Pyrotechniques and Movie Special Effects

April 28, 2017

If the movie industry had grown up without pyrotechnics, it would've been a listless entertainment medium, perhaps one that would have ended up a dry and academic art form. Instead, pyrotechnics and movie special effects transformed the film industry. Along with car chases and tough guy acting, explosive visual FX rank highly, for these chemical packages represent the spark of movie magic.

Demystifying Movie Special Effects

Modern day movies use several FX categories. There are computer-generated (CGI) visual effects, the green screen scenes that require post-production work. Next, there are practical stunts and explosions. Some of these illusory events are subtle. A candle magically lights itself, or perhaps a fireplace roars into flaming life by itself. Special fuses and flash powder loads make these small-scale practical effects possible. The metal fuel combusts with a sharp retort, just as the oxidizer makes contact, perhaps as set in motion by a Hollywood FX guru.

Auditioning the Chemical Performers

The above fireworks category covers cherry bombs and cap guns, the type of effects that a film editor can transform into a grenade explosion or gunfire. Then there are squibs, the small wearable explosive charges that mimic gunshot wounds. Along with bags full of fake blood, they're detonated by a remote trigger. The final effect looks like a mess of bullets is tearing into the body of the performer. Today's digital blood, as generated by CGI, just doesn't look as good as a regular squib.

Calling Action on Big Pyrotechnics

A small explosion happens offscreen. It's a tiny mortar gun that throws debris into the air. You'll see this device at parties now. It's a smaller piece of equipment, busily launching T-shirts into an audience during a big event. As for the dramatic, fully explosive scenes, the shots that show buildings breaking up into a ball of fire, there are scale models for this job. However, big budget Hollywood films actually blow things up. They engineer pyrotechnics and movie special effects. Large charges are required, so the pyrotechnics expert must be equipped with the knowledge to safely handle anything from a regular box of fireworks to a barrel full of high-explosives.

The pyrotechnics engineer on a movie set only gets one chance to get everything right, especially when explosives are involved. Timed triggers and remote-activated firing programs are essential tools, but, at the end of the day, these fireballs and debris-strewn explosive effects have to look like the real thing so that the dramatic moment is punctuated by wholly believable property destruction on a grand scale. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the apparent chaos is always absolutely under the control of the pyrotechnics team.

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