There’s nothing like a gigantic explosion in a movie to let an audience know the stakes are headed to 11. (Or that maybe Michael Bay ran out of ideas and had some left-over special effects budget.) But how do those movie explosions always look like perfect, roaring fireballs? YouTuber and “maker of things” Tom Scott gives us an answer to that question in his latest video.
Scott, who’s made countless other explainers for things like how lava lamps help protect Internet traffic, or how scientists are developing 3D color X-rays, recently posted the above video to his YouTube channel. Scott notes in his video’s description that while explosions in films look good, “they’re a bit disappointing” in reality.
Indeed, Scott starts the video by showing off a normal explosion, which is visually lackluster. Despite the fact that it’s obviously a powerful blast that shakes the ground and trees around it. And sends a roaring boom so loud it startles Scott, despite the fact he knows it’s coming.
The mind behind the explosion, Stephen Miller, a chartered explosives engineer, then shows how filmmakers produce a far more aesthetically pleasing explosion; using a technique that actually minimizes the damage of the explosion. It also maximizes how much it looks like something James Bond could stroll away from coolly.
Essentially, to make a cinematic explosion, experts use an explosive charge to vaporize a bag of fuel into the air, and then ignite the subsequent cloud into a gigantic flame ball. Miller also shows how technicians use “mortar pots” (angular steel bowls) to control the direction of explosions.
The resultant explosion is a massive expansion of flames upward and outward. Miller describes it as having “loads of flame and fire and dirty smoke,” which is fascinating; namely because that must mean audiences prefer the appearance of gasoline explosion to other types.
Finally, Scott notes that filmmakers have one more trick up their sleeve to make explosions look cool: camera angles. The YouTuber notes, for example, that by moving a camera back while zooming in, cinematographers can make it look like an actor is much closer to the action than they are in reality. Which is good. Because things that go