Glass can be pretty dramatic. We’re not just talking about buildings or home improvement either (see the rest of the site for more on that). Glass is, at least according to Hollywood, a material so powerful and entertaining that it’s become an integral part of modern filmmaking. It’s hard to think of any modern action movie in which glass doesn’t shatter in a dramatic way.
As a structural glazing firm, we think glass gets a bit of a ‘bad break’ in modern movie making, but we can’t deny that it has provided some of the most memorable moments in the last century of cinema. We’ve put together a list of some of the most iconic, and some of our favourites, followed by a bit of trivia on glass in cinema more generally.
Admittedly, there are a few spoilers below, so if you’ve not seen any of the following films, exercise caution!
Here are some of the very best glass-smashing scenes in cinema:
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece has been a holy grail of cult cinema for decades. Released in several different versions, and now serving as the predecessor to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Blade Runner: 2049, the film isn’t just a pinnacle achievement in movie-making history - it also features one of the greatest ever scenes of shattering glass.
During a frenetic chase, the replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is pursued by Harrison Ford’s now-iconic Blade Runner, Deckard. As the chase heats up, Deckard finally manages to shoot Zhora, causing her to fall through several panes of glass in the window display of a dystopian clothes store.
The scene is instantly recognisable to fans, and is memorable largely because of the artistic blend of slow motion, Vangelis’ swelling score, and lots and lots of broken glass.
During filming in 1982,Joanna Cassidy wasn’t allowed to perform the stunt herself due to safety concerns (leading to the use of an infamously unconvincing stunt double).
For his 2007 ‘final cut’, Ridley Scott managed to convince Cassidy to don the full makeup and costume once more, and reprise her role as Zhora. The scene was reshot with the original actress as intended, and helped form Scott’s pure vision of the film.
The film that launched the career of action hero Bruce Willis, and possibly the most violent Christmas movie of the 80s (aside, maybe, from Gremlins), Die Hard also features a pretty memorable encounter between Willis’ John McClane and some glazing installations.
During an encounter with McClane, the villain Hans Gruber (masterfully portrayed by the late Alan Rickman) commands his goons to ‘shoot the glass’, forcing Willis to make a bolt for safety, barefoot, over the broken shards.
The resulting injuries are fairly unpleasant watching, and might put you off your Christmas pudding, but there’s no denying how effective the sequence is - particularly considering McClane’s earlier assertion of ‘Who gives a s*** about glass?’. We do, John. We do.
The Wizard of Oz
Truly a turning point in modern entertainment, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz has delighted countless audiences since its release. Dorothy and her cohort of charming and pitiable companions are arguably what make Oz so wonderfully captivating, but during one scene, things get a little bit Michael Bay (kind of).
During an encounter with the titular Wizard, the Cowardly Lion lives up to his name, and decides he’s had quite enough - making a bolt down the corridor, and straight out of a closed window.
What makes this sequence so entertaining is how simply daft the Lion’s response is. Why does he run for a solid 50 yards before leaping through the glass? Why does he move with such determination towards that particular window? We just don’t know. It sure is funny though.
The Matrix changed the world of special effects cinema forever, with the Wachowskis’ vision of an alternate computer-reality world introducing us to ‘bullet time’ slow motion, and a very surly Keanu Reeves.
There are too many memorable moments to mention, but during the opening sequence, there’s a lovely juxtaposition of modern CG effects and classic Hollywood smashery. As Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is chased across rooftops, she makes a gravity-defying leaping spin - straight through a small and defenceless window.
It’s a great shot, admittedly, but we can’t help but feel bad for whoever had to clear up the mess. It might only be a computer-world, but someone still has to clean that up, Trinity.
Someone should have put the aptly-named ‘Architect’ of the Matrix in touch with Cantifix, and we could have suggested a heat-strengthened option. Although admittedly, that might have resulted in the need for a computer-reality ambulance for Trinity, and a much shorter film.
Big spoilers ahead. A captivating performance by Michael Douglas elevated David Fincher’s 1997 flick The Game to new heights - literally, when it came to the closing sequence.
We’ll avoid providing too much context to save those of you who might not yet have seen the film (though you should. It’s really very good), but the head-spinning denouement involves the aforementioned Douglas falling through a giant glass atrium roof (not unlike the ones we offer), much to his - and our - confusion.
All is revealed shortly thereafter, and it turns out that the clue was in the name of the film after all, and The Game enters the pantheon of the best movie endings of all time. It’s a sleigh. He’s a ghost. The shark blows up.
Spoiler alert. During the climax of the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore schmooze-fest that is 1990’s Ghost, the baddie ‘Carl’ (who wins the award for most underwhelming villain name, if nothing else) meets his eventual comeuppance as a result of a broken window.
Swayze, pulling a somewhat unconvincing frowny-face, pursues Carl, who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time - namely, directly underneath a collapsing pane of broken razor sharp glass. Or at least, it’s supposed to be.
Upon closer scrutiny, the wobbling of the ‘glass’ gives it away pretty clearly as flexible plastic, likely substituted to prevent Tony Goldwyn from actually being impaled. Regardless, if ever there were an argument for tempered glass, this is it.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Spielberg's instant classic Jurassic Park gave audiences everything they could ask for. Velociraptors luring adults and children alike into cunning traps? Check (clever girl). A massive Tyrannosaurus chomping down on a man sat on a toilet? Check. Tense scene after tense scene, achieved through persistently subtle visual cues? Check.
The sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, continued the trend, and featured a brilliantly envisioned moment of fraught tension. Julianne Moore and Jeff Goldblum find themselves hanging over a cliff with nothing but the glass rear window of a stationary caravan between them and certain death. As Moore lands on the pane, a spider-web of cracks start to form, agonisingly slowly, as Goldblum and a bumbling Vince Vaughn struggle to pull Moore to safety.
Moments like this are precisely the reason we offer laminated tempered glass - which, even when broken, can hold together and bear weight. The paleontologists would definitely have benefitted from installing this modern glazing solution, and should have listened to Goldblum in the 1993 original - stopping not only to think about if they could, but if they should.
Orson Welles’ magnum opus, the 1941 mystery drama Citizen Kane, presented viewers with an unforgettably compelling portrayal of a newspaper mogul’s gradual demise. Welles wrote, starred in, produced and directed the film, and it’s a testament to his ability that the movie frequently tops ‘best films of all time’ lists - as well as providing inspiration for one of the best ever Simpson’s visual gags, with the ‘cane from Citizen Kane’ appearing in a memorabilia display.
The movie opens with a head scratching conundrum, as the main character Charles Foster Kane dies, uttering the single word, ‘Rosebud’. In a hugely symbolic moment, a snow globe in his grasp drops to the floor, shattering. It might not be on quite the same level of impact as Die Hard, but this shot of breaking glass is one of the most memorable movie moments of all time.
Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix
For something a little more contemporary, the climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix used visual FX to stunning effect, treating audiences to a magical clash of the titans - and a beautifully directed moment of shattered glass.
After a particularly powerful bit of spellcasting from he-who-shall-not-be-named, all of the glass windows and installations in the Ministry of Magic explode in a crescendo of tinkling and shattering. The pieces are then sent flying straight towards good old Michael Gambon, who turns them to sand as they reach him. It’s a breathtaking moment visually, and a turning point in the epic saga.
We have the Ministry of Magic to thank for this spectacular moment, for investing in so much glazing - although we don’t envy the company who had to design and replace it all, magic or no magic.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Another moment from the eponymous Potter saga. During a particularly angsty dinner with a nightmarish aunt (played superbly by Pam Ferris, whose iconic portrayal of The Trunchbull in 1996 classic Matilda struck fear into a generation of children), Harry embraces his inner grumpy teenager, and loses his temper.
While for most teens engaged in a family feud, this would involve storming off to a bedroom with a side of door slamming (a la Harry Enfield's Kevin the Teenager), for the Boy Who Lived, this results in the glass held by the bullish Aunt Marge exploding in her hand.
While Harry does, eventually, ascend the stairs to his room and slams the door, the exploding glass precedes an amusing sequence in which Marge is inflated, and then floats off into the night sky. It might be funny, but with glass-breaking abilities like that, we don’t want Harry anywhere near our workshop.
Of all the classic Bond films, Goldfinger tops many people’s list of favourites. With such classic lines as “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”, and scenes including a woman suffocated to death at the hands of a generous coating of gold paint, Goldfinger cemented Sean Connery’s role as Bond for a further 4 outings.
It wasn’t just the bar of the 007 movies that was set sky high, either - the climax of the movie, in Auric Goldfinger’s elaborate private jet, also provided one of the most visceral and brilliantly over the top endings to any Bond adventure (aside, maybe, from the demise of Jaws in 1979’s preposterous Moonraker).
After shooting through one of the windows of the plane, the cabin depressurises, sucking Goldfinger (who is by no means a slim individual) out of the tiny gap, whole. The notion of ‘smash the window of a plane, get sucked out’ may have since been disproved, but it’s still a pretty special moment in the film, and cinema more broadly.
How is the effect created?
Unsurprisingly, the glass used to create the stunts that have us chatting over post-cinema-trip drinks isn’t actually real. Used well, stunt glass can certainly be convincing, but sadly, it’s not the real deal - in reality, leaping through a window with only minor cuts and bruises is something even Sly Stallone would struggle to achieve.
The glass used for props and fake windows is technically not glass at all, and there are a couple of different materials that are prominently used in the world of movie magic to create a realistic effect:
The first is ‘sugar glass’. This is a term that many people may have heard of, and information on this material’s place as a glazing substitute has been featured on everything from Mythbusters to Blue Peter (here’s one we made earlier…). Sugar glass does pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s made from a combination of water, sugar, and glucose or corn syrup. And yes, you can eat it.
Sugar glass was a go-to prop creation material for TV and Movie producers for decades, largely due to its cost efficiency and simplicity to create. It looks and sounds convincing, and it’s relatively harmless to use in stunts such as the classic ‘you’ve irritated me somewhat, and thus I shall now dispose of this wine bottle over the back of your noggin.’
Despite regularly touted as the standard glass substitute, sugar glass is rarely used in modern productions. It might be a quick fix, but frustratingly its sugar-based recipe means that its ‘hygroscopic’ - meaning it attracts water molecules at room temperature, and starts to get all sticky, before falling apart.
This means that the aforementioned soon-to-be-smashed bottles can’t contain liquid, and sugar glass needs to be used very quickly after its made lest it break down into a gloopy, dramatically useless mess.
At Cantifix, we love innovation in glass, but it’s not just structural glazing that has seen a leap forward in what can be achieved in recent decades. The materials used to create artificial stunt glass have also come forward leaps and bounds, and now most of the shattering effects we see on the big screen are realised through the use of synthetic resins, such as Piccotex or SMASH.
There are a few ways to make these kinds of plastics, which usually involve thermoplastics, or composite resins. Easily moldable, these materials can be stored for far longer than sugar glass, and provide an even more realistic noise and visual effect.
Real tempered glass is sometimes used via something known as the ‘popper’ technique - a glass popper is used to shatter the panel at the moment a prop gun is fired, or immediately before a stunt performer makes impact. The result is an effective explosion of small glass pieces, and a relatively safe scenario for performers.
Tempered glass is used in real life situations too due to its higher levels of safety when it breaks, with many of our clients opting for heat-strengthened panels of laminated tempered glass. If it’s good enough for our clientele, it must be good enough for on-screen daredevils!