Friday, March 23, 2012

The Girl Who was on Fire, The Physics of 'The Hunger Games' Fashion


Today marked the opening of one of the most anticipated movies of the year, ‘The Hunger Games.’ Teenagers (and adults) around the globe lined up to watch Katniss, Peeta and the other children from the 12 Districts battle to the death in the arena devised by the Gamemakers. One of the most pivotal scenes in both the book and the movie is when Katniss enters the city set ablaze by her expert stylist, Cinna. Could such a fashion statement be possible with today’s technology?


The answer is no, if you want to stay unsinged.

"'You're not afraid of fire, are you, Katniss?" He sees my expression and grins. A few hours later, I am dressed in what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume in the opening ceremonies.'

With this, Katniss and her companion, Peeta, rode on a chariot into the Capitol City during the opening ceremony of The 74th annual Hunger Games. Unless you have been living under a rock you know the basic premis. In a distopian future 24 kids called tributes, 2 from each of the 12 districts, are chosen to go to the Capitol and fight to the death in an "arena" that is created by the "gamemakers." During the games, sponsors may send aid to their favorite tribute in the form of food or survival supplies. The games open with a ceremony to show off the tributes to the city and possible sponsors. The goal is to be memorable and Katniss and Peeta did this spectacularly with the help of their "stylist" Cinna and flaming clothing.

In the book Cinna says that they costumes do not use real flames, but is then said to have ignited the duo. This occurs far in the future and their technology is much more advanced than ours, but would it be possible to have a realistic looking fake fire outfit? Would it be possible to make a real fire outfit? Obviously the movie involved CGI, but how could they have done it without computers.

Fake fires have been around for a long time. Often used in stage productions, they can produce the effect of flame without the danger. However, according to the 'The Hunger Games' novel the flame effect was so startling and so unexpected that one would assume it was not produced with flapping, lit silk. This would not be feasible in a costume anyway. To make realistic fire one needs moving flames and light. Silk or tissue paper can certainly fill the role of flames, but for a fiery effect they need to be in constant motion. This would mean installing fans of some sort in the costume. All of the silk would need to be blown by strong enough fans and if these were installed on a cape attached to a black unitard like the one described in the book, they would certainly be visible on a close up, ruining the effect. The addition of lights, even strong LEDs, would also certainly be visible on a jumbotron. The Girl on Fire would look more like The Girl Attached to a Blinking Hair Dryer. Conclusion being that with today's technology fake flames will not be enough to pull this effect.

What about real flames? The first thing to remember is that fire is hot. Very hot and very deadly if not handled correctly. There is no such thing as a "cool burning" fire. Fire is produced when oxygen in the surrounding air rips a molecule off of a substance such as wood or gas. Usually heat in the form of a match or some such thing starts the process. Different amounts of energy are released fuels made of different molecules are burned, but no matter what the material breaking apart, it will be very hot.

Different fuels can burn in different ways and Poi, or fire dancing, uses this fact to produce incredible shows. Poi dancers choose their type of fuel based on the effect they wish to achieve. Some types of fuel such as lamp oil burn slowly but produce smaller flames while white gas burns more quickly but produces a larger, more dazzling flame. Most Poi dancers use their own special mixtures of the different types of available fuels. It is even possible to use steel wool if it is correctly contained in a cage to perform "sparkly poi." Don't think you can light steel wool on fire? Watch this!




Clearly people are successfully and safely playing with fire every day. It is without a doubt possible to light something on fire without burning it. Its been a standard magician's trick for years.


The dollar bill was first dipped in water and then alcohol. The water protected the dollar bill and the alcohol burned off quickly. This would work just fine if your hand were substituted for the dollar bill, but it would only work for a short time before the water heated up enough to burn you. If you wanted to prolong the water insulation effect, you could use fire-retardant gel. The gel holds in millions of tiny bubbles of water by using long chains of molecules that act as shells. But fire can eventually burn through this too so if this were Cinna's plan, create a suit out of gel and ignite her, Katniss would have every reason to be afraid.

Kevlar is another insulating material and if I were Katniss I would hope my unitard was made of this stuff. Created by DuPont in 1965, there is pretty much nothing this material can't do. It is used to stop bullets, it is cut resistant, extremely strong, very light, has a high tensile strength and can easily be spun into ropes. Oh yeah, and it insulates against fire. The long chains of molecules are bonded to one another by hydrogen bonds creating a structure that is both stronger and more stable under high heat conditions than other materials. Most plastics melt when they are hot, Kevlar stops bullets. But just like any other insulating material, it can only go so far. Heat will eventually reach the skin, particularly if it is directly exposed to flame. Though it might last for a bit longer than other methods.

The most dangerous part of a flaming costume may not be the direct heat, but the fact that there is no way to control the direction of the flame. Even if Katniss's unitard completely insulated her from the flame, a strong breeze or motion from her chariot could push the flames in an unexpected direction setting her hair or even Peeta's body ablaze. Unless the flames were totally contained, it would always be extremely dangerous.

Though I am sure there are girls across the country who are devastated to hear this, there is no safe way to create Katniss's flaming dress for Halloween. Maybe one day in the future we will have the technology, but until then, Katniss will remain the one and only Girl on Fire.



If you would like to see the Buzz Blog team's attempt at recreating the Katniss headdress, click here. Though the headdress used the latest technology, wind blew the flames off course and the Mathlete has slightly less hair than she used to. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! We are trained and we couldn't even get it to work.

Next time: the physics of Hunger Games hair braiding, complete with office examples!


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