Features and Columns · Movies

The Art of Movie Explosions (And Why They Don’t Look Like Real Ones)

Fire in the hole! Or…multiple holes, safety padded with foam, and directed towards the camera.
Speed Movie Explosions
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on March 22nd, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about why real explosions in real life don’t look like they do in the movies.

When you imagine an explosion, what do you picture? Enormous fireballs? Columns of dark smoke? A cucumber-cool hero in a leather jacket (hell yeah) strolling calmly towards the camera?

For those of us fortunate enough to not have to deal with real-life explosive devices, film and television largely inform our expectations of what dramatic detonations ought to look like. And it turns out that off-screen explosives, which are designed to actually do damage, don’t look all that great on camera.

Meanwhile, what we’re used to seeing on-screen is as much of a special effect as a lubed-up monster prosthetic. This may seem obvious. But, as demonstrated in the video essay below, it’s impressive to see the difference in action nonetheless.

The technicians behind cinematic kabooms have tricks up their sleeves to make explosions look like we expect them to. This includes everything from adding more fuel to produce a bigger effect to zooming-in from a distance to fill the frame. Ultimately, like most practical special effects, cinematic explosions are a combination of art and science.

Oh, right, and the most important trick of all: not flinching.

Watch “Why Real Explosions Don’t Look Like Movie Explosions“:

Who made this?

Tom Scott is a London-based YouTuber who — broadly — makes videos on how stuff works. His info-taining videos unpack scientific phenomena and smooth out everyday enigmatic wrinkles, from how neurosurgeons navigate inside the brain during surgery to what garlic bread tastes like after it’s been sent to space. You can follow Scott on Twitter here. And you can get lost (and learn something) on his YouTube channel here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).