cillian Murphy), detonated the first atomic bomb in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. According to Andrew Jackson, who won an Oscar for his work on Nolan’s ‘Tenet,’ this was achieved by layering filmed components through digital compositing. In simpler terms, the team at Nolan’s preferred VFX company, DNEG, took filmed images like smoke and explosions and used computer software to combine them, creating the desired shots. Jackson explained, “[Nolan] didn’t want to use any computer-generated simulations of a nuclear explosion. He aimed to stay true to the film’s era and style, using practical filmed elements to convey that narrative.”
Regarding the film’s visual approach, shot in 65mm film with IMAX cameras by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Jackson revealed they didn’t aim for an exact replication of what the explosion would have looked like, nor did they pursue an overly stylized representation. Instead, they aimed for a middle ground, opting for “a loosely artistic interpretation of the concepts rather than a precise representation of the physics.”
For the practical elements, special effects supervisor Scott Fisher oversaw the filming of substantial practical explosions and other elements using a variety of lenses and cameras, including IMAX and high-speed cameras. Jackson elaborated on the largest practical explosions, saying, “They used four 44-gallon drums of fuel and then added some high explosives underneath, igniting the fuel and propelling it into the air.”
In the end, the team amassed a collection of approximately 400 distinct elements, which were utilized in the compositing process to create multiple layers.
Andrew Jackson explained, “We had elements with incredibly detailed close-ups of the burning explosion. We had a wealth of material that we could layer and construct into something that gave the illusion of a much larger explosion.”
For scenes where actors observed the explosion from a distance, Jackson described their lighting techniques, stating, “Some shots featured a practical explosion in the background, while in others, we added the explosion digitally. In some instances, we incorporated a lighting effect on the actors to simulate the flash as the explosion occurred.” Notably, underscoring Christopher Nolan’s preference for working with film, Jackson mentioned that they employed optical, not digital, color timing during postproduction.
In total, the film included approximately 200 visual effects shots, encompassing both practical effects shots and the removal of modern elements from certain locations.
Jackson also acknowledged the enduring relevance of the film’s storyline, stating, “The topic of nuclear bombs has been a concern for my generation since childhood.”
Regarding the contemporary issue of artificial intelligence, he noted a parallel, saying, “We stand at the brink of a revolution not just within our industry but across the board. I don’t think people fully grasp the magnitude of the impending changes.”