On April 27, 1986, disaster struck at the Chernobyl Power Plant. Nuclear reactor number four had a massive and sudden power increase that led to multiple explosions at its core. The results of the accident left the city of Pripyat bathed in radiation and in shambles. In 2019, HBO turned these events into a critically acclaimed and commercially successful mini-series. Shortly after its final episode aired Chernobyl was named the highest rated television program of all-time. To make the show, HBO had to recreate several scenes from the real-life disaster. Here is a side by side comparison of what ended up on the screen and what it looked like in reality.
When recreating catastrophic events like what happened at Chernobyl, it’s important to start at the beginning. Here we see communications relaying what was happening inside the power plant to someone on the outside. HBO did a great job recreating this exactly, even if the two translations appear slightly different.
This scene continues in this exact manner for several more seconds as more communications are made. The authenticity used by HBO for this small but vital moment helps the audience know that what they are about watch has not been sensationalized and is grounded in as much reality as possible.
Surveying The Damage
Here’s the first major difference between Chernobyl and Chernobyl. In the real footage of workers surveying the damage, the camera is very close and not much can be seen. In the HBO series, the audience is allowed a brighter and slightly wider shot.
After the accident, workers were sent to not only survey the damage but also begin cleaning debris from the roof, where an estimated 100 tons of debris were scattered. We can only imagine how heartbreaking and scary it must have felt to be on the scene cleaning up.
Digging Through The Damage
Here we have workers digging through debris underground in a scene that Chernobyl keeps relatively dark compared to the actual footage. Other than the lighting, this is a pretty accurate recreation by HBO of what the actual situation looked like.
The scariest part of this side by side image isn’t how close HBO got to the reality of the story, it’s the lack of radioactive protection these men are wearing. During these harrowing months, workers quickly reached their lifetime limits for radiation exposure.
In The Tunnels
The men and women who helped clean up the Chernobyl disaster were known as “Chernobyl liquidators.” They were both military workers and civilians and were forced to work under back-breaking conditions. HBO pretty much nailed this recreation with a replica tunnel and similar clothing.
In these tunnels, where they wore very little protection, workers were exposed to up to 100 times their radiation limits. This kind of exposure often led to rapid death. Those who did survive were given medals for their hard work and received full veteran benefits.
As we move outside of the tunnels there is one interesting difference between Chernobyl on HBO and the actual accident from 1986. The first thing we notice is the lighting, although in this case it’s not a filming decision.
The real footage on the left looks darker like the workers have more shadows and less natural light around them. The photo on the right shows the workers bathed in natural light while they removed debris from the tunnels as quickly and effectively as possible.
The Wall Was Pretty Tall
Now you can see the biggest difference between this early scene and what the actual clean-up at the site looked like. In the previous slide, you saw a low wall, allowing natural light to cover the area. Here on the left, you see fictionalized workers walking to that same wall.
On the right, you see the actual top of the wall, which is not as light friendly. The wall you see here is the side of the power plant itself. Unfortunately, we could not find any footage to examining what the walls surrounding the cleaning area looked like.
The Clothing Workers Actually Wore
Here is an incredible side by side look at the authenticity HBO was aiming for with Chernobyl. From the sign on the wall, to the clothing worn by the workers, no detail was left out.
You can even see the bars in the back creating the roof for the tunnels placed identically to how they were positioned during the real incident. The only difference, really, in these two photos is the positioning of the worker on the phone and the missing hat, but that’s assuming this is supposed to be the same person.
Checking On The Workers’ Progress
This shows one of the major areas HBO took dramatic privilege with when filming Chernobyl. No one could enter the contaminated area without some form of breathing mask. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, putting these masks on important characters would hide their faces.
Hiding faces of important characters, in this case Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov, meant the performance would also be hidden. As unbelievable as this is, when we watch it in a dramatized version of reality, we tend to “suspend our disbelief” in these moments. Especially when the rest of the show is so realistic!
Cleaning The Roof The Safe Way
To help ease the stress of humans risking their health at the accident site of Chernobyl, robots were used to provide assistance. Sadly, only an estimated ten percent of clean up was done by machine.
In this comparison, HBO nearly got everything right. The two locations look identical, as well as the general build of the robots. Look closely, however, and you’ll notice the fake robot has six wheels while the real one has four.
An Improper View
One of the main figures who oversaw the Chernobyl cleanup was Boris Yevdokimovich, played by Stellan Skarsgard in the HBO series. On the left, Skarsgard and his profile are clearly seen with his mask off. On the right, the real worker was covered with protective gear.
Again, choosing to show the actor’s face was a dramatic decision by the filmmakers to let the actor’s performance be seen. In either case, the fate of Yevdokimovich was the same. In 1990 he passed away from complications with radiation poisoning.
The Workers Who Risked Their Lives
This may look like a scene of the military being prepped during a monster movie, but’s actually citizens being prepped to help with Chernobyl. They weren’t paid a lot of money, and many of them suffered terrible radiation poisoning.
Over 530,000 male recovery workers were exposed to unhealthy amounts of radiation at the time. The lack of knowledge of the risk they were taking ended up leading to widespread mistrust by citizens with their government.
Assessing The Situation
Amazingly, not everyone wore the masks like they were supposed to. Today we know that these masks wouldn’t have done much to protect anyone from radiation, but that wasn’t necessarily the case back then.
One of the problems that needed to be assessed in the wake of Chernobyl was how soon the area could be re-populated. The government could have saved lives and chosen to keep the area off limits while natural decay took place over hundreds and thousands of years. Instead, they chose a quicker, and far more dangerous decontamination effort.
Tons Of Gear
A select group of clean up crews were given heavy military gear to help with their job. These liquidators were referred to as “bio-robots” by the military. The original plan by the Soviet government was to use robots to remove debris (as you learned), but they chose to use humans instead.
The mission for these men was to clear enough debris off the roof so that the “sarcophagus” could be built around the reactor. This concrete structure would work to reduce the number of radioactive particles that could be released into the air.
A Break Neck Pace
Because workers at Chernobyl were exposing themselves to so much radiation, they needed to work fast to clean debris. They could only spend a small amount of time on the roof before over exposing themselves to radiation.
In total, it was deemed that workers could only be on the roof for 40 to 90 seconds before it was too dangerous. And when they were done, they were not supposed to go back up. Sadly, many of these “bio-robots” ended up making several trips to the roof.
Help From Above
This is another scene that HBO took dramatic liberty with. Because of the nature of the actual helicopter crash, we felt it was better to just show you this dramatized image. The scene in question also took place six months after the accident, not during the initial clean up.
Another change Chernobyl makes to this incident is how the accident happened. In the show, it is implied the helicopter crashes from radiation. The truth is that the helicopter met its fate when one of its blades hit a cable.
Real World Chaos
This might be the result of the mini-series production budget, but you can see here how much more chaotic the actual footage is. There is far more debris on the ground on the image on the right than the one on the left.
The workers on the right are also working much faster than the ones on the left. While the video quality isn’t as good on the right, you can also see the longer strides of the worker in the foreground than that of either of the workers on the left.
The Real Reactor Room
These are the reactor control rooms in real life and on the show. There is definitely a more “Hollywood” sanitized look to the recreation. The colors are muted, except for the lights, and the room is spotless and cold.
The real image shows something similar, but not quite as purposely “cold.” It was in this room that the experiment that caused the core meltdown would have taken place, and it was also in this room that any safety measures should have been taken to stop the meltdown after it had begun.
The Display Panel
The display panel at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is another small detail that HBO made a big change to. It’s a pretty odd change, too. We’re not actually sure what the purpose of changing the color scheme of the display panel was.
During the experiment, scientists were hoping to determine whether rotational energy could generate electrical power. Everything should have gone smoothly if not for the thermal output of the reactor at the start, which was supposed to be higher than 700 MW.
Accuracy Down To The Last Stitch
It’s pretty scary how similar these two screenshots look. Chernobyl’s filmmakers took costuming in this scene very seriously. All three actors look like they’re wearing identical clothing to their counterparts, even down to the last stitch.
The man in the middle is Anatoly Dyatov, who was the power plant’s chief engineer at the time of the accident. He was sentenced to ten years in prison for his “gross violation of safety regulations” and was pardoned after three. When he got out, he wrote a book detailing how the poor construction of the plant was actually responsible for the meltdown.
As odd as this picture looks, it must not be forgotten that many of the real people who helped clean up Chernobyl did it as quickly as possible at their own risk. In the cinematic world, an actor can be costumed before the cameras even start rolling.
The bottom line is some people needed to make the decision of how important their own health was to save the lives of millions of others. After all, more than just the power plant had to be cleaned up, so did the surrounding town.