As soon as Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” begins, we’re greeted with beautiful but violent walls of towering flame, intercut with ripples of rain in water and an IMAX-sized closeup of Cillian Murphy’s haunted face. Later, we see incandescent white discs in furious vibration, and later still, hundreds of microparticles expand and collapse with great force. These fantastical images are the impressionistic imaginings of Oppenheimer’s mind, fantasizing about the subatomic world, how it works, how it doesn’t, and how it can be controlled.
Most everyone walked into “Oppenheimer” anticipating the Trinity Test. There was the obvious, click-friendly question: How would Nolan, notorious for preferring practical effects to computer-generated imagery, pull off the first tests of the atomic bomb? Speculation thrived, wondering if Nolan would detonate a nuke––likely not––or some imaginative combination of elements from giant real-life explosives or CGI. Anticipation (and memes) went crazy.
Yet, the biggest surprise in terms of spectacle and visual effects wasn’t the detonation of the atomic bomb at Trinity––which is a stunner––but the glimpses of the subatomic world rushing behind Oppenheimer’s piercing eyes. They bring a scale to “Oppenheimer” that is both micro and cosmic, super-charging lectures and dialogue scenes with a Carl Sagan sense of awe towards our natural world. They also show how Oppenheimer possessed both the mind of an artist and a scientist, thinking in both impressionistic and physical terms, bringing us closely into his sometimes erratic stream of consciousness. In “Oppenheimer,” the visual effects aren’t just beautiful; they’re vital to putting you inside his head.
As “Oppenheimer” keeps knocking down box office milestones (among the highest-grossing biopics and R-rated movies of all time, and the third highest this year at the time of writing), I sat down for an email correspondence with Andrew Jackson, Production VFX Supervisor on “Oppenheimer,” and Giacomo Mineo, DNEG’s VFX Supervisor for the project, to ask about the unique challenges in bringing “Oppenheimer’s” incredible imagery to life, the differences between “VFX” and “CGI,” and if modernist art was as much as an influence to them as it was to Oppenheimer himself.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
When you first read the screenplay for “Oppenheimer,” and Christopher Nolan asked you to create the visual effects and Trinity Test without computer graphics, how did your process actually begin?
Andrew Jackson (AJ): I spent the first three months of the project in SFX Supervisor Scott Fisher’s workshop, working with him and his crew to develop the various simulations and effects. We wanted all the images on screen to be generated from real photography, shot on film, and preferably IMAX. The process involved shooting an extensive library of elements. The final shots ranged from using raw elements to complex composites of multiple filmed elements.
When Nolan asked you to create Oppenheimer’s visions of the subatomic world, what was the process of balancing the abstract beauty of these images with their relative scientific basis?
AJ: This was one of the biggest challenges but also one of the most rewarding aspects of working on this movie. The script describes thoughts and ideas rather than specific visual images. This was both exciting and challenging as we searched for solutions we could build and shoot that were both inspired by the ideas in the story and were visually engaging.
Giacomo Mineo (GM): Apart from the Trinity test, we didn’t have any references because, during Oppenheimer’s era, no one knew what a black hole looked like or had seen a view of the Earth from space, not to mention atoms and particles. Andrew Jackson’s extensive pre-production shooting encompassed a wide array of materials, setting the foundation for our post-production efforts. Some of these elements included spinning beads, thermite fire, underwater metal particles, sparks, micro explosions, and many more.
Following up on that question, early on, we see Oppenheimer’s sparks of creativity ignited by studying early modernist art, including Picasso. Did you have that connection in mind at all when creating the similarly experimental imagery?
AJ: We didn’t use any specific imagery, but we did attempt to approach the creative challenges as an artist might be inspired by the ideas in the script rather than an accurate image of the physics.
The Trinity Test sequence is both hypnotically beautiful and terrifying. What were the biggest challenges in creating the Trinity Test without CGI, and how did you achieve it?
GM: For the Trinity test sequence, in contrast to other visual elements where there was great space for creative interpretation, the goal was to craft an authentically real and awe-inspiring depiction. To heighten the challenge, we deliberately steered clear of CG simulations, opting instead for practical footage. To achieve this, Andrew Jackson and Scott Fisher embarked on an extensive shoot, capturing a wide spectrum of explosions using IMAX technology. The range included grand-scale detonations featuring various lenses, as well as smaller-scale and even underwater detonations. Notably, the billowing dust from the ground and the shockwaves were achieved using small or macro-scale elements.
At DNEG, fully aware of the significance of the task, we began exploring various options right from the first day. We maintained an ongoing dialogue, frequently presenting our preliminary tests to Andrew Jackson and Christopher Nolan. While archived footage served as inspiration, we allowed for a degree of interpretation, focusing on capturing the essence of the event rather than an exact recreation.
One of the most chilling visual touches is when Oppenheimer experiences emotional distress; sometimes, the background begins to shake. How was this achieved?
AJ: This effect was 100% in camera, achieved on the day of the shoot. It was produced by projecting a still of the set, with a ripple effect added, back onto the same set to make it appear as if the background was vibrating. This was filmed as a real-time backdrop to Cillian Murphy’s performance.
There’s been some confusion online on what qualifies as CGI and if digital compositing counts. Can you please help clarify that distinction and walk me through the compositing process on Oppenheimer?
AJ: In early interviews, both Chris Nolan and I stated that all the effects were created without the use of computer-generated images (CGI). Neither of us has ever said there are no VFX (visual effects) shots in the film. In all of the 200-plus effects shots, we used only filmed elements as the raw input. In some cases, these elements were combined using compositing software. The confusion seems to arise from the exact interpretation of the two terms, CGI and VFX.
GM: Our objective was for every on-screen image to be derived from authentic photography, captured on film, preferably in IMAX format. The primary aim was to maintain a high degree of minimalism and uphold the raw essence of the original footage. However, for certain instances, like the chain reactions or the implosion/explosion shots, a diverse array of elements were combined. This approach was pivotal to preserving the authentic photography feel captured on film.
While watching “Oppenheimer,” I was fascinated that some visual effects were essentially small-scale macro photography projected onto a six-story IMAX screen. From the higher resolution to the technical side of capture, how did working with large format film change your process?
GM: IMAX is undeniably the most cinematic format, but it poses unique challenges for VFX due to its incredibly high resolution. We have a well-designed pipeline at DNEG that caters to the IMAX workflow, thanks to our experience collaborating with Chris Nolan since our work on “Batman Begins” (2005).
One final question: What are you most proud of on “Oppenheimer”?
AJ: I love the spinning electron shots and the plasma ball at the beginning of the film.
GM: The way our work blends so seamlessly in the movie and to be part of such a great project.
“Oppenheimer” is up for your consideration for this year’s Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Visual Effects. Please make sure to check out the film which is now playing in select IMAX theaters in 70mm and will be available on 4k UHD & Blu-Ray on November 21st.