The Science of Hollywood Explosions

It takes a sophisticated understanding of physics to create the hyper-realistic CGI explosions we see in the movies.

Anna Green
07 . 10 . 15

Ever wonder how filmmakers create the smoke, fire, and explosions that appear in Hollywood movies? Turns out, it takes a sophisticated understanding of physics to make explosions look real.

In “The Science Behind Hollywood Explosions,” Theodore Kim, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, explains that the secret to creating a hyper-realistic CGI explosion is figuring out how to distribute what he calls "swirls." These are the individual waves of smoke, wind, or fire that make up explosions (Kim compares them to children's line drawings of wind). 

Kim and his team created a tool called "Wavelet Turbulence" which automatically distributes "swirls" based on the flow of wind and the force of the explosion. The algorithm allows filmmakers to create incredibly detailed and amazingly realistic swirling smoke and explosions. (They subsequently wrote a paper on the topic.) 

So far, the algorithm has been used in a range of Hollywood blockbusters, including Avatar, Iron Man 3, and Super 8. Check out the explosive video below: