Hurt Locker Special Effects: Physical Bombs

In Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, a U.S. Army bomb squad unit in Iraq confronts the threat of IEDs and more . Helping to bring the physicality of that threat to the film was special effects supervisor Richard Stutsman. In this Q&A we talk to Stutsman, who recently received a BAFTA nomination for Special Visual Effects, about the difficulties his team faced in creating explosions in Jordan and about keeping everything real.

Behind the scenes while filming

fxg: How did you get involved with the film?

Stutsman: Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (the writer and producer) were looking for somebody to do the physical effects. I drove over to Kathryn’s one night and met them. It just so happened that a few months earlier I’d been doing some work on simulated IED explosions to help train ‘kids’, as they call them, who are heading off to Iraq. I got to watch demonstrations of these bombs. They put 155 millimeter rounds underneath tanks, personnel carriers and Humvees and I saw what remains of these things afterwards. So, fortunately I was able to see the real thing and I’ve always wanted to do that on film, but had never had the opportunity to do so. Kathryn and Mark had this war movie and they were adamant about realism. Everything had to be as real as possible.

fxg: How did you plan to get realistic type explosions onto the screen?

Stutsman: Those demonstrations were of course really helpful, plus there’s a whole bunch of IED explosions on YouTube. I got a fairly good feel for the look and one of the things I did realise was that the only way to get the right look was to use the real thing, or at least use high-order explosives. These aren’t actually used that much in film. They’re generally way too fast and the audience has just grown to believe everything turns into these big orange gasoline fireballs. You know, a car gets into an accident and it always seems to burst into a 100 gallon gasoline explosion. I didn’t want that. I wanted to try and get the real thing.

Behind the scenes of actual blasts

fxg: What were some of the initial challenges of shooting in Jordan?

Stutsman: I spent about the first two months just trying to get permits or permissions in Jordan to get explosions in and to use them. There was no infrastructure there whatsoever for civilian use of explosives. In the U.S., we use them for mining and road building. We were within days of doing our first shots that had explosions in them – the sniper shots. Fortunately, a few days earlier our Hollywood pyrotechnics had arrived. It had taken two months for them to come in.

But I had still not been able to obtain any black powder locally. So we went out on a mad scramble and bought Chinese fireworks. Civilians can buy up to two inch aerial shells, so we bought every one we could find and cut them up and drained the black powder out of them. That’s what we ended up using for the small ground hits for the sniper fire on the contractors out in the middle of the desert. Still, I was in absolute panic and we were running out pretty quickly. Then I made enough noise and word got out to the right people, including the royal family and the Royal Film Commission there. Suddenly, the military had all sorts of black powder I could use!

fxg: What sort of team did you have on set?

Stutsman: I had myself, my partner Blair Foord, three German guys and others – six guys in total most of the time. For the truck fire scene, one of the guys brought in some friends and we had a week and a half prep work, trying to plumbing gas lines and diesel lines, cut up cars and prepare for the whole sequence. The German guys were invaluable because they shipped their wind machines, welders and simulated smokers over from Germany, which is a lot of cheaper. I wasn’t able to take any of my tools except what I could fit in my luggage on the airplane. I planned to load up a shipping container but everything just kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed until there was no time.

fxg: What kind of explosives did you use for the major shots?

Stutsman: I ended up finding high-order explosives to use for the bigger shots from a manufacturer in Jordan with the supervision of the military and their bomb squad. It gave the real thing. You can see the concussion wave coming off these explosions. It made the car jump and all the dust come up off the car. That was all shot with a high speed camera but it’s our explosion that makes it happen. One of the striking things about a high-order explosion is that it hits you in the chest long before you hear it in your ears. The shockwave comes before the sound. It’s an interesting phenomenon. So you see it in the distance, say, and you start counting one-one thousand, two-one thousand and then all of sudden it whacks you like a baseball bat in the chest, and then a beat or two later you hear the noise. It’s quite an experience.

10Mar/ocula/press1fxg: How did you detonate the explosions?

Stutsman: I’ve learned from past experience if you try to mix high-order with black powder explosions – well, high-order is technically a detonation and black powder is a deflagration – it’s a high speed burn versus a solid phase change from solid to gas. If you’re not careful putting them together, the detonation is so much faster than the black powder burning that it will snuff it out or burn the black powder before it gets a chance to properly show up. I used higher explosives to whip all the dust in the air. They were all backlit by a gasoline pipe explosion. That’s what I noticed on the real thing – what fire you could see seemed to be in the centre of the explosion, and all the debris and dust comes in front of the fireball.

fxg: Were there any discussions about achieving the explosions digitally or augmenting them?

Stutsman: I think they had a certain amount budgeted for post work, but as it turned out, I think, the only post work that was done was reflections in the helmets that had to be removed or fixing up extras who were staring at the camera.

fxg: What other kinds of special effects work were your responsible for?

Stutsman: We did other things like the American sniper rifle hits on the brick house and bullet hits on the actors. We did the big fire tanker aftermath, which was a real pain in the neck! We usually use propane here in the States, but it’s not available over there. They have a dirty butane that doesn’t have the same colour in it as propane. We worked on camera mounts for cars. We had to make our own smoke machine to put smoke in the streets.

Then there was cars blowing up at the UN. Actually, for that shot, they had picked the car they wanted and then at a production meeting someone thought that when the sniper fire hits the gas tank you should see the fuel cylinder fly open and have fire fly out of it. I’m just mumbling under my breath saying, ‘Shut up!’, because I knew how hard that would be. The car ended up having its fuel neck on the wrong side of the car, so we worked all weekend cutting up the fuel cylinder, moving the door over and patching up the old hole, putting in a mortar and rigging up the car.

There was also a funny story with a windshield in the scene where the taxi driver pulls up to Jeremy and he pulls his gun out. Eventually the windshield is shot. Well, in most of the world, windshields have safety laminated glass which has two layers of glass with clear urethane plastic in-between for safety. So normally bullet hits give you the spider web look with the hole and the glass kind of spidering out from that. So I told Kathryn that’s the look we’re going to get and she was all set for two bullet hits. My partner Blair is behind Jeremy with a marble gun and when he shot the first marble we realised the windshield wasn’t safety laminated at all – it was just tempered glass – because the entire windshield popcorned and fell out of the car. He never got off the second shot! We were all just stunned. And sure enough all the spare windshields I had were tempered glass.

10Mar/ocula/press2fxg: All the effects shots in the film feel real and gritty. Do you think some of the reality of the shots came from the difficulties you faced on set?

Stutsman: Quiet possibly, because everything we had was jury-rigged and ‘shoot from the hip’ and from available materials. The heat on certain days was almost unbearable and I think that contributed to it. It was an experience. It was pure Hell at the time but knowing what I know now, I’d definitely do it again.