Nothing makes an audience jump like a massive on-screen explosion. Let’s take a look at the many different ways Hollywood blows stuff up.

Top image via Star Wars

There are as many types of big-screen explosions as there are film genres in which they are used. Whether you’re watching a war movie, a spy thriller, or a sci-fi epic, it’s a certainty that at some point something’s going to go boom. How does a filmmaker decide what manner of destruction to unleash? Let’s look at the ins and outs of Hollywood explosions.


Three Ways to Execute an Explosion

Not all explosions are created equal. Some of them are violently real and literally earthshaking in their intensity. Others exist only within a VFX program. Some of them are real — and really small.

1. Do It Digitally

“We need to blow up the Statue of Liberty, but the government won’t let us.”

What’s a filmmaker to do? Creating explosions with a computer is a reasonable solution to this type of problem. Creating an explosion digitally can mean using a series of stock footage files from a source like Shutterstock or using built-in fire and smoke elements found in software like HitFilm. While explosions can be developed completely through a digital process (such as with a particle generator), they’re often captured practically and then digitally enhanced.

2. Do It Practically

“Good news, team. The government is totally cool with us blowing up the Statue of Liberty.”

Digital VFX are everywhere, but practical effects are still big business — especially when it comes to explosions. Many films today, like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, utilize self-contained mortars. These mortars ignite and project a billowing fireball into the air. The video below (via Movieclips Coming Soon) demonstrates how the crew of Mad Max: Fury Road captured the large tanker explosion practically.

3. Do It Small

“We don’t have the budget to blow up the Statue of Liberty.”

Building a large set only to blow it up can be costly. So how do filmmakers pull off the massive explosions seen in films like Star Wars? Often they develop a mid-size or small scale model and then then set charges. To see how the wizards at ILM captured gargantuan (miniature) explosions for Star Wars, check out the video below from the Star Wars YouTube channel.


Five Common Ways to Frame Explosions

Now that we have the basic concepts of how explosions are generated, let’s explore how to frame them effectively. Just like any action within the frame, there needs to be a clear motivation. With that said, here are five common ways to frame an explosion for film or television.

1. A Wide View

Filming any action with a wide angle lens is going to give you the action you seek as well as the space around that action. We see this type of framing for explosions most often in science fiction films. For example, in this scene from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, director Jonathan Mostow uses several wide angle shots to frame judgement day (video via Niroj Kumar Besra).

First we see a wide angle shot as a bomb drops on an unsuspecting city. Then we jump to a wider view of the bombing from space. Each of these compositions gives the audience a sense of the scale of destruction, as the explosions seem small within the frame — but their devastation spans across a wide swath.

2. Enhancing the Main Character

Explosions are a staple of action films and have a very definitive usage in terms of composition. Directors use these blasts to enhance the stature of the hero. We see this often in the action films of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, as seen in this video via Movieclips, director Robert Rodriguez used this type of framing to perfection in 1995’s Desperado.

Now, is this framing more about style than it is context? Yes, to a degree. Because while it is very stylized, it still conveys to the audience a deep intensity. This is effectively done through the use of the jump cut from a wide to a mid-shot in conjunction with slow motion.

3. Full Coverage

Any cinematographer will tell you that coverage is an absolute must. In order to give the audience all of the visual information that they need, you’re going to have to use more than camera. Having this mind set when filming an explosion (particularly a practical one) will ensure that you give the audience a variety of visual information and context. A perfect example of this is from the film Mad Max: Fury Road (video via Fauno Uruguay).

In the scene above, you’ll see how director George Miller and cinematographer John Seale captured this blast from many different angles. This allowed editor Margaret Sixel to jump cut to various angles. This gave the audience incredibly brutal visual information and allowed Sixel to continue the intense pacing of the film.

4. Connecting Action

Another effective way to film an explosion is through the use of connecting action. This is a form of continuity editing, where action in one scene affects the next. When filming explosions, directors and cinematographers sometimes use this technique to expand on the effects an explosion has on the environment. Let’s look at this great example (via Movieclips) from the classic sci-fi action film Predator.

Dutch runs from the Predator alien as it prepares to self-destruct. We see the blast happen in the background as Dutch flies toward the screen. We then jump cut to connected action in the helicopter as the General and soldier react to the blast on ground level.

5. Layer the Framing

Finally, let’s discuss the layering of a composition in regards to an explosion. You’ll see this layering happen most often when the explosion isn’t quite the focal point of the scene. However, there are exceptions to this. For example, let’s take a look at the Jericho sequence from the 2008’s Iron Man.

 

As you see above (via Movieclips), director Jon Favreau utilizes space and layering to emphasize the blast along the mountain. And by keeping Tony Stark in the foreground, he creates an incredibly cool scene — but also give the audience context in terms of the weapon’s power and range.

What are your favorite explosive moments from film history?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.