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Reflections on the Moving Mushroom

by Kevin Hamilton

The Mushroom Cloud is ubiquitous, seemingly as plastic as any sign, like the face of Andre the Giant, the Cross, the American Flag. If, in the free flow of pixels and pitches, instances of this image bear any genetic connection to their origin in genocidal violence, we would do well to look at examples of this image in motion.

Unlike static appropriations of the cloud - in print, insignia, or paint - uses of the cloud in motion require either painstaking attention to simulation, or interaction with the state apparatus that produced the bomb.  For the cloud in motion is a powerful image only at its most detailed and complex.

The power of the mushroom cloud as a static image is solely in its indexical connection to the bomb's terrible destructive blast. For some, the cloud is an index not of a blast, but of access to initiation of such a blast. It's a metonym for a state or entity with power to destroy, and therefore the power to influence.

Set in motion, this image moves us differently. We cannot move through this moving sign as quickly to its origins, for the form itself presents something that doesn't fit. It sits at perception's limits. Note firstly that the cloud can't float when in moving form, adorned on the nose of a plane like a body-less head. In moving form, it only communicates itself as an atomic or nuclear event when planted on the ground, like its fungal namesake.

When properly planted, behind a hill or tree, just below the horizon, or on the seemingly blank slate of an island converted from a human home to a laboratory table, the cloud in motion achieves the scale and presence of architecture. It appears to us as do skyscrapers, monuments, mountains of human or geological origin. We understand the cloud's scale through our body as reference.

And yet it moves. The mushroom cloud, rarely depicted in its fully dispersed state, appears to have the same solidity and bounded-ness of any built form - yet it moves before us like an animal, a body of water. Nothing in this world so large, seemingly solid, and bounded also morphs. The volcano and the tornado disappear somewhere into the atmosphere, and so can be thought of as an extension of the sky, like weather. The avalanche and the flood each terrify in part through their questionable boundaries. The Mushroom Cloud, on the other hand, can be discerned and estimated in size through its comparison to the horizon. (If it has no such comparison, then the moving cloud appears as less of a threat.)

Such a large thing that also moves, and moves unpredictably - like a spreading disease or a flock of birds - confounds human experience. The blasts of light, heat, and force confound through trauma. Those aspects of the bomb are like the knife entering the body, so fast and violent as to be literally unknowable. (Some would say that the brain protects us from knowing.) But the Cloud presents itself as knowable, even as it is unprecedented. It is uncanny - and as this uncanny nature depends on its scale, thus the cloud's power depends on our bodies.

And so the cloud in motion would appear to be more rooted as a sign than the cloud in print. This then places those meaning-makers who might wield such an image in a more mediated relationship to the State. For to portray the moving cloud in all its uncanny complexity, one needs access to the actual footage, the frames captured by scientific and military personnel during development and testing. For decades - at least until the development of digital duplication and simulation technology - the credits of films featuring nuclear plot elements were incomplete. The credits of Dr. Strangelove list no one from the film unit responsible for capturing its penultimate sequence; no source is mentioned, no institutions thanked - likely because (unclassified) government-produced footage is considered to be in the Public Domain. Yet Kubrick's company would have had to secure such footage from the U.S. government (or, more recently, from stock footage brokers making a buck off the Public Domain.)

So, as a signifier, the cloud in motion is rooted to its signified in at least two ways. On film, the Mushroom Cloud was for a long time only available through borrowing or stealing from the State. Once procured, its power also depends on the scale of the human body.

This thus begs the question of the nature of the digitally-simulated mushroom cloud. As a 3D data set, moving images of the cloud bear a more complex relationship to the original. The 3D simulated mushroom cloud is more indexical than its photographic forebears - but the pixels (or voxels) in question are not indexes of an explosion - rather, they exist as traces of the algorithms designed by effects software engineers. The digital effects worker looking to simulate a mushroom cloud faces an analogous challenge to that of a Hollywood munitions expert. She is charged not with rendering the shape of a cloud, but with setting in motion a process that will result in an accurate cloud-shape.

The postproduction worker's relationship to the Cloud is thus less mediated by the State, but more mediated by the tools or medium of representation. As such, her task is thus not to best understand the dynamics of a cloud, but the dynamics of the effects algorithms, which must be harnessed to most efficiently result in a cloud-form. I would argue that even a traditional draughtsman, working in charcoal on paper, more deeply understands and renders the cloud-form, searching for marks that result in a cloud through analogy, rather than through index.

As a 3-D dataset, the cloud also floats free in terms of scale, achieving a specific size only when confined to the rendered landscape of a composited image. The cloud thus loses some of its threat, through a loss of definitive scale. (A loss echoed in how nuclear weapons get deployed in video games. According to one experienced war-gamer, first-person shooters must inevitably include nuclear weapons in the quest for greater power and threat, yet these weapons are difficult to use, since launch from the human hand would likely result in either damage to the user, or else an explosion that though significant, hardly need be nuclear.)

The course of the mediated mushroom cloud in moving imagery is thus one that either remains rooted to its origins in definitive threats and historical uses against specific peoples, or else loses its potency as just another cloud or explosion. I don't think we can say the same about many other weapons, whose portability and plasticity as signs mirror their modular and systematized uses in combat.

Mushroom Clouds on screen: 65+ years

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This montage presents, in chronological order, examples of the mushroom cloud as presented in government and feature films, television broadcasts, and commercials. Neither comprehensive nor very international in scope, it is intended to serve as a reference point for discussion of the Cloud's power as a cinematic image. Edited for the series Atomic Light in the Public Light (

from Multiple Films (Multiple years)
Creator: Kevin Hamilton
Posted by Kevin Hamilton