As the nuclear arms race exploded (sorry) in the 1950s, scientists and the politicians that funded them still weren't exactly sure what their new superweapons would do. Their solution? A crack team of 250 Hollywood elites to film massive explosions.
The New York Times explores the team's history, and the recent efforts to declassify their work—a staggering collection of over 6,500 films of nuclear fireballs, mushroom clouds, and blast radii, that both captivated through their perverse beauty and frightened with their awesome (in the biblical sense, yes) power.
While some of the nation's brightest physicists eagerly crunched data, calculating blast projections, megatonnage, and pure destructive power, the film corps—composed of Hollywood experts in production, filming, animation, and cinematography were assembled and sent to the front lines. In the meantime, they pioneered new cinema technologies that expanded outward to the entire industry, from advanced lenses to sophisticated production techniques. And were exposed to a lot of fallout.
While filming, the crew was close enough (only two miles away) to the spectacular detonation that the Times describes how "the blast from one detonation hurled a man and his camera into a ditch. When he got up, a second wave knocked him down again." This was not being on the set of Two and a Half Men.
The audience of these shocking screenings included federal researchers, regulators, Congressmen, and Presidents—including President Clinton, whose secretary of energy Hazel O'Leary decided to the archive needed to be released to the public, illustrating vividly the danger of a nuclear stockpile—ours is now pegged at 5,113 warheads as of last year, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
As for the crew itself, it's mostly gone, most likely casualties of radioactive exposure—not what you want to be within two miles of! "Quite a few have died from cancer," says George Yoshitake, 82, one of the remaining survivors. But Yoshitake isn't upset by the opened archive—viewable in part here, through the Department of Energy, who have put a great deal of effort into digitally restoring the footage. "It's a good thing to show the horror," Yoshitake says. [The New York Times]