Oppenheimer’s 'real' bomb sequence was created using balloons – and an aquarium

(Image credit: Universal)

Oppenheimer may have blown away all expectations at the box office, but its climactic scene – involving the atomic bomb being tested for the first time at Los Alamos – is something that’ll likely linger for far longer than opening weekend.

Now, Oppenheimer director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema has revealed how that incredible sequence came to life. Partially revealed, anyway – he’s still keeping some of Nolan’s secrets.

"Obviously, we couldn’t make an explosion the size of the actual explosion so we used trickery," Van Hoytema told Variety

Van Hoytema outlined the process, which featured everything from balloons to ping-pong balls – and camera tricks.

"We created science experiments. We built aquariums with power in it. We dropped silver particles in it. We had molded metallic balloons which were lit up from the inside," Van Hoytema said. 

"We had things slamming and smashing into one another such as ping-pong balls, or just had objects spinning…We had long shutter speeds, short shutter speeds, wide negative color, negative overexposure, underexposure. It was like a giant playground for all of us."

Nolan had previously told Total Film that he and his team recreated the Trinity test "without the use of computer graphics," something which he admitted was a “huge challenge.”

The director explained: "Andrew Jackson – my visual effects supervisor, I got him on board early on – was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, a lot of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there – there were huge practical challenges."

For more on the biopic, Christopher Nolan talks the R-rating, we chat to Matt Damon, and look into why Oppenheimer isn't coming to streaming anytime soon

Bradley Russell

I'm the Senior Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.