On the morning of July 16, 1945, theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer oversaw the detonation of the world's first nuclear weapon in a test code-named "Trinity." In making his Oscar-winning historical thriller, Oppenheimer, filmmaker Christopher Nolan needed someone to detonate a bomb of his own.

Cue Oscar-winning special effects supervisor Scott R. Fisher, who has worked with Nolan on each of the director's films since 2010's Inception, and has won two Oscars for Best Visual Effects (for his contributions to 2014's Interstellar and 2020's Tenet). (He earned an additional nomination for his work on Top Gun: Maverick.) Despite their history together, Fisher says that Oppenheimer presented him and his team with challenges unlike any that they'd faced before.

"Usually, a lot of the effects we do, we can base on something else. It's like, 'Okay, we want to use a big dump tank of water for this scene like the one that was used in this movie or that movie,' you know?" the SFX supervisor tells A.frame. "With Oppenheimer, there was a lot of stuff that was unknown to us."

Oppenheimer looks at the life and legacy of the so-called father of the atomic bomb (played by Oscar winner Cillian Murphy) leading up to and long after the Trinity test. Perhaps even more challenging than the nuclear detonation itself, Fisher was responsible for taking audiences into Oppenheimer's mind. "There were all these little lines that Chris had written in the script about what's going on in Oppenheimer's head that there was no existing visual representation of," he recalls. "Chris really wanted us to figure it out on our own."

At the 96th Oscars, Oppenheimer was nominated for 13 Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Emily Blunt, and went on to win a total of seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Directing for Nolan, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Murphy, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Robert Downey Jr., Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score.

In conversation with A.frame, Fisher dives further into the making of Oppenheimer. "It's really good to see [Nolan] getting the praise that he deserves," Fisher says, "because a lot of people don't understand what goes on behind the scenes of his films and how much time he puts into them."


A.frame: Christopher Nolan is a director who wants everything in his films, including the special effects, to fit seamlessly together. What is it like to work with a filmmaker like that?

For me, it's the best situation in the world. There are a lot of younger filmmakers who are really quick to jump straight to CGI or digital effects. They just hop right on that bandwagon more and more. With them, it's the opposite of how it is with Chris. You usually have to actually sell them on your ideas and say, "Hey, we can do this." With Chris, we've already done a lot, and we always want to try to do everything as practically as we can. There's always a limit, and that's when you bring in CGI. We talk about this a lot, but the ultimate measure of any visual effect is that it looks real and it looks like a real part of the film. If you do it practically and you film it, then you're already 90 percent of the way there, and Chris knows that.

How has your working process with Chris changed since your first collaboration together on Inception?

His process hasn't changed. He knows what he wants, and he always has. I would say that he probably has more confidence in me now than he did at first. Obviously, he's extremely intelligent and has a great memory. He likes to say to me, "Remember when we did this on Inception?" Having that kind of shorthand is really valuable, especially on big movies like Oppenheimer where everything has to move at such a fast pace. To be able to just trust someone and know that they can experiment, build, and knock a few things off your list for you is important.

The film includes a blend of literal sequences and theoretical images. When you were prepping for it, was there any one thing that seemed especially daunting about Oppenheimer?

It was mostly what you're talking about. There were all these little lines in the scripts of Oppenheimer's thoughts and there was such an unknown element to all of them. We had to go through this kind of discovery phase on our own, because there were no photographic or cinematic references for a lot of those quantum physics-based concepts. On top of that, what you make has to fit into the story seamlessly. It all has to feel like a natural part of the story and not like anything is being used or inserted for any cheesy reasons. We had to make sure we rode that line between cinematic and accurate. People had to be able to look at the film and think, "Okay. I understand that. That makes sense." All that stuff that's going on in his head had to be legible to the audience.


Did you have experience working on challenges like that from when you did Interstellar? That film similarly visualizes very complex scientific ideas.

A little bit. Not quite as much. It was surprisingly more straightforward on Interstellar. In that script, you always knew the kind of special effects that were being described, because they were done so almost verbatim. When we went to break down that script and figure stuff out, it was easier to decide how we were gonna do it. With Oppenheimer, it was all much more abstract. It was lines about atoms spinning and bouncing off of each other. Trying to figure out how to visualize all of that was really difficult.

There are, obviously, some huge SFX moments in Oppenheimer, but there are also a lot of subtler images in it. Are there any small details in the film that you're particularly proud of how they turned out?

It's funny you ask that, because I talked to Chris about this not too long ago. In the beginning, when Oppenheimer's at school and it's raining and he watches the puddle as the drops fall — that was one of the first things we shot. Chris was very specific about it, too. He wanted the raindrops to have a very random, irregular pattern. Of course, that ends up being a theme that he carries throughout the movie, but it was hard to achieve. Finding the right pattern and the right intensity of the rain took a lot of time. It was a subtle thing to do, but the way it's worked into the story really makes it a memorable thing for me.

What was your reaction to seeing how he ultimately brought every element together in the finished film?

It's just so engaging, and I know that everybody talks about the length and size of it, but I think that's all a measure of how quickly it goes by when you're watching it. The suspense leading up to the Trinity Test is crazy, and it's so immersive that it really feels like you're in the movie all the way through to the end. I really loved it, and as a visual effects guy, it's rare that you feel like you're really an integral part of telling a film's story. In the case of Oppenheimer, it felt like that, and it always does with Chris' movies. It was nice to see how everything we'd done was cut into the film.

Scott Fisher after winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for 'Tenet' at the 93rd Oscars.

How has it been for you to see the film be so well-received since its release?

It's been amazing. Working on Chris' films, in general, is a special experience. You always know that they're going to be well-received and there's always going to be people who see them and talk about them. It's really good to see him getting the praise that he deserves, because a lot of people don't understand what goes on behind the scenes of his films and how much time he puts into them. He works with every department. He's not ever just concerning himself with the actors and his camera. He always has the whole totality of the film in his mind and what goes into making it. When you work on his films, you get a kind of instant credibility. As someone in the industry, if you can work on one of his movies and really deliver throughout it, then you know that you're doing alright.

What do you think Christopher Nolan does as a director that allows all of the different elements of his films to stand out and be recognized, whether it be the cinematography or the editing or the score?

He doesn't cut any corners. To him, there are no small scenes. He doesn't just hand stuff to the visual effects department and say, "Bring me back something." He touches every single thing himself. From the editing to the special effects, he works to make sure that everybody's giving him exactly what he wants, because he knows what will work in the movie that he has in his head. That's pretty unique, at least among the directors that I've worked with throughout my career.

You've worked with him for over a decade now. Have you talked yet about what you might do together next?

No. We're just enjoying the reception to Oppenheimer right now, honestly. When Chris gets close to pulling the trigger on his next film, that's usually when you get a call where he says, "Hey, we've got a project coming up." That's always a good moment, but it hasn't happened yet.

By Alex Welch


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