Audiences know that they can count on a Hollywood action movie to deliver spectacular explosions and visual effects. And when some of the most anticipated action movies need new ways to thrill, producers call on David J. Barker ’84. He’s the man who helps Hollywood blow things up.
If you’ve seen something explode in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, chances are that Barker was behind the firestorm. He was the pyrotechnics foreman on Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel and Black Panther, to name a few. While actors rehearse dialogue on set, the licensed pyrotechnic technician is typically off plotting ways to incite on-screen mayhem to maximum effect.
He remembers the set of Avengers: Endgame as an especially challenging shoot. Not only did the record-breaking movie demand complex pyrotechnics, but there were no storyboards for Barker and his crew to work from to shape the scene. All directions were given verbally to ensure plot secrecy. “Sometimes we’d come back for lunch and [the film directors] would say, ‘We want to see this on fire,’” Barker says.
The visual havoc Barker creates on screen may look chaotic, but each effect requires careful orchestration of camera angles, technical logistics and safety measures. “I’m in the process of creating art,” he says. “It’s taking the time to get it right, instead of doing it as quickly as possible. You can’t just throw a bunch of explosives around.”
On shooting days for Avengers: Endgame, when the actors would be on set doing dialogue, I’d be off making bombs.
While the job has its hazards (“On Captain Marvel, I dropped a propane tank on my toe,” he says with a sigh), safety is Barker’s priority, no matter how big an explosive effect looks on screen. In fact, after his work on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Johnny Depp autographed a photo of himself for Barker, inscribing, “Thanks for keeping me safe for the whole movie.”
Growing up in Las Vegas, Barker says that he and his friends would blow up homemade explosives in the desert for fun when they were teenagers. He enrolled at the USC School of Cinematic Arts to study film, concentrating more on the technical side of filmmaking. “I didn’t want to be a director,” he says. “I didn’t understand people as much as I knew how to build things. I studied visual effects. I built the Star Wars scene of the walking fighter machines on the snow planet in my back yard.”
Barker began working in film in 1986 as a welder and prop builder, and by the mid-1990s, he was creating pyrotechnic special effects in films and for magic shows on television. He built up his resume with projects like Transformers, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fast Five, eventually landing in the Marvel Universe.
So what’s left for him to blow up?
“I just worked on Endgame, the biggest movie ever,” he says with a laugh. “What can I do to top that? I just enjoy creating special effects.”