Archive for May 2006

Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie by Peter Kuran

11 May 2006

coverPeter Kuran is a visual effects producer who got his Hollywood start as an animator on the original Star Wars trilogy. He has since worked on dozens of big-budget films as diverse as Airplane!, Edward Scissorhands, and Men In Black, through his effects company, Visual Concepts Entertainment (VCE). His credentials gave him the perfect background for restoring the aging footage of Trinity and Beyond.

Yet an able digital effects company can only do so much with battered copies of copies of copies, so Kuran pursued a massive research undertaking. He found listings of film reels depicting many atomic and nuclear events, the reels locked safely away in government archives and unavailable due to their Classified designation. By researching the tests in question, and locating footage of the same tests that had long been available to the public, he was able to get the keepers of the keys to declassify the clean, low-generation footage.

Then VCE spruced up the images, which despite having been kept safe and virtually unviewed for decades had suffered substantial color fading due to the unstable film stock on which they were printed. To remedy the problem, Kuran invented a new color restoration process that “produces a new intermediate film element with restored color, fine grain and excellent retention of shadow detail.” The result far surpasses what is possible using current digital restoration technology, and was judged worthy of a scientific and technical Academy Award in 2002.

Peter Kuran has thus compiled the finest collection of nuclear test footage ever assembled. The imagery is at once awesomely frightful and achingly beautiful. The narration is performed by William Shatner, who gives an excellent reading and never resorts to the sort of Shatneresque delivery one might expect.

The documentary attempts to avoid commenting on the ethical pitfalls of the subject, not always with success. The lead-in to the footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings uses a faux-newsreel style to present the American government’s reasoning for the bombings, mocking the jingoistic tone of propaganda films and leading one to infer that Kuran might not agree with the rationale. In general, however, Trinity and Beyond is presented as a straightforward factual history, leaving the viewer to contend with the eerie combination of beauty and horror these shots engender.

The best accompaniment for the powerful images, though, is the equally powerful musical score. Composed and conducted by William Stromberg, and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir, the music is appropriately haunting and bombastic, alternately explosive and pensive.

Ironically, despite Kuran’s extensive research and groundbreaking restoration work, Stromberg’s score may prove to be the longest-lasting and most pervasive element of Trinity and Beyond, at least in terms of popular culture. The pull-out-all-the-stops pyrotechnics of “Hiroshima/Nagasaki Requiem” have entirely supplanted Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana in the latest generation of action movie trailers, such as that for X-Men 2. This is no surprise, since the rapid tempo and open-throated chanting of the choir lend themselves well to snap-cuts of flying superheroes.

Of course it figures that the remix for trailer use eliminates my personal-favourite element: the bell-rattling trombone line at the end of the movement that, particularly in the reprise “China Gets The Bomb,” runs so rampant that it staggers on wildly for a few notes beyond the orchestra’s final chords. There’s something so gloriously diabolical about it—to me it seems, in just a brief phrase, the perfect musical embodiment of Mutual Assured Destruction, carrying on of its own accord toward our doom.