Here's the Gear Hoyte van Hoytema Used to Shoot 'Tenet'

Tenet BTS
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
How do you put together one of the most visually complex movies of recent cinema?

The cinematography of Tenet, shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, is quite a masterpiece that not a lot of people seem to be discussing. Shockingly, the Oscars were not interested in even nominating the movie or the cinematography.

We think it’s a masterpiece, not because every shot is perfectly refined, but rather due to Hoytema’s hypersensitivity to maintain realism and being able to push the boundary of naturalistic lighting. The cinematography puts the viewers in a state of intense immersion that perfectly serves the story and momentum of Tenet.

With the lenses, lighting, and of course the infamous IMAX 70mm cameras, Hoytema was able to deliver extremely naturalistic and bold visuals that strictly served the story.

You can check out our video discussion here: 

The cameras

Tenet has more IMAX footage than any other film in history.

They filmed with the Arriflex 765, IMAX MKIII, IMAX MKIV, IMAX MSM 9802, Panavision Panaflex System 65 Studio, and Logmar Magellan.

Although they filmed a lot of IMAX footage (and heavily marketed as such), most of the film was actually shot on the Arriflex 765 and Panavision 65.

Hoytema says, "IMAX cameras are noisy. When you want to record sound and dialogue, you have to work on a different format. So we shot IMAX whenever we could—and used the next best format, 65mm for dialogue. It was purely a practical decision."

It seems like almost every dialogue scene that they didn’t want to ADR is mostly shot with the other cameras, which turns out to be quite a significant portion of the movie. You can tell because the aspect ratio changes throughout the movie.

The glorious IMAX footage would have no black bars and would be in 1.43:1 aspect ratio. The dialogue scenes that are filmed on the Arriflex 765 would be in 2.20:1 aspect ratio (with the black bars). Most car scenes seem to be shot on IMAX, as well as all shots that needed ADR, which were shot on IMAX (dialogue scenes on a loud boat for example).

'Tenet'Credit: Warner Bros.

The film stock

The cameras match perfectly because they all used 65mm Kodak film stock. The film stock used on Tenet includes Kodak Vision3 50D, Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Kodak Vision3 200T 5213, and Kodak Vision3 500T 5219.

Just to get a rough estimate of the cost of shooting an entire film on 65mm film, a 1000’ roll of 65mm Kodak film costs roughly $1,400.

For IMAX, the 65mm film stock passes horizontally through the IMAX camera at 15 perforations at a time. That would be around 337 feet per minute.

So you would burn $1,400 every three minutes.

In a conventional 65mm camera, the film passes vertically through the camera, at 5 perforations, around 111 feet per minute. So that would be nine minutes a roll, and the cost of IMAX is about three times as much film stock.

The “time inversion” sequences were often filmed twice, both forward and backward. So you can only imagine how many rolls of film that they used for this movie.

'Tenet'Credit: Warner Bros.

The lenses

The camera and lens package is a very similar setup to when they shot Dunkirk, it’s actually pretty much the same camera and lenses. They used converted Hasselblad still lenses to cover the full negative of 65mm film on IMAX.

Like Dunkirk, Tenet was shot entirely with spherical lenses.

Hoytema says: “Optically it is so much more pure than Anamorphic, with much less glass and light refraction between the subject and the emulsion. The original IMAX lenses are dark, so Dan Sasaki and his team customized these to achieve T2.0 and improve the brightness. They also tweaked the focus to enable us to push closer-in on more intimate situations.”

Their go-to lens was a custom-built Panavision Sphero 80mm prime lens. They also had a set of Hasselblad lenses they called the “micro-macro” in 50mm and 80mm, which let them magnify to a 1:1 ratio, for both inserts and some of the biggest close-ups ever seen in IMAX.

As with most Panavision lenses, they are less clinical and produce incredibly beautiful images. A moderate focus roll-off and blended layers of contrast allow the lenses to capture pleasing skin tones and a soft, classic overall look.

'Tenet'Credit: Warner Bros.

The lighting

The lighting is very naturalistic.

“We wanted reality, not beauty," Hoytema says. "We pretty much did away with continuity and the propensity to shoot in backlight—all of the things you are taught as best practice as a cinematographer. The aim was to take what was given: to use the natural, available light as much as possible, and to add as little extra light as possible.”

Hoytema is not afraid of showing you images that are not polished. The cinematography is entirely based in reality, and you can’t help but immerse yourself in the story. His lighting has always been about realism and naturalism, but with Tenet, we feel Hoytema has really mastered this. Many parts of the movie feel almost like a documentary, and just like when you’re watching a documentary, you rarely question where lights are coming from because you are purely focused on the story.

“I always have the ambition to use natural light because I love its richness, and it is something I can learn from," Hoytema says. "You always want to base your film reality on actual reality, but also deal with issues of consistency. I have recently warmed up to LED lighting, owing to the leaps made with color and control. Manipulating and controlling existing environments is a lot more doable, and without taking up much space or throwing in extremely big guns, which let us be much more flexible and able to tie into the light we find on location.”

Hoytema’s lighting style is very much about lighting the area and letting the actors be free. The location, the light, the look is what it is. He really doesn’t like to bring in lights close to the sets as he finds it limiting and unnatural. When moving in for coverage and close-ups, most cinematographers will naturally bring their lights in closer to have a more pleasing and softer light on subjects.

Hoytema does none of that. Even on close-ups, you can see that the lights likely did not move from the wides. You can tell by the shadows. This would give Christopher Nolan a significant amount of extra time to film as well. Although his main intention is likely to maintain that realism rather than to save time.

“I was lighting for the scene rather than just the shot," Hoytema says. "We will make adjustments for a given shot, but in achieving a fluid, visceral IMAX experience, it’s about capturing immense levels of nuance. Your approach is to be pure. If you light a whole scene, you figure out where the light would be coming from. But for me, it’s not ever a macro approach about shadows and such. I try to keep my light sources far from the epicenter of the set unless it is an on-camera practical. Aesthetically, I believe this gives me a controlled richness that works for the story.”

He is also not afraid of shooting in midday with harsh sunlight, which most cinematographers avoid. He boldly captures the atmosphere of the midday sun and embraces what it does to shadows on faces, rather than softening it off.

What did you think of the cinematography when watching Tenet? Let us know what you think in the comments below.      

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9 Comments

"He boldly captures the atmosphere of the midday sun and embraces what it does to shadows on faces, rather than softening it off." Now AD's the world over will have a great excuse to neuter shooting schedules.

June 16, 2021 at 12:16PM

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Dan Garee
Button Pusher "Speeding"
74

No mention of the batshit crazy custom IMAX mags that actually run the film in reverse? Took me a few days to wrap my mind around why this insanely pretentious decision actually sorta kinda makes sense, instead of just playing the footage in reverse in the edit. Because there are certain shots in the film which only exist in reverse for the purpose of the story, and they wanted that source footage to exist only in reverse. Still boggles my mind a bit to consider the mental gymnastics of this topic.

June 16, 2021 at 12:27PM

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Gustave T.
Videographer
1

Actually we did intend on getting into that deeper, but the reverse recording became another entire article and topic on its own.

Here's the short take on this: it's all about maintaining image quality. If you digitally reverse a film, you would actually get a degraded result. If you just reverse the clip in post, the way that the image has been produced with the grain and the opticals, it actually gets distorted. To avoid that, Christopher Nolan actually developed a way to reverse record the film. Which by the way, is not a new technique... he did this back in 2000 with Momento.

Hoyte van Hoytema says: "One of the biggest technical challenges was that we wanted the IMAX camera to be able to run in reverse to achieve certain in-camera physics that are not possible if the film only goes forwards."

What Hoyte was talking about was that capturing the film in reverse would be the only way you can get the most pristine image quality possible, without damaging the information of the film (if you had just reversed it in post).

This was a common in-camera special effect in the past. By reversing your film magazine, you won't need to re-print it in reverse, since every print made reduces the image quality. They needed both the reverse and forwards captured on film, in camera so that all of the footage will be of the same overall quality.

As you may know, Nolan does not like to sacrifice anything in terms of quality, and will always do things practically when he can. Hope this answers your question

June 16, 2021 at 2:21PM

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AlterCine
Content Creator
87

Fantastic details, much appreciated!

It all makes sense (and the historical context is a great point), but there is still part of me asking ... if the film is double perf couldn't they also literally run it through the projector/scanner tail first, and suffer no additional quality loss ... this works with 16mm, but I can't speak to 65mm ... and I very well might be mistaken.

Fascinating topic. It makes sense, and Nolan is going to do what he wants in the most real/realistic/practical ways possible, but I still can't help but question the logic.

Consider, how does one achieve an "upside down" shot? Do you flip it in post, flip the camera upside down while on set, or, design a custom camera/mag with a mirror that allows the camera to stay upright while capturing the image upside down on the film? Of course the best result (image quality wise) will be to physically flip the camera upside down, but this might not be possible or practical depending on various factors. Really confusing to think that, the equivalent of turning the camera upside down, (when attempting to invert the flow of time) is to design a custom inverted IMAX mag. It seems like the most complicated solution for such a simple problem. Yet, I see how flipping the image in post, or designing a custom mirrored camera/mag for an upside down shot, actually will degrade the footage on the same theoretical level as inverting the footage in post.

It totally does make sense, but I still have a hard time believing that it really makes sense. Kind of like the movie on the whole.

June 17, 2021 at 4:48PM

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Gustave T.
Videographer
1

Could you please give us a detailed explanation on this because imho reverse the film stock in camera or reversing in post would give exactly the same results. 1/ Each film frame is independent. The grain in particular is an entirely intraframe feature which is totally independent from the other frames and the order in which they were shot. Depth of field, flares and other optical artifacts are also obviously independent and intraframe features. So what exactly "gets distorted" when reversing the footage in post? 2/ Back in the days of optical and analog post production workflows, reversing in post would indeed loose one generation and thus degrade the quality of the final image. But in the case of Tenet, all the 65mm negative film footage was most probably scanned frame by frame to generate high resolution, high bitdepth digital footage for visual effects and color grading. The concept of generations does not exist in the digital realm unless lossy compression is used (although the Prores compression algorithm manages to make the quality degradation negligible even with many generations). Time reversing digital footage does not degrade nor distort anything. Each frame remains strictly identical and those frames are just played back in reverse order.

July 13, 2021 at 7:38AM

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Are you trying to tell me that they actually worried about recording dialogue??

Haha, I'm just kidding :)

June 16, 2021 at 1:29PM

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bp
793

Just a specific technical question: can someone talk more about this comment? "-which let them magnify to a 1:1 ratio-" referring to lenses. Isn't 1:1 just...normal? I don't understand what magnification they're referring to.

June 18, 2021 at 11:22AM

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Jeremy Solterbeck
Writer
79

The 1:1 magnification ratio means that the image of a subject projected onto the sensor (or film in this case) is the same size on the sensor as real life. For you to be able to "magnify" to a 1:1 ratio, the lens would be considered a "macro lens". Most lenses do not have a 1:1 ratio, especially IMAX lenses. In other words, if you captured an object that is 1cm in real life, and you were able to focus that object at a 1:1 ratio, that object would also be 1cm on your sensor/film (which would look gigantic / macro). If your sensor size is 35mm, and you pointed it towards a ruler, at a 1:1 magnification, it would allow you to get close enough so that your entire frame, from left to right would total 35mm in length. Hoyte loves to get intimate and close to his subjects, and he would never be able to do this with IMAX lenses, as their magnification ratios are usually not great, which is why he had custom built, 1:1 magnification "micro macro" Hasselblad's built.

June 24, 2021 at 11:18PM, Edited June 24, 11:20PM

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AlterCine
Content Creator
87

The lighting technic used by Hoyte van Hoytema on this film (lighting scenes and not shots and relying as much as possible on available light) is very inspiring. It would be great to read more detailed breakdowns of some specific setups with corresponding screengrabs and lighting diagrams.

July 13, 2021 at 7:43AM

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