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Impressive Pyrotechnics

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"What an odd-sized explosion."
J.D., Scrubs, "My Unicorn"

Stuff Blowing Up on TV and movies are usually large, visually impressive fireballs, that appear to be fueled by gasoline, propane or another similar such fuel, even when the object in question has no right to explode at all, much less spectacularly. Sometimes they are (or include) a shower of sparks.

In reality, a fireball is often a minor part of an explosion (though not always, as is the case with incendiaries, like phosphorus, uranium, gelled fuels like napalm, etc). The real devastation from an explosion often comes from the force (overpressure) of the blast and the flying debris and shrapnel. Very rarely will explosions look like what they do in real life, an expanding cloud of dust and debris with very little light — and very little left behind. Those also can look visually impressive (since you see a huge cloud in just a second), but those can be difficult to film, while fireballs done in movies are a lot safer. Video games and animation have the excuse of all that debris being almost too much to draw or render.

The explosions also burn at a ridiculously slow rate, which conveniently enables one to Outrun the Fireball.

In addition, the more powerful the explosion, the more quickly it uses up or blows apart the reactants involved in any combustion, so there's an inverse relationship between how powerful the blast is and how much fire there is. Film pyrotechnicians favor big fireballs not only because they're more spectacular, but because they're low-powered and thus relatively safe to work with.

Volcanoes are often part of this. The lava is the scariest part shown in fiction (ironically with Convection, Schmonvection involved), but the lava usually stays in a (relatively) short range around the volcano and most flows are slow enough that they can easily be avoided by appropriately wary individuals. People in Hawaii live around lava spewers. The really devastating effects are the cloud effects such as pyroclastic flows and Plinian eruptions (both happened when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD).

Oh, and fireballs in space. Perhaps some chemical mixtures can make fireballs in a near vacuum, but it's unlikely most space explosions are like that.

Occurs in 90% of all onscreen explosions.

Compare Every Car Is a Pinto.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Wonder Woman (1987): When some try to escape the hellscape Circe is quickly turning New York into by swimming there is a massive explosion across East River that then ends with the river on fire that clues the heroes in to the fact that Plastique is present.

    Films — Animated 
  • In Incredibles 2, the Elasticycle explodes rather dramatically when it crashes into a mountainside. While electric batteries are combustible under the right circumstances, it is a surprisingly large explosion for such a thin and lean motorcycle.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Casualties of War: Corporal Clark attempts to frag PFC Eriksson to stop him from fingering the rest of the squad for the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl. He does this by setting off a grenade in the latrines. Eriksson sees this, runs and is blown away by the explosion. Not only is he unharmed, but the lavatory explodes like someone set off TNT in it. Eriksson does more damage to Clark with a shovel then Clark does so to Eriksson with a hand grenade!
  • The DVD commentary for Dark Blue World (2001) mentions that the SFX man asked the director if he wanted a realistic look or huge fireballs for the scene where the airfield is bombed at night. He decided to go for the unrealistic visual effect.
  • Der Clown — Payday: The explosion of the aircraft at the end suggests that the plane was filled with fuel from wingtip to wingtip, including the entire fuselage behind the rear cockpit wall, so huge is the fireball.
  • At the end of I Am Legend, Robert Neville destroys the monster horde in the laboratory with a hand grenade which produces a large fireball.

  • Lavan Firestorm, of Heralds of Valdemar has an exceptionally powerful Firestarting Gift. Usually in this canon, someone with this power can pretty much just start fires in their own vicinity, but when Lan's upset enough he can make stone and air burn in gigantic gouts.
    The fire had a voice - it howled like millions of damned souls. It had a mind, and the mind was mad. From the ground to the mountaintop, there was nothing but flame. Fire churned and roiled, fire roared and shrieked, fire filled the sky. Vortices of flames twisted, hellish dancers with the grace of a streamer in the wind and the appetite of a demon. Those nearest the flames were suddenly sucked up by a wind or the firestorm itself inhaling, pulled off their feet, into the air, and then, screaming, into the maelstrom. It pulsed once, like a spasming heart, and enlarged again.

    Live-Action TV 
  • MythBusters:
    • Demonstrated in an episode, where they specifically compared blowing up a car with a Hollywood style explosion, and blowing it up properly. The Hollywood one caused an impressive fireball, and scorched the car while leaving it mostly intact. The proper one blew the car into pieces scattered over a wide radius. Of course the proper one did have a very impressive fireball of its own. You just needed to watch in Slow Motion to really appreciate it.
    • They also tested whether tracer bullets + petrol tank = boom. The answer? Sort of, but not really an explosion, so much as just a fire. But a bad guy in a movie is unlikely to be using tracer bullets; not only are they expensive to buy legitimately, but in a lot of states -including wildfire-prone California- they're illegal to sell to private citizens and therefore difficult to get hold of without a cross-border road trip.
  • The Scrubs episode "My Unicorn" parodies this when an explosion occurs after a toy airplane crash.
  • Much beloved of Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear (UK), which earned him the ire of co-presenter James May when he set off fireballs while May was trying to film an ad for a tame diesel Volkswagen Scirocco.
  • Stargate SG-1 featured plenty of explosions, but happily mocked the need for bigger explosions with each season in one episode. No matter how large the special effects team made their fireballs, the director constantly demanded larger, requiring increasingly elaborate setups to get the desired effect.
  • Justified in New Kids when a gas station blows up and in New Kids Turbo when a missile destroys Schijndel.

    Video Games 
  • Star Fox 64 was great at this. Best examples include: Either ending of Katina (Bill comments on the fireworks if you destroy the Saucerer, but seeing it vaporize the Katina base is probably even cooler looking), Macbeth (where you get to blow up an enemy weapons facility by smashing a supply train into it), Bolse (the entire Bolse satellite blows up, and since it's described in the Guide as being planet-sized, this may also qualify for Earth-Shattering Kaboom), Area 6 (everything explodes in Area 6. Especially at the very end) and of course, Venom, where Andross makes his entire base explode when he's defeated in an attempt to kill you off and you have to follow your dead father out of the exploding ruins. Also, the underwater level, in which it is proven that giant clams are made of nitroglycerine.
  • Crysis is actually the ultimate king of Impressive Pyrotechnics. Any object that can explode will explode with incredible graphics effects. The pinnacle being A NUCLEAR GRENADE LAUNCHER.
  • Surprisingly, the video game Borderlands subverts this trope, as the grenades and rockets the player acquires behave like normal, boring, Real-Life explosions. That is, until you pick up "Grenade M.O.D.s", which add features like Incendiary, Shock, and Corrosive damage to your otherwise normal frag grenades. Which causes them to explode in Spectacular Fireballs, Static Discharges, and Chemical Plumes, respectively.
  • Ether Vapor posesses some incredible explosions and the like. And what's makes that more impressive is that it is a Doujin Game.
  • In the final area of RefleX, the Kamui fighters explode spectatularly, with lightning bursting out everywhere, when destroyed.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • In one non-canon episode (which could theoretically describe the majority) Homer dies and is told to perform one good deed to get into heaven. After a lack of success, Homer saves a baby from a runaway carriage — the empty carriage proceeds to roll down the stairs he was sat on, into the road where a couple of cars narrowly avoid hitting it, then tipping over and setting on fire.
    • Also subverted in one episode. Homer buys illegal fireworks and lights one in the house. Realising his blunder, he stuffs it in the fridge before exclaiming "the beer!!", then stuffs it in the dishwasher and covers his ears. The dishwasher doesn't explode, but there's enough damage done to cause the dishwasher to leak all over the kitchen uncontrollably. He then shrugs and walks away, whistling innocently.


Video Example(s):


Shan-Yu's Explosive Death

Shan-Yu meets his end in an explosive blast of glory as he is hit by a huge rocket that drags him right into a pile of fireworks, that blast him apart.

How well does it match the trope?

4.78 (9 votes)

Example of:

Main / CruelAndUnusualDeath

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