If you saw the recent remake of Godzilla, you saw stock footage from Atom Central, known on YouTube as “the atomic bomb channel.” Atom Central is the brainchild of Peter Kuran, an expert on archival films of the atmospheric testing era of 1945 to 1963. Kuran had a successful career creating photographic and visual effects for the movie business, beginning with his work as an animator on the original Star Wars. Combining his film restoration and photography expertise with his interest in nuclear history, he has also produced and directed five documentaries. He won a 2002 science and engineering Academy Award for a color film restoration technique he developed while working on his 1996 film Trinity and Beyond. Kuran literally wrote the book on How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb, published in 2006, which tells the stories (and shows the work) of the photographers who documented atomic bomb tests. He is currently working with Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories to preserve and catalog images from the bomb-testing era, and to produce a technical handbook that will help people understand these images and the techniques used to create them. Dawn Stover spoke with him about his work.
BULLETIN: How did you get involved with the national labs?
KURAN: A science writer from the New York Times was doing a story on the guys from Lookout Mountain Laboratory, the top-secret lab in Hollywood that did a lot of the documentary films on atomic testing. He talked to some people at Lawrence Livermore Lab and said they should get to know me because of my book.
BULLETIN: The labs were digitizing old footage? Just for the record?
KURAN: They want to learn new information, but preservation in itself is a good idea. Some of the films are fading; some of them are going bad; some of them are shrinking.
BULLETIN: How many films are we talking about?
KURAN: It's what's called the EG&G technical film library. EG&G was the company headed by Harold Edgerton, Kenneth Germeshausen, and Herbert Grier. They were the technical end of the photography, whereas Lookout Mountain was more the documentary end. They would often have these spats with each other: The guys from EG&G wanted to do purely technical analysis, whereas the guys from Lookout Mountain were more artistic. So the guys from EG&G might complain, “Why did they have to have this tree in the shot? It serves no purpose.” But the guys from Lookout Mountain thought it looked interesting. Anyway, the program is to identify and digitize all of the EG&G technical library, which was composed of anywhere from 8-millimeter film to 9½-inch film, and ranges from one frame every 4 seconds to as high as 12,000 frames a second. I think we estimated about 8,500 films, maybe more.
BULLETIN: Where were these films made?
KURAN: The Nevada Test site, the Pacific proving ground, Enewetak Atoll, Bikini Atoll, and I think eventually Christmas Island.
BULLETIN: This is all unclassified stuff?
KURAN: Everything that I’ve had access to. I don’t have a security clearance, and sometimes I’m happy about that.
BULLETIN: What do the labs hope to learn from these films? At this point, it seems like really old stuff.
KURAN: Well, you have to understand how somebody would have analyzed it 60 years ago, with this big microscope. They would look at the imagery with a piece of plastic that had a bunch of tiny concentric circles in it, to try to figure out what size they were looking at. One thing that you can gain by having it on a computer is that you can identify much smaller areas of information, and you can do much more precise measurements than you can if you’re trying to work on a piece of film. Plus, they needed to establish the yield of the weapon quite quickly, so a lot of these films have not been looked at since that first time.
BULLETIN: When people think of Edgerton, they usually think of his high-speed photos: the bullet going through the apple.
KURAN: Edgerton was considered the father of the strobe. He made strobes during World War II that would light up large areas for bombing runs. Along with his partners, he incorporated EG&G around 1947. EG&G was in a good position to be able to take on not only the photography but also like the timing and firing. If you heard somebody doing a countdown during a bomb test, it was probably somebody who worked for EG&G. A lot of the cameras were sensitive to the bomb flash, so that when the flash went off, that was actually triggering a lot of the cameras to photograph. Which is quite a feat: Some of these cameras would shoot an image within a few microseconds of the bomb going off.
BULLETIN: Were the films all kept in one library?
KURAN: The majority are at Los Alamos, and some are at Livermore, and some belong to the Department of Defense. It depends on whose project it was. That’s how they wound up getting divided.
BULLETIN: How did you get interested in in atomic tests to begin with?
KURAN: When I was 15, I visited Japan with a YMCA program. We went to Hiroshima on the anniversary, and I noticed they put us on the 4th floor—in Japan that's an unlucky number. We went to the peace memorial and I got caught up in a swirl of people and wound up watching a film about Hiroshima in a hot, muggy room in August. I realized that I was the only American in the room. And I remember thinking that the narrator of the film, who was speaking in English, was the only person I could relate to, but at the end of the credits I saw that the narrator was Japanese too. It made an impression on me.
BULLETIN: What kind of impression?
KURAN: I didn't really know what to think. When I was a kid, I was interested in Japanese anime, which took me from there to the Japanese culture, to what happened at Hiroshima. But also my interest has always been in film and visual effects. After I founded an optical company, I remembered the interest that I’d had in Hiroshima, and I started thinking about all of the old films and how beat-up they look and how that creates this veil of dirt and scratches that hides the film. It makes you feel like you're watching a newsreel rather than part of being there. It's just becoming more hazy, more dirty, more broken, and it will eventually just disappear. I thought it was important to figure out where they were storing this stuff.
BULLETIN: How did you get your hands on the films?
KURAN: When I began the research for Trinity and Beyond, somewhere I put up a message "Where are the originals?" and somebody wrote back from Santa Barbara—where all of the originals for the Defense Department were at the time. Officials at the department checked me out and then loaned me some films.
BULLETIN: When did you really get hooked on this?
KURAN: When I was making Trinity and Beyond, I would go through the films, look for things that visually represented the atmosphere of testing, duplicate it in my facility, and then start working with computers. When you start cleaning up things, you start seeing things that you didn't see before. For instance, you start to see birds getting away…or not getting away. Things like that just disappear when the film is all beat up.
BULLETIN: When people who have no expertise in the technical side see these films, what kind of reactions do they have? Do they see the things you see?
KURAN: When I made Trinity and Beyond, it wound up being in some festivals where it would be one of the top 10 polarizing films. One person would come away thinking “Wow, I can't believe they did all those bombs…Wow, that's pretty amazing.” And another person would come away and say "I can’t believe they did all those bombs. That's awful." So two people can look at the same film, see the same information, and come away with two different opinions.
BULLETIN: What about you personally? I think you say somewhere on your website that you see these things as scary and beautiful.
KURAN: At this point I'm just interested in learning more about it. I don't particularly like the thought that more weapons would be exploded, although that seems unlikely. I find it difficult to believe that anyone's going to be doing any large-scale atmospheric testing anytime soon.
BULLETIN: What images are the ones that have the most visual significance and why?
KURAN: One thing you discover is that there are two different scales: On the smaller scale, bombs would explode at the Nevada Test Site and you could see a lot more of what they were capable of doing because the testers built houses and things to blow up. At the same time, you have weapon tests out in the Pacific, and it's so difficult to imagine the scale of those because they’re so much further away and there's really nothing to compare them with. A smaller test that was shot out on the Nevada Test Site might be photographed from 5 miles or 8 miles away, whereas a safe distance out in the Pacific would be at least 20 miles, with a fireball three and a half miles wide.
BULLETIN: What do people remember from your films?
KURAN: Unfortunately, one of the most disappointing things is that the retention is pretty short. Even people who have seen Trinity and Beyond forget that the United States exploded bombs in space. You wonder whether they even saw the movie. The atomic cannon, which fired nuclear shells with a detonation only about the size of the Hiroshima bomb, is unique so people tend to remember that. But it’s, unfortunately, a subject that seems to fade from people’s minds faster than it fades off film. Nuclear weapons have always been something that has gotten a rise out of people to an extent, so you become disappointed as a filmmaker trying to get a rise out of the audience when you don't get quite the reaction you expect. It's like kicking a tiger and the tiger doesn't do anything; it just goes back to sleep.
BULLETIN: When you’re at a festival where your film is being shown, what do you notice?
KURAN: As a filmmaker, you want to get past the first 10 minutes, because if you’ve kept them hooked that long, they might just decide to watch the rest of it. In Trinity, somewhere around the 10-minute point is where you see the dead sheep after the Crossroads test. You lose a certain amount of people at that point. They don’t want to see dead animals. I don’t, either. But at the same time, I thought it would be wrong to leave it out.
BULLETIN: Why did you start Atom Central?
KURAN: One of my influences was “The Atomic Café.” A lot of people have seen the film, but I never really got a clear impression of what the atomic testing program was about, because in “Atomic Café” it's not a linear progression. That was, I think, the reason I made Trinity and Beyond initially.
BULLETIN: Who are your fans?
KURAN: People interested in the subject are people who know yields and crater dimensions. They have an uncanny interest in the subject, especially if they don’t work for a lab. These guys—and they are mostly guys—tend to be older, and maybe it's a good thing that young people aren't really interested in this subject.
BULLETIN: Can you talk about your next project?
KURAN: For the longest time, nobody knew what the Operation Crossroads bombs looked like. The photos have never been released. The first image of the Fat Man bomb that destroyed Nagasaki wasn’t released to the public until 1965. So for 20 years, people didn’t know what Fat Man looked like. Because the Crossroads bomb looked like Fat Man, that wasn’t released right away. My Crossroads research may end up as an update to Trinity and Beyond. My other project is about the guy who is the self-professed creator of the neutron bomb, Samuel Cohen. He died four years ago, but not before I did an interview with him on camera. He’s the kind of guy who rubbed lots of people the wrong way; he was a character. Neutron bomb research started right at the end of Eisenhower administration, but then it took forever. Honestly, I don't think anyone even liked it, because it was such a nasty idea, but I think what they eventually came to like about it was that they could bargain it away in peace talks. From a military standpoint, it didn’t make a lot of sense because, if you knew you'd just been dosed with a lethal dose of neutrons, you'd probably fight harder while you still had hours to live.
BULLETIN: When is your next book coming out?
KURAN: I don’t know. Some of the later films haven’t been declassified yet, from 1962. Those have the best cameras, the best lenses. I think it was around 2000 when the Pentagon finally released most of the atmospheric test yields. Before that, they couldn’t release those films because you could learn [yield] information from them.
BULLETIN: Do you feel any emotional response to the images you’re working with?
KURAN: Probably I’ve seen more of some of the images from the EG&G collection than anyone who is still alive. And I guess that was on my bucket list. I see things quickly that other people might miss. That’s how I usually find things.
BULLETIN: Because you recognize the signatures of all the different tests?
KURAN: Oh yeah. Show me a picture of a test, I can probably tell you which one it is. I’ve just looked at them too much. People can’t tell the difference between Grable and Priscilla because they were shot in the same place, but Grable was 15 kilotons [yield] and Priscilla was 37. Even people in the government get those two tests mixed up a lot.