VFX Firsts: What was the first film to use a cloud tank?

Surprise! befores & afters launches a podcast.

I’m excited to announce the VFX Firsts podcast here at befores & afters! It’s going to be a weekly audio limited series podcast looking back at major pioneering moments in visual effects, with expert guests who work in the particular area of focus of each episode.

This week, VFX Firsts tackles the question: ‘What was the first film to use a cloud tank?’, with special guest Gavin Graham, DNEG Montreal general manager.

Your VFX Firsts podcast hosts this week, Gavin Graham from DNEG, and Ian Failes from befores & afters.

While the answer to that question is revealed further down the page, you can go ahead and listen now without spoilers over at Apple Podcasts or on Spotify, or via the embedded player right here. Spoilers in the show notes, below. Also, here’s the RSS feed.

1. Gavin Graham’s cloud tank test from ten years ago

2. Gavin Graham’s more recent cloud tank set-up at home

3. The first cloud tank film: cloud tank set-up and results from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (imagery courtesy Scott Squires)

Cloud tank shoot.

Cloud-like results on film.

4. Cloud tank effects shots compilation from Close Encounters, care of Johnny Banta

5. Wait, could it have been The Ten Commandments?

Read this CineMagic article on that film’s part of the Red Sea effects.

Buy Me A Coffee

6. Where to find out more about cloud tanks

Scott Squires’ Effects Corner blog post, featuring cloud tank instructions

The Single-Minded Movie Blog

VFX Voice article on Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Shanks FX Cloud Tank demo

Shanks ‘Cloud Tank Magic’ compilation

The Slow Mo Guys – Hypnotic Ink Physics in 4K Slow Motion

Finally, did we get it wrong? Is there a different film you think was the first to use a cloud tank? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for listening!

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Join the discussion

  1. LCR

    So the clouds in Independance Day were made with the same technique?

    • Ian Failes

      Yes, that’s right. The team there relied on lighting arrays submerged in water, with gray paint added to the water. I believe it was also heavily digitally augmented. Beautiful work.

  2. LCR

    Well, that’s impressive !

    • Sue

      We shot cloud tank footage for the first Tomb Raider. Mike Talarico and Steve Begg at the Cinesite Stage at Pinewood.

      • Ian Failes

        Oooh, I would love to see this!

  3. Graham Edwards

    From Home Movies Magazine, January 1950, describing a way of simulating a sky as a background for titles:

    “[Shoot through] a small glass tank with flat sides … Fill an ordinary eye-dropper with a pine oil emulsion antiseptic, such as ‘Hexol’ … Before starting the camera, squirt the pine oil solution into the warm water. The result will be an ever changing pattern of cloud formations of vivid whiteness.”

  4. Nadezhda

    A Arnold Gillespie used water tank to do the nuclear explosion in the 40-s for the film The Beginning or the End 1947. it is described in his memoirs. Used the same footage later for Above and Beyond 1952. Doubt it anyone did it earlier than him. He even tells where he got the idea from – from shooting one of Tarzan films where Tarzan fight with a crocodile in the river. Blood from the crocodile doll exploded like a nuclear mushroom. So he got the idea from there.

  5. LarryB

    The British film SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956) used a cloud tank for the climatic scene in which an atomic bomb is exploded in space above the earth.

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