The Atomic Filmmakers


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The mushroom cloud resulted from a nuclear explosion

The men who created the atom bombs became famous, but the men who had the task of filming the explosions of the bombs, did not. These men, who had this difficult task, were often in danger. For example one man was thrown in the ditch by the blast of one explosion, whereas the second blast threw him to the ground once more.

Besides that, the photographers and the filmmakers were exposed to very large amounts of radiation. The reality is that they risked their lives just to capture mushroom clouds and rising fireballs. They were men of mystery, as they had to keep quiet about their work. The fact is that their work went unappreciated, because they recorded more than 6,500 secret films, but the government started to declassify their films just ten years ago. Nowadays the results of their works are often portrayed in movies, and in TV shows. Robert S. Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb” and who is also an atomic historian stated that these images often remain seared into people’s imaginations because it makes them aware of the power they have.

Two new atomic discoveries will be released soon, “Nuclear Tipping Point” and “Countdown to Zero”. They will show footage from those collected by those brave filmmakers. Both the documentaries agree that the terrorism is rising, and state that the nuclear power should be completely eliminated, otherwise huge destructions will follow. The situation of the atomic cameramen is very bad, as most of them have died of cancer. It is very likely that they died because of the exposure to the radiation, and George Yoshitake, 82, one of the survivors, surely believes so.

The cinematographers focused on the nuclear explosion performed in Nevada and in the Pacific. Their headquarters was in a building located on the Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. It was a regular looking building and no one suspected that the building had screening rooms, animation gears, processing labs, sound stage, film vaults, and a staff which contained more than 250 cameramen, producers, and directors. All of these people had top-secret clearances. Initially, the films had the purpose of helping the scientists, by analyzing what happens during a nuclear explosion. Some of them were tutorials for federal and Congressional leaders.

Mark Sugg, a film producer at the World Security Institute, a private group in Washington, believes that the films were very strange. First of all the host had a very strange voice, as if he would be proud of the explosion and of the damages it can make. A book on the topic was released in 2006, and it is called “How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb”. The book contains lots of declassified photos and even technical diagrams related to the process. Peter Kuran, the book’s author and a special-effects filmmaker in Hollywood believes that the photographers are unrecognized patriots, as they helped the country very much, without asking anything in return. They exposed to lots of risks which caused their death.

The United States of America expanded its arsenal of nuclear bombs after the end of the Second World War. They tested the bombs in real life, when they bombarded the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soon afterwards new designs were made and they required tests in order to make sure that they function properly. Between 1946 and 1962 more than 200 nuclear bombs were detonated, and the secret filmmakers recorded most of them.

The secret film crew was established in 1947, and it was known under the name of Lookout Mountain Laboratory. The laboratory needed experienced men, and they considered Hollywood the best place they could collect their men from. Mr. Yoshitake remembered that their neighbors were suspicions, as they worked all night, and because of it, the lights were constantly on. The crew has access to various technologies before Hollywood did. For example they were able to use certain lenses and cameras prior to the movie directors. The cameramen had to record the explosions, from less than two miles from the blast.

Thanks to the recordings the scientists were able to measure the destructive power of the bombs and to estimate the size of the nuclear detonations. Mr. Yoshitake remembers that they tested the effects of the bomb on pigs once, because the skin of the pigs resembles the skin of the people. He remembers that the experience was a very difficult one, as many of the pigs were still alive, and they were squealing. He stated that he could sense the smell of burning flesh, and he imagined that the people from the two doomed cities from Japan must have experienced the same thing. When the first hydrogen bombs was detonated, which was more powerful than the nuclear one, the photographers were not allowed to take pictures, but only to witness the destructive force of the explosion.

Mr. Yoshitake remembers that the entire sky went purple because of the explosion and that the entire sky filled with the color. They were 20 miles away from the explosion, but the experience was very intense. Some of the movie stars of the period appeared in the film. One of them was Reed Hadley, who starred in the TV Series Racket Squad. He played the role of a pipe-smoking military observer who just experienced his first hydrogen bomb. Many officials from Washington saw the movies, and the members of the Congress got to see special viewings.

Charles P. Demos, a former classification official with the Department of Energy, who is now in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapon program, remembers that many of the decisions taken by the government were influenced by the Atomic leaders. In 1963, the government decided to move the tests underground because they believed that they were too much of a threat for the people. Hazel R. O’Leary, the secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, decided to declassify the movies in 1997. The American Film Institute awarded the atomic filmmakers in 1997, at the ceremony begin present only 24 people, the ones who survived from a total of 200.11

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