The first sign of the apocalypse is a rapidly rising tide. An extraterrestrial anomaly has forced the moon onto an elliptical crash course for Earth, warping its gravitational pull and sending the Pacific Ocean into overdrive. White-water currents race through Los Angeles neighborhoods and turn the insides of buildings into salt-water whirlpools. Within a matter of minutes, the city is a drenched, dystopian nightmare.
To achieve this preamble of chaos in Moonfall, in theaters this Friday, director Roland Emmerich enlisted physicists, previsualization artists, VFX houses, and special effects units, which worked simultaneously to blend the sequence’s digital and practical elements together. Consulting with NASA officials, visual effects supervisor Peter Travers built a “physics simulation of the moon crashing into the Earth from a solar-system level,” he says. At the same time, Emmerich’s crew pumped water down a large ramp inside a Montreal studio, mimicking a wave’s window-crashing momentum and making a hotel lobby look like the ballroom of the Titanic. “With Roland, it’s always about the juxtaposition,” says John Bradley, whose character must survive this harrowing scenario. “It’s taking that comfort and completely destroying it within a couple of seconds.”
Over three decades of making disaster movies, Emmerich has become a master of turning destruction into iconic imagery. And by the time the Chrysler Building—along with ships, planes, and chunks of other skyscrapers—is being uprooted from a Manhattan hellscape and thrown into the Rocky Mountains in Moonfall, it’s clear that Emmerich is determined to keep topping himself. “I had no idea that I ever wanted to do destruction movies, but Independence Day was just so damn successful,” Emmerich admits. “It was just like I invented my own genre.”
Indeed: Ever since aliens blew up the White House in 1996, disaster sequences have become catnip for pyrotechnicians (Michael Bay), dark visionaries (Zack Snyder), and monolithic universes (Marvel). As tech has advanced over each decade, destroying cities—as seen in movies like Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, The Avengers, San Andreas, and, of course, Moonfall—has become a cottage industry, reliant on highly specialized art and massive feats of engineering. “Nobody can do a normal blockbuster anymore,” Steven Spielberg told Emmerich after seeing Independence Day. He wasn’t wrong.
But as real-life natural disasters and mass-casualty incidents increase around the world, creative endeavors like this require unique imagination, environmental considerations, and ethical boundaries. We may not know how the world will end, but filmmakers—and the hundreds of artists they employ—remain determined to show us exactly what it could look and feel like. “There’s a pride in being able to re-create a city,” says Wayne Billheimer, a former VFX producer for Industrial Light and Magic. But for those in the industry, there’s an even bigger pride in being able to destroy one.
When Emmerich began conceiving Independence Day, one of the first decisions he had to make with cowriter Dean Devlin was which buildings his alien invaders would destroy. Leaning on the monster epics of old (King Kong, Godzilla, Planet of the Apes), the director felt compelled to hover spacecrafts over densely populated American cities, attacking landmarks and institutions that symbolized the country’s metaphorical might. “In Washington, Dean insisted on the Capitol, and I said, ‘No, it has to be the White House—the real power is in the White House,’” Emmerich says.
Whether it’s Mount Vesuvius, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the White House, natural and architectural wonders have long attracted the camera’s gaze. Often exploited for their symbology and emotional currency, they’ve become ideal objects around which filmmakers can build high-stakes action and destruction, a storytelling strategy that goes back centuries. “Watching destruction, we get caught up in something far larger than our own concerns,” author Paul Duncum writes in Picture Pedagogy. “Like violence, destruction is a thrill ride that relieves the tension of living in a highly regulated society.”
Of course, building out these emotional roller coasters and hyperrealistic sequences demands plenty of visual inventiveness—skills that storyboard artist Timothy Burgard has cultivated throughout his nearly four-decade career. Responsible for helping craft the monstrous and natural-disaster imagery of Mighty Joe Young, Snakes on a Plane, White House Down, and Geostorm, among many others, he acts as a steward to a director’s early vision, reading through the script, transcribing mental notes, and mirroring concept art to provide a rough version of calamitous events. “It gets a little granular with Roland,” says Burgard, who has boarded four of Emmerich’s disaster movies. “I listen to how he breaks down what is happening, I make a shot list, and quite often, I start thumbnailing as he’s explained it to me.”
On big productions like these, Burgard can either kick-start the previsualization (or previs) process or supplement it, depending on how many VFX and practical shots are needed for the scene. In each case, he relies on his intuition to hit the right emotional beats—toggling between aerial footage and the inside of a swerving car—and his illustrative skill set to deliver realistic models of key structures, roads and vehicles. “Trying to get the actual landmark accurate, it’s like doing likenesses,” he says. “If you don’t show the size of the wave next to whatever it is about to pound into nothing, you’re not getting the full awe and mystery of the thing.”
Arguably the most impressive, complex, and ludicrous sequence in any disaster movie occurs early on in 2012, when John Cusack drives a limousine through a Los Angeles that’s splitting open at its seams. In an attempt to save his family from falling into the abyss, he swerves around burning vehicles, falling overpasses, and crashing buildings—then sprints everyone to a nearby jet and takes off just as the runway behind him evaporates. Not safe just yet, the plane then avoids a derailed train, glides over an imploding Hotel Figueroa, and squeezes past the U.S. Bank Tower and Wilshire Grand Center as they topple into each other. It’s a breathtaking and hilarious obstacle course, which Emmerich conceived in broad strokes and then relayed to about 120 visual effects artists. “I give them the playbook,” Emmerich says. “We talk about it a lot.”
As Travers describes it, these kinds of conversations typically start in a small room with a half-dozen previs artists hoping to grasp a director’s basic vision. In the case of Moonfall, Emmerich gave his team a couple of days to mock up the opening sequence before assessing the first draft. “You have a low ratio of success early on: around 50 percent [of his vision], and then eventually 80 to 90 percent. You know what he wants, you go and do it, he comes back and says yes.”
Like all large-scale movies, a crucial step in conceptualizing urban destruction is deciding the best angles and methods to capture specific kinds of hell-bent destroyers, whether that’s a 25-foot Decepticon or a blistering comet. In the early stages of blocking out Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in which downtown Chicago gets torn apart, Billheimer scanned the script to isolate what he felt director Michael Bay would prefer to capture himself. “You can pretty quickly determine an all-CG shot [or] a shot that could be done practically,” he says. “Are you going to see a robot crashing into a building or is it just debris falling on people that you can get in-camera? You start trying to parse that out.”
Because Bay loves implementing practical explosions and fireworks on set, capturing many angles from “live-action plates”—a term used to describe the photography usually taken from helicopters to show the breadth of destruction—felt more appropriate. That was also the case during the New York City sequence in Armageddon, in which Bay used upward-gazing shots to show meteors obliterating the sides of the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station. Though Bay’s team captured the necessary footage over the summer, the director wanted a more dramatic aesthetic and asked his crew to return in November. “The sun is lower, the shadows are deeper,” says the movie’s VFX supervisor Pat McClung, who found the darker colors easier to paint over. “He likes a lot of contrast. He gives you a lot of depth. We were very much in sync on that.”
With a rapid-cutter like Bay, storyboard and previs artists will often adapt the flow of imagery to match a specific jumpy style. “A minute of a Michael Bay film probably has 100 images in it,” Burgard says. “You’re trying to show that a person is surviving even though there’s explosions one after another. All of that stuff is condensed time.” In the case of the found-footage, kaiju-inspired monster flick Cloverfield, director Matt Reeves chose to show disaster as if straight from a shaky, handheld camera. That choice meant that cinematographer Michael Bonvillain needed to capture his monster’s climactic destruction on a slightly delayed schedule. “What intrigued me was the singular point of view,” Bonvillain says. “You have to get there after the action. You can’t have seven cameras on the explosion like a normal movie.”
Without any VFX to visualize on a stage, getting actors to react appropriately to the disaster around them becomes paramount to a scene’s effectiveness. One of the tricks Emmerich has used throughout his career has been keeping his protagonists inside contained environments—cars, ships, and planes—which prevents the need to build gigantic sets. “I don’t have many shots where people walk and things fall on their head,” he says. Inside these closed vehicular rigs, actors like Bradley rely on an audio system to know where his expressions should be directed. “The first AD is on a microphone guiding us through the action and giving us our cues,” Bradley says. “You can’t overthink it. All you can do is give yourself over to his vision, trust that you’re in the best possible hands, and know that it’s going to look spectacular.”
Near the end of Emmerich’s 2016 sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, a 3,000-mile-wide alien spacecraft begins a slow descent to Earth and sucks up everything beneath it. In literal slow-motion, Singapore’s entire infrastructure begins floating toward the sky—buildings wobble and detach, freeways turn into Hot Wheels–style loopty-loops, and fleeing citizens lose their gravitational weight. The sequence is terrifying, but for visual effects artist Matthias Buehler, watching it all unfold was a little bittersweet.
As an expert in creating large-scale urban environments and programming three-dimensional building models, he spent nine months working under VFX house Scanline, a visual effects studio specializing in smoke, fire, and water simulations, to craft Singapore’s complicated skyline and roads. Synchronizing with multiple art teams, he developed tools capable of replicating various city layouts, determining differing styles of highways, bridges, and apartments down to the type of window and air-conditioner unit. And within about 30 seconds of screen time, extraterrestrials had destroyed it all. “To see what a team of talented people can pull off in the course of a year—it’s humbling,” he admits. “I can completely distinguish between the craft and the beauty of the architecture, but the goal is to create the story and emotion.”
Which is to say, without painstaking creation, there is no mass destruction. As part of his process, Buehler used Google Street View to capture small differences between rooftops, chimneys, and color palettes in Singapore, Washington, D.C., and London. “I just studied the hell out of those images,” he says. “The challenge, in this case, was that every single building has to look different.” On these kinds of epic-scale movies, once the permutations and urban re-creations are finished, they’re sent further down the digital pipeline. There, artists paint and composite more recognizable landmarks, effects artists add movement details, and another team layers in a tidal wave, per se.
Another way productions replicate large-scale urban centers is through LiDAR, a relatively new laser technology that provides detailed scans and measurements of buildings in order to precisely match shots from multiple camera angles. Well before shooting the Battle of New York in 2012’s The Avengers, Billheimer remembers Marvel sending small teams of photographers all over midtown Manhattan, where they stayed for months capturing specifications of any intersection or rooftop on which action took place. “We had location scouts getting them access to buildings,” he says. “We shot all up and down Fifth Avenue, all around Stark Tower, so we could re-create the entire city for the main shoot, which was on a sound stage in Arizona.”
Sometimes, if an all-CG previs sequence is approved by the director, the VFX house can even share its own data sets from previous movies. In the case of Moonfall, Travers used some of his team’s Santa Monica photography while leaning on Scanline to provide LiDAR for Los Angeles. But the relationship works both ways. When Travers ran his solar system sims, he calculated that as the moon rose, it would provide about 3 G’s of force, which he then relayed to the Scanline team. “CG is grounded in physics, especially the big simulation stuff,” Travers says. “They take that and plug in 3 G’s and months later, after laborious, detailed work, you get these strange simulations of buildings flying sideways.”
These same tools also inform the city’s demolition. At one point in Dark of the Moon’s climax, a glass office building is ripped in half, blasting out shattered material and exposing its interior. “That’s where the LiDAR comes in,” Billheimer says. Once visual artists know which floors will get wiped out, they can specifically furnish them with all kinds of office-related clutter that the laser tech can sync together. “You want to have a library of furniture and debris,” Billheimer says, “so it doesn’t look like a Godzilla movie from the ’60s where he swipes a building and it’s just empty inside.” The director can also help the process, like when Bay shot actors sliding across a real, tilted office floor. “It gives us great reference and guidance,” Billheimer says.
Even when fantastical elements are in play, accuracy is the primary goal. The Hulk might be slamming a gang of Chitauri aliens through a window, but Billheimer still has to solve for authenticity. One way is to watch archived footage of building implosions and controlled demolitions—like “the Vegas casinos in the ’60s and ’70s that were all being torn down,” he says. “We would watch a lot of that, partly for what the debris looks like but also to be able to design the smoke simulations when a cloud of nasty dust and debris and particulates comes out while a building is moving downward through it.”
Earlier in their careers, Emmerich, Bay, and other disaster filmmakers achieved these shots by shooting miniature buildings with real fire and debris. Still an occasional practice today, blowing up miniatures was the preferred method through the ’90s mostly because it offered a tactile, exaggerated, and cinematic depiction of ruination. On Armageddon, McClung specifically remembers blasting a 12-foot urethane replica of the Chrysler Building with spray-painted metal debris made of fuller’s earth and broken plaster. “We had air cannons behind it to push everything out and propane mortars to shoot fireballs—whatever we’d need,” McClung says.
Shooting from below to distort the height, and speeding the camera’s frame rate up to 120, McClung then supervised a crane to drop the collapsible spire on its head in front of a green screen. The digital team touched up and composited the shot onto a live-plate background, accounting for any unusual flames or smoke that might expose the miniature’s size. “We shot people on the street, and I didn’t have them in the deep background because I knew the building was going to land in this [particular] spot,” McClung says. “You have to see the composite in your head.”
Regardless of the era, that visual intuition is a critical skill—especially for cinematographers who have to smooth these practical explosions and VFX shots into a cohesively lit scene. Though earth-shaking collapses and fireballs might render highly realistic damage, they mean nothing if they don’t match the reactions of the characters they’re impacting. “I’m thinking about, ‘What would an asteroid be like, and how do I have to mimic that so it’s photographically accurate and what I need?’” says Moonfall cinematographer Robby Baumgartner. “When you’re on a stage and have a good understanding of the visual effects, you become the driver of what it’s going to look like. If you don’t do that, well, it becomes a problem.”
In the midst of scouting New York City for Armageddon in 1997, Bay and a group of producers made their way to the base of the Twin Towers. Looking for unique angles from which to depict his impending meteorite assault, Bay quickly became intrigued by James Rosati’s 1972 sculpture Ideogram, a stainless steel intersection of beams and reflections located in the middle of the World Trade Center. “‘When we come back, let’s do a shot looking up at the two buildings and rotate it,’” McClung remembers Bay telling everyone. “‘I want the meteors going through there.’”
True to his intention, the rotating blink-and-you-miss-it shot appears halfway through the apocalyptic sequence, with the camera peering straight up through the sculpture’s triangular opening. The towers flank each side of the frame as meteors fly past them, but it’s not long before they too absorb oncoming fire. In the midst of the rapidly edited assault, a two-second shot captures a meteor slamming into the broad side of one tower. After the loud, war-like shower ceases, Bay quietly assesses the damage with a helicopter shot looking over a crisped Manhattan, where both towers stand billowing flames and smoke.
More than 20 years after 9/11, the scene is still haunting, an unintentional reminder of the paper-thin line between Hollywood’s destructive iconography and real-life tragedy. Since the attacks, most disaster-movie filmmakers and artists have had to more thoroughly consider the world’s collective sensitivity to falling buildings and their implied carnage. How do you address and depict a city’s massive loss of life? How do you acknowledge painful history without exploiting it? “It’s sort of a director’s decision about what’s going to pull on the audience’s heart strings,” Billheimer says, but when it comes to mimicking specific, traumatic footage, “that’s always sort of a moral red line.”
Emmerich admits he stopped working on The Day After Tomorrow in the aftermath of the attacks, worried about showing wreckage around New York. “And then nine months later, I had a long discussion with somebody who said I’d be doing [the movie] a disservice,” he says. He remembers later being told, “Just don’t have a building collapse and you’re fine.”
In his time working with Bay on Transformers and Joss Whedon on the first two Avengers movies, Billheimer recalls having specific editorial conversations about 9/11 and the impact certain scenes might have on audiences. “[If] there would be an eight-story rolling wall of dust and debris that was gray and ashy with people on the street,” Billheimer says, “we generally tried to avoid that kind of imagery because that is a little too specific, a little too horrifying.” Even referencing the attacks was off-limits for his visual effects teams. “That was something taboo,” he says. “You just didn’t do it.”
As an alternative, Billheimer recalls Whedon inserting more civilian through lines throughout New York’s disaster zones and the fictional Sokovia’s complete annihilation, distancing the realities of mass casualty by focusing on survivors. “If you can get the audience to engage with those mini-movies, it’s more impactful than seeing 2,000 people in a crowd looking up at a building about to fall on them,” Billheimer says. The other solve Whedon employed was deliberate shots of civilians clearing out from specific locations and action sequences. That way, Billheimer says, “you’re just focused on the heroes and the villains.”
While working on 2012’s Los Angeles earthquake scene, Emmerich inserted a child’s point-of-view shot through a plane window, capturing civilians hanging on to the edges of a deteriorating high-rise. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a queasy detail or an addition that sells the absurdity of the moment. “That will fuck that kid up for the rest of his life,” Burgard says. “But when you see the back-row images of the buildings falling, it’s so overplayed that it becomes almost funny.”
Still, navigating these arbitrary guidelines can be tricky, especially when trying to portray realistic cause and effect. When the monster in Cloverfield begins wreaking havoc throughout lower Manhattan, Reeves depicts the kinds of rolling debris clouds and sprinting New Yorkers that caused Billheimer to wince. The shaky, handheld camera aesthetic adds to the suspense, just as it reminded many of the home videos people took on the day of the attacks. “We definitely talked about it, but ultimately we came down on the side of this as something we’re interpreting and drawing from,” Bonvillain says. “One reason the movie was effective—it was personal, it was a singular point of view, there were no wide shots. It was all about living through this.”
Perhaps the movie most indifferent to its depiction of destruction is Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, which features a violent third-act fight between General Zod and Superman. With part of Metropolis already in disrepair, Snyder has the two use the city as their own playground, punching each other into various office buildings and sending shrapnel to the street without showing any collateral damage, as though the city’s residents had vanished. “To my knowledge there were no discussions or comparisons to 9/11,” the movie’s cinematographer, Amir Mokri, wrote in an email. “I think there is more violence and ethical concern in video games than there are in movies.”
It’s a contentious balance. As Kyle Buchanan wrote for Vulture in 2013, the Man of Steel brawl ends up being “a bloodless massacre of concrete,” and that “with the removal of mortality from the equation, the mayhem is just deadening; all bombast, little consequence.” Beyond binding stories to families and heroic protagonists, the genre still hasn’t found a unanimously agreeable solution to destroying urban spaces and the people that inhabit them. Of course, as Billheimer notes, that moral murkiness won’t stop downtowns from being pummeled on screen anytime soon. In cities, “there’s a real sort of raising of the stakes that people get thrilled by,” he says. “It’s just a little bit less exciting to see robots in the forest.”
In the October 1965 issue of Commentary Magazine, Susan Sontag wrote a treatise on the disaster movie. Within her analysis, she breaks down the common plot structures (generally reliant on a large weapon), the characters (heroic scientists and doctors advising politicians and military generals), and the moral simplification of these epic narratives. But her most trenchant observation comes in her opening paragraph, when she describes the way humanity lives under the continual threat of “unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” “One job that fantasy can do,” she concedes, “is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”
Almost 60 years later, digital technology’s photorealistic capabilities and immersive, shock-and-awe destruction—from unhinged tectonic plates to alien takeovers to continent-sized comets—have never been better. And yet, because of the growing frequency of man-made and environmental catastrophes, filmmakers continue to battle the specter of desensitization.
At this point, it’s not a surprise when massive flooding and wildfires start looking like sequences produced by Scanline or ILM. “The aerial photography from the volcanic eruption in Tonga looks like a Roland Emmerich movie,” says Travers, who admits to nature’s confounding and inspiring relationship with movies. “It’s eye-opening, it’s disturbing—then you can’t help your brain from processing it and learning from it. This is what would happen.”
“Thirty years ago, if you would have shown a modern Hollywood destruction movie, people would have gone mad because they wouldn’t be able to process this kind of art form,” Buehler adds. “Now, it’s normalized because we see it on the news every day.”
That might be a bit of an oversimplification. The moon, at least right now, is not on the brink of contact with Earth. But there is a challenge in making repeatedly destructive imagery pack an emotional punch. Emmerich, the torch-bearer for this genre, is eager to keep trying, pursuing bigger and more inventive ways to help us grapple with devastation—like, for example, when Christ the Redeemer topples from its perch in 2012.
Emmerich was in a helicopter that day, photographing the iconic landmark. And then his two worlds collided. “This dark cloud was closing in on us, and it looked so apocalyptic. It was awesome,” he laughs. “I kept shooting.”
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.