Here’s a Project Started at Ground Zero

Angie Chuang is a Times staff writer

For Peter Kuran, the top visual effects specialist whose credits include the “Star Wars” trilogy, “RoboCop” and “Total Recall,” choosing to embark on a four-year mission to declassify and preserve government footage of atomic bomb tests had to be more than a monetary investment.

The true investment, Kuran says, was in the future. When he had to seek out footage of nuclear explosions for his visual effects work, Kuran said, he discovered available government films of nuclear test explosions to be in lamentable decay.

“And if 100 years from now, people lose this footage, then history can repeat itself,” said Kuran, founder of the renowned Visual Concept Entertainment, based in Sylmar. “No one wants aboveground testing again.”

So Kuran embarked on a journey through government red tape and countless hours of footage to document the chronology of nuclear weaponry. From the first-ever atomic bomb test explosion at Los Alamos, N.M., in 1945, to the banning of aboveground nuclear testing in 1963, Kuran’s painstakingly thorough 90-minute documentary details what he calls “the world’s great secret history.”

Kuran’s film, “Trinity and Beyond (The Atomic Bomb Movie),” was released in 1995, and over the next year received several awards, including a Silver Hugo Award for documentaries at the Chicago International Film Festival, two Gold Awards for documentaries at the Worldfest Houston and Worldfest Charleston, respectively, and a Golden Scroll Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. The film was recently picked up by a distributor (Goldhil) for home video sales.


Thanks to Kuran’s efforts, the government and the Department of Energy released thousands of hours of footage of nuclear tests between 1945 and 1963. “Trinity” also includes government newsreels, informational videos for employees of nuclear test projects and rarely seen footage purchased from Russia and China.

At age 18, Kuran was hired by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic out of the California Institute of the Arts. He worked with Lucas to create never-before-used effects for “Star Wars” and its two trilogy successors. By the time he was 20, he had started VCE and over the next 20 years racked up such credits as parts two and four of the “Star Trek” movie series, “Edward Scissorhands” and, most recently, “Courage Under Fire.”

Kuran said though it may be counterintuitive for a special-effects wizard to take on a documentary film project, he believes his attempts to re-create real phenomena convincingly have given him a healthy regard for reality.

“I’m trying to approach it as, ‘Here are the facts, that’s it.’ I think a lot of movies about the subject feel like the filmmaker is shaking you every few minutes and saying, ‘This is terrible! Don’t you realize?’ ” he said. “Because I choose not to do that, some have interpreted my film as pro-nuclear, which it’s not.”

Kuran’s desire to tell history without being didactic certainly didn’t stop him from reveling in the surreal.

One incredible clip that Kuran dug up from government files shows workers from Operation Dominic lounging about on a beach in swim trunks, barbecuing, while in the not-too-far distance, a test H-bomb is detonated, turning the sky into an angry sea of pure energy gone awry. The men don protective goggles right before the blast goes off, watch nonchalantly as a shock wave rocks the shore, and then merrily continue their barbecue. Kuran embellished by adding Connie Francis’ “Where the Boys Are” to the soundtrack.

William Shatner narrates, and the melodramatic original score was composed by William Stromberg and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. The grand operatic style of the tracks accompanying the bomb blasts lends a terrible beauty to the awe- and fear-inspiring explosions.

“I told Stromberg it really had to be bombastic, and we agreed, who better to do this, given the subject matter, than the Moscow Symphony Orchestra?” Kuran said. “I don’t think it’s expressing any opinion on the explosions. It’s just appropriate for what they are. To me, it says, ‘My bomb is bigger than yours.’ ”

One of the film’s most striking moments is not an explosion but rather a revealing interview with physicist Dr. Edward Teller, known as the “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb,” who also worked on the development of the first atomic bomb.

Teller recalls a speech given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging the scientific community to rally behind the push to create atomic weapons.

“Out of the 2,000 scientists there, I had a feeling he was talking to me,” Teller says. “He said that scientists were responsible for the weapons that [Hitler used to invade Europe], but that if they didn’t continue, the freedom of the world would be less. . . . I was never sorry for having done it.”

Kuran admits he uses a lot of footage, maybe more than was necessary, but points out his goal to preserve it for posterity. Even so, the weeding process was difficult.

“As I sat through hours and hours of government tapes, I would be looking at something, and I would say, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he said. “That’s when it would register to me that it’s got to be in the film.”

The “Trinity” Web site is The video, “Trinity and Beyond (The Atomic Bomb Movie),” is available through Goldhil Home Media for $24.95; (800) 250-8760.