Dates: July 1992 – September 2009
Backdraft is named after the movie released in 1991 directed by Ron Howard.
Based in former soundstage 30, the attraction involved three scenes introducing the art of pyrotechnic special effects, including a 2 minute finale showcase where the audience was exposed to a terrifying display as a warehouse became an inferno in a thrilling recreation of the movie.
When: The attraction opened in July 1992
Where: The attraction was based in Stage 30.
Cost: $10 million
Temperature: The flames reached 2000 degrees. Hot air was blown onto the audience to make them feel more in danger.
Audience protection: A curtain of water protected the audience.
Backdraft closed after Labor Day 2009 to make way for the new Transformers ride.
Full Show Video
Scene by Scene Walkthrough
The attraction host introduces a video featuring director Ron Howard, who discusses what a backdraft is, and how the film was made.
Ron Howard: “What is a backdraft? Well, the technical explanation is a fire that has burned out all the oxygen in a room leaving only superheated gases – over 2,000 degrees just waiting for a fresh breath of air. When the fire gets what it wants… you have a backdraft. Hi. I’m Ron Howard and as the film’s director I guess I have a different definition. Backdraft: A tireless cast and crew working under demanding conditions to realistically portray fire and the heroism of the firefighters who battle it.
The screenwriter, Gregory Widen, was a former fireman and he made it very clear that in our movie the firefighters had to be right there in the middle of those blazing infernos. But I knew that getting these shots would be very hazardous for the actors and the entire film crew. Everyday, they found themselves in the middle of flame, smoke, flying ash and toppling scenery.
With all the complicated technical elements even the rehearsals were difficult. We rehearsed the scene first for the actors, then for the camera. Then we added the special effects. Finally we rolled film. [excerpt from Backdraft] A lot of hard work for a very short amount of screen time. Throughout we had to maintain realism. We went to real, old warehouses in Chicago and set fire to the inside, set fire to the outside, and then we blew them up. The crew worked tirelessly to try to make the fire into a living, breathing entity. Or, as the firefighters sometimes call it: The Beast.
On the next stage, you’ll see how a few of those spectacular effects were created and you’ll also get a sense of the professionalism and courage that our actors showed. Oh, by the way, please don’t try what you’re about to see at home. On our set we had the constant supervision of Chicago’s finest firefighters and from them, I pass on this tip: If you hear a fire engine, get out of the way. They’re not going to the movies.”
Another video featuring stars Scott Glenn and Kurt Russell talks about the difficulties the actors went through to make the movie as realistic-looking as possible. Scott Glenn goes into detail on one key sequence. As he discusses the wish of the film-makers to give the fire a character all of it’s own, a live demonstration of a rotating flame effect springs into action before exploding into a ball of fire within reach of the audience.
SCOTT GLENN (actor who starred as John ‘Axe’ Adcox in Backdraft): [fire engine pulls up] This engine reminds me of the weeks we spent shooting Backdraft and of the new respect we gained for the real firefighters who put their lives on the line for all of us every day. Of course, we had it easy next to those guys. We could yell ‘Cut’ when things got too hot. And our effects guys spent months planning and testing learning everything they could about fire and its behavior, figuring out how to put the right kind of fire only where we wanted it and only when we wanted it.
Meanwhile, another team of effects wizards were hard at work creating an intricate model for shots to intercut with our live action.
In this sequence, the roof of a burning building splits right down the middle with Billy Baldwin barely managing to stay one step ahead of the flames. [Footage from the movie] But we only used models in a couple of sequences. The rest of the time everything was very real and very hot. [Footage from the movie] Now, this scene – the finale of the film – had it all. During a chemical warehouse fire, a giant catwalk gives way and Kurt Russell’s character is just barely able to catch me. And I’m here to tell you, this was real. Flames above… flames below, and Kurt and I hanging right in the middle of the firestorm. The crew put me in a harness and pulled the cable through my coat, through Kurt’s coat then attached it to the catwalk. Now for the fun part. They painted this flammable liquid on me and set it on fire. That is me burning up there. Of course, I was wearing a flame-retardant suit plus three pairs of Nomex long underwear. But during the third take it got too hot and I had to yell ‘Cut.’ It turned out the flames had gone through to the last layer. For the end of the scene a dummy is set on fire, and that’s what you see fall.
There were hundreds of other special effects created for the film. One simple one was called the ash-omatic; a machine that threw burning ash over all of us. Man I hated that thing. At the end of the production, the crew let me blow it up.
You know, being here [in a fire station] reminds me of the days we spent doing research for the film at a real Chicago fire station, going out on calls with real Chicago firefighters. In fact for some of us it was an experience we didn’t want to see end. [fire truck pulls up and Kurt Russell gets out]
KURT RUSSELL: Well, there’s nothing quite like a ride in a fire truck. Hi I’m Kurt Russell. You know, of course, Backdraft isn’t just about great fire effects. It’s also about some very real American heroes – the firefighters themselves. They labor day in and day out to make our lives safer. And some of the fires they face can be absolutely incredible. That’s why we wanted the ones in Backdraft to be just as breathtaking. We gave the flames their own personality. In fact, there was one that seemed to have a mind of it’s own…[a flame appears on a lab bench right in front of us – see video for more] it could even be considered beautiful. But though it may seem harmless, don’t let it seduce you. For without warning, it might suddenly turn on you. [the flame explodes into a fireball, and a buzzer sounds directing us to the next stage]
Upon entering a 500,000 cubic foot soundstage, guests confront an empty warehouse. As the director yells “Action” a fire is seen to start in an office at the other side of the warehouse. How could that possibly be scary?
Wait just a few seconds, and the office explodes in a ball of flame.
It’s ruptured fuel lines, melting metal and withering heat all the way.
Massive explosions of flammable fuel drums are triggered causing overhead pipes to burst and red-hot ashes to rain throughout the structure.
An imposing fireball ultimately consumes the roof and collapses the supporting platform, leaving thrilled guests poised precariously amongst the unabated flames.
But then, with the shout of “Cut” the flames all die out, and guests are ushered to the safety of the outside world, as the attraction resets itself ready for the next guests.
Music by Hans Zimmer, edited from the original soundtrack of Backdraft could be heard throughout the attraction (and in the surrounding area).
Backdraft On Fire
The attraction opened in July 1992. In September that year a small fire on the roof of the attraction fuelled the flames of publicity:
September 24 1992 – A fire in air-conditioning ducts above Backdraft causes the attraction to be evacuated. Around 500 tourists were watching the burning warehouse part of the attraction when a air-conditioning contractor accidentally set fire to ducting while soldering a copper pipe at around 4pm. The cardboard ducting caught fire causing black smoke to blow into the burning warehouse. No members of the public panicked as they thought the black smoke was part of the presentation. Around 800 people were evacuated from the attraction and the immediate area, and Backdraft was closed for the rest of the day. The damage was estimated at $150,000. The fire was put out within 15 minutes by the firefighters based at the fire station on the Universal backlot by pouring water onto the smoking air conditioning plant on the soundstage roof.