The lengths Christopher Nolan went to capture authenticity in Dunkirk makes the film a modern marvel of filmmaking.
Christopher Nolan's 2017 WWII film Dunkirk is not your average war movie. Sure, there are epic battle scenes, heart-pounding aerial dog fights, and the well-earned gravitas one would expect to see in a film about the Great War.
However, Nolan took this well-trodden genre and put himself through a near-impossible cinematic gauntlet in order to create a film that was as real and harrowing as its source material, from shooting on location at the actual evacuation site in Dunkirk, France to mounting 80 lb. IMAX cameras to Spitfire cockpits while they performed maneuvers in the air.
In this video essay, Oscar Watson explores the massive scale of the Dunkirk production by highlighting the many practical effects (and the incredible techniques used to create them) that made the film not only memorable but a wildly visceral experience.
If you want to dig in deeper, Warner Bros. released an almost half-hour long behind-the-scenes featurette in which Nolan, DP Hoyte van Hoytema, and others describe the insane techniques they used to make Dunkirk look and feel as realistic as possible.
Shooting on Location in Dunkirk
Nolan could've taken the easy way out by shooting Dunkirk on a sound stage. He could've had complete control of the lighting, the set design, and the overall environment, but instead, he decided to shoot on location at the real-life evacuation site in Dunkirk, France and war with the sun, time, and the ocean waves that repeatedly destroyed the moles on his set.
However, it's clear that Nolan didn't want to offer his audience a depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk, but rather a first-class ticket to the actual place where over 17,000 French and British soldiers lost their lives during the evacuation.
Nolan, van Hoytema, and the rest of the crew brought IMAX packages weighing over 80 lbs. to the beaches, ran dolly track in the sand, and waded in tide pools with some of the most expensive filmmaking equipment ever made just to give Dunkirk that much more authenticity.
Nolan and van Hoytema are no strangers to pushing the limits of cinematography as far as they can make them go. For Dunkirk, the production pulled out all the stops by taking to the air to capture the impressive dogfights and incredible aerial acrobatics of the British Spitfires.
They, as well as aerial DP Hans Bjerno, did this in a number of ways.
Helicopter + Shotover K1 6-Axis Gimbal
Like many Hollywood films, Dunkirk featured aerial shots captured from a helicopter outfitted with a Shotover K1 gimbal system.
This allowed the team to shoot sweeping shots over the beach and the English Channel, quick pans for passing planes, and more. However, helicopters, as you know, aren't the fastest machines in the sky. So if Nolan wanted to really put the audience in the middle of a dogfight, he'd have to be able to keep up with the Spitfires zooming through the air.
Custom Aerostar Plane
In order to put the audience right in the thick of the aerial action, the Dunkirk team had to shoot from an aircraft that could keep pace with the Spitfires. They chose an Aerostar, a twin-engine prop plane that has a top speed comparable to that of a Spitfire.
The Aerostar was customized to carry two separate IMAX camera rigs, one on the nose facing forward and one on the tail facing backward, which allowed Nolan, van Hoytema, and Bjerno to capture dogfighting from two price perspectives. Think about that for a second: that's gorgeous aerial cinematography at 200 mph!
Custom Spitfire IMAX Rigs
Nolan wasn't satisfied with putting the audience in the air during a dogfight — he wanted to put them in the cockpit during a dogfight.
In order to do this, the team had to essentially custom build a Spitfire that had enough space to fit the pilot and the camera rig, as well as handle the added load of an IMAX camera rig mounted to the fuselage.
But perhaps the most incredible design the team came up with was a custom lens that could pivot and rotate around its own axis so operators could shoot pans from right inside the cockpit. The Dunkirk team was basically able to capture GoPro-style shots with ginormous IMAX camera rigs.
All the Practical Effects
Dunkirk is a champion of filmmaking in many ways, not the least of which is the use of practical effects. Nolan was adamant about using as little CGI as possible, so in places where most filmmakers would throw in CG soldiers, explosions, or muzzle flashes, he went full-on practical.
Nolan told Business Insider:
"I worked very closely with my visual effects supervisor, who was there shooting with me on set. He basically was doing himself out of a job because he was able to help me achieve things in-camera that would have actually been visual effects and then didn't need to be. So, there's really nothing in the film that isn't in some way based in some kind of practical reality that we put in front of the camera. We didn't want anything to go fully CG... this is the first time when we've been able to make a film that I actually can't remember which of the shots are visual effects and which aren't in some of the sequences."
The Dunkirk team didn't waste any opportunities to go practical with their effects. Instead of using CGI to populate the beach with more soldiers (as is the norm), they went with actual cardboard cutouts. Instead of designing a very realistic CG plane crash, they just mounted an IMAX camera to a plane and crashed it (and had to dive down and retrieve the camera once the plane sank).
Hell, they even used actual squibs on a gyroscopic cockpit (another practical effect miracle) instead of just, you know, sprinkling in a few CG sparks.
70mm Capture: "Virtual Reality Without the Goggles."
Though each aspect Dunkirk's creation worked to serve the story and give audiences a true visual spectacle to behold, perhaps the most important thing about its production, at least to Nolan, was capturing it all, or at least 70 percent of it, on 70mm film.
Shooting on IMAX allowed the team to deliver better image quality, greater scope, and more of the frame, and because of this, they were able to offer audiences a deeper immersive experience — in fact, van Hoytema describes the large IMAX format as a "visceral window to the world." That large canvas provides ample space for directors like Nolan and DPs like van Hoytema to explore the cinematic world, to capture physical space on a larger scale, and create images that can deeply impact viewers emotionally because they feel like they're there. As Nolan puts it, shooting on 70mm film is "virtual reality without the goggles."
Somehow, spectacles become more spectacular on 70mm film, and Dunkirk had too many of those moments to waste.
What are some of your favorite aspects of the making of Dunkirk? Do you feel like the techniques Christopher Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema used to "immerse" audiences worked? Let us know down in the comments.