Ladder 49 includes some of the most realistic firefighting scenes in movie history, though the special effects team did take some liberties for the sake of storytelling.
For example, the scenes inside the smoky building couldn't be totally true to life. Russell explains that if they actually reproduced the thick black smoke of a real building fire, "you'd be looking at a black screen for the entire sequence. That was a case of CGI -- we had a medium amount of smoke in the room and added more later."
Effects coordinator Larry Fioritto adds, "Some of the white smoke was turned into black, and the density was increased."
For the spectacular grain elevator fire, Russell and his team stuck very close to reality. In fact, they ended up destroying a real building, already slated for demolition. "The explosion itself took about 15 seconds. You get one take on that," Russell explains. "We had ten cameras running. It was so big you could see it all over the city. They'd told people about it on the news, but there were like 500 911 calls when we set that off."
The sequence also required a complex interior recreation on a warehouse set, with a collapsible structure created by production designer Tony Burrough. Russell explains that it was "sort of like a theme park ride, where you can hydraulically put it back together. We did two or three takes on that. It took half a day to reset it."