Why Is It So Hard to Make Fire Look Good in Movies?

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Illustration: Erik Carter

There’s a scene in the Jennifer Lawrence movie No Hard Feelings where her clothes catch fire. She’s riding on the hood of a car as it speeds across a crowded beach and crashes into a barbecue, sending burning coals flying. But the flames don’t look like any real ones that you’ve ever seen. They’re plasticky and neon yellow, pointing straight up when they should be blowing back toward the windshield. Even in a low-effort comedy such as this one, the effect is distractingly flimsy.

It’s not an isolated incident. Computer-generated fires are breaking out everywhere, and they look terrible. Prominent house fires in last year’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery appear as if they’ve been scribbled onto the live-action footage by hand. So do the kitchen fires on Hulu’s The Bear and some wildfires on CBS’s Fire Country. On Game of Thrones, the dragons’ breath was created by mounting honest-to-goodness flamethrowers on cranes; on the spinoff House of the Dragon, the titular creatures are clearly spewing digital fire. Amid all the obvious effects in the latest Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy movies, it’s the fires — flat, oversaturated, and motion-smoothed — that stick out most.

Not so long ago, there was no CGI, so the only way to put fire on film was to light a real one in front of a camera. For decades, Hollywood pyrotechnicians ignited scenery, vehicles, and stuntpeople, often within face-scorching distance of movie stars and children. Houses were burned down for deodorant commercials, and Pink Floyd once set a guy on fire just because they thought it would look cool on an album cover. In rare cases, there were injuries and even deaths, but that didn’t deter filmmakers from embracing an effect that couldn’t be achieved by any other means.

The truth is there’s still no substitute for real flames even though pretty much anything else can now be mimicked by pixels. Fire is complex and unpredictable — it’s semi-translucent, it changes color depending on its temperature, and it distorts nearby light. That makes it hard to simulate, even on today’s most powerful VFX workstations. But over the past decade or so, most productions have made the switch anyway. “Directors usually want to do all of their fire for real and in-camera,” says Sam Conway, the Game of Thrones special-effects supervisor and pyro expert who set a record by lighting 73 stuntmen on fire in a single season. (Nobody was hurt.) “But after a while, they start asking, ‘How long does it take to reset the set after a take?’ And with fire, there isn’t much of a reset. The set is gone. That steers them toward digital because they don’t like that pressure.”

There’s also only one Jennifer Lawrence, which is why the makers of No Hard Feelings opted not to use real fire on her. “If you light up somebody on a moving car, it’s hard to put them out,” says Richard Friedlander, the movie’s special-effects supervisor and the co-founder of New York–based visual-effects company Brainstorm Digital. (The effect was created by mixing CGI with stock footage.) Even if they had set Lawrence ablaze, it might not have been visible; under the wrong conditions, real fire can be stubbornly unphotogenic. “On a bright, sunny beach, with the car moving so fast and blowing the flame, you wouldn’t see it. Maybe some smoke, but that’s it,” Friedlander says.

But he still prefers real flames to the alternative. “CG water has gotten better, and smoke and blowing sand can look pretty real now, too,” he says. No Hard Feelings is full of digitally rendered objects — cars, trees, a whole train — that you’d never know weren’t real. “But CG fire is something the effects industry still struggles with. It doesn’t look great, and we try to avoid using it unless we have to,” Friedlander says.

Effects artists usually like to incorporate at least a small amount of authentic fire. Ideally, the crew will shoot a few real flames on set so they can be combined and enhanced with computer-generated ones later. This helps those artists know how their fire should look and blend into its surroundings. Alas, it isn’t always possible. “Sometimes it’s faster and more cost-efficient to throw it all to your digital-effects team and say, ‘You guys figure it out,’” says Friedlander. With enough lead time, they can sometimes make it look more presentable. But Friedlander notes that the fire scene in No Hard Feelings was part of reshoots that took place just a month and change before the film hit theaters — giving the effects team only a couple of weeks to work.

Sometimes the problem is color correction. Flames generate some intense hues; it’s crucial that any adjustments stay within a certain spectrum or the fire may appear unnaturally bright or dark. In fact, modern digital filmmaking involves so much postproduction tinkering that even real fires can succumb to the same issues as computer-generated ones. Conway recalls working on one of the explosions for 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard: “The bang itself was great, but then they played around with

it and it just looked like rubbish onscreen. It was a horrible and embarrassing shame for me.”

Conway’s father was Richard Conway, an effects artist who worked on more than 60 movies, including Brazil, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the 1992 film Map of the Human Heart, which features a re-creation of the bombing of Dresden. “He used scale models and real fire and flares. It was all in-camera, and it looked fantastic,” says Conway. “When a shot is simple, the viewer buys it straightaway. But movies today, especially superhero ones, they’re like cartoons. There’s too much going on, and none of it is real.”

Maybe real fire will soon be the thing that looks out of place. This occurred to me when I rewatched Ron Howard’s 1991 thriller, Backdraft, about a squad of Chicago firefighters hunting for an arsonist, which contains half a dozen of the most intense fire scenes ever filmed. The movie’s finale, a many-alarm blaze at a chemical plant, makes even the all-practical atomic-bomb blast in Oppenheimer look like a sparkler. Every surface in the building is alive with roaring, full-bodied, richly colored flames, each with its own personality.

Howard tells me he had initially planned to augment Backdraft’s real fire with large amounts of then-primitive CGI. Then, a few weeks before production, “we saw the final test and it just wasn’t very convincing. The fire looked pixelated, and the way it moved was too repetitive. So I met with my physical-effects supervisors and told them, ‘You’re going to have to do it, and you’re going to have to do it safely.’” Save for a “couple of digital touch-ups on a couple of wide shots,” Howard says, “we wound up doing all of the fire analog. It was 99.9 percent in-camera and scary as hell.”

No one was hurt during the making of the film, though someone probably could have been. “The first time we did a scene with a lot of fire, I made a mistake,” says Howard. “We got the fire going about 15 seconds before we rolled cameras, and by the time I called ‘Action,’ the smoke had hit the ceiling and obscured everything. I was yelling ‘Cut,’ but nobody could hear it. All the actors had to find their own way to the windows.” While shooting another scene, the actor and real-life firefighter Cedric Young was dangling over a fire with flames at his feet. “He glanced down, and heat rises, so he wound up singeing an eyebrow,” says Howard. “His wife was furious. She said, ‘You’ve been a firefighter for 16 years without an injury, and you come home like this from making a goddamned movie?’ When we wrapped, I turned to Brian Grazer and, mimicking Rocky, said, ‘Ain’t gonna be no sequel.’ ” (Howard did not direct 2019’s straight-to-video Backdraft 2.)

According to Howard, CGI has come far over the past three decades, and its benefits outweigh the liabilities: “Before, there was calculated risk involved, but today you don’t have to take that risk. If I were making Backdraft now, I would use a lot of digital fire. I think it’s the responsible thing to do.” The wind was already shifting back then — Howard’s film lost the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, groundbreaking for its computer-generated morphing techniques. “It was a moment of new versus old-school tech,” Howard says. “I can’t quibble. I was a big fan of T2 and what they achieved.” Nobody sacrificed an eyebrow, though. “No, thank God,” he says. “At least not that we know of. Maybe there was some carpal tunnel.”

Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the October 23, 2023, issue of New York Magazine.

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