Christopher Nolan is a name that drives us to the theaters in droves. He's a filmmaker whose point of view is unlike anyone else working today. His comprehension of scope and scale is unparalleled and when he announced he would be tackling the story of Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, I became very excited.
So how did Nolan turn an Oppenheimer movie of this scale into reality? What cameras did he use to capture this story?
This article delves into Nolan's innovative techniques, the use of IMAX film cameras, and his collaboration with Special Effects Supervisor Scott R. Fisher and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.
We'll take you through everything we know about the movie and Nolan's process.
Let's get started.
Oppenheimer | Shooting For IMAXyoutu.be
Nolan's Groundbreaking Approach
In Oppenheimer, Nolan has once again chosen his favored approach of practical effects over computer-generated imagery (CGI). "I think recreating the Trinity test [the first nuclear weapon detonation, in New Mexico] without the use of computer graphics, was a huge challenge to take on," explains Nolan to Total Film. "Andrew Jackson–my visual effects supervisor, I got him on board early on–was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, a lot of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there–there were huge practical challenges."
For a crucial scene depicting the detonation of an atomic bomb, Nolan's team managed to recreate the effect practically, without resorting to CGI. This commitment to realism was evident in his creation of the atomic bomb detonation scene.
"I find CG rarely is able to grab you," Nolan revealed in an interview with Empire. "It tends to feel safe. Even if it's impressive and beautiful, it's difficult to make you feel danger. And we were presenting the ultimate danger. We needed it to feel threatening, nasty, and frightening to the audience."
The 70mm film of BTS of 'Oppenheimer'Credit: IMAX
Special Effects: A Practical Approach
The special effects team, led by Scott R. Fisher, had their work cut out for them. One of the most significant challenges was recreating the Trinity Test, the world's first-ever atomic explosion. Fisher and his team used forced perspective, an age-old Hollywood trick, to achieve this.
"We don't call them miniatures; we call them 'big-atures,'" Fisher explained. "We do them as big as we possibly can, but we do reduce the scale so it's manageable. It's getting it closer to the camera, and doing it as big as you can in the environment."
The pyrotechnic aspect was a combination of gasoline and propane, with aluminum powder and magnesium added to mimic the blinding flash of a nuclear blast. The goal was to replicate the brightness, causing an intense discussion about the flash.
BTS on 'Oppenheimer'Credit: IMAX
How Do You Shoot This Stuff?
Our very own Alyssa Miller wrote a breakdown of the cameras Nolan used for these explosive shots. Cinematographers relied on two basic types of cameras for their high-speed work.
The pin-registered cameras, which are the most common of the two, have a superior image quality but have a limiting frame rate. The 16mm Photo-Sonics Actionmaster 500 is limited to a maximum frame rate of 500 fps, while the 35mm-4ER Photo-Sonics camera is limited to a max of 360 fps.
Rumor has it that one of the cameras Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema attempted to use was a Photo-Sonics 35mm 4C high-speed rotary prism camera, which is capable of 2,500 frames per second. If a shot requires a faster camera, then creatives must rely on a rotary prism camera. The Photo-Sonics 16mm E10 is one such camera that can capture up to 10,000 fps while still using film, making it a great solution for slowing down motion to a near standstill.
Unfortunately, the camera is unable to capture great footage at such a high rate for a feature film. Instead, sources tell NFS that the cameras used on Oppenheimer maxed out at 150 fps. The pyro work on the film was done at a substantial scale due to the limits of in-camera magic. There was some post-manipulation of some shots, but there seem to hardly be VFX effects done to emphasize the greatness and magnitude of the explosion. Then again, this could be another situation like the VFX shots in Top Gun: Maverick.
BTS of 'Oppenheimer' DP Hoyte van Hoytema with the IMAX cameraCredit: IMAX
Harnessing the Power of IMAX
Oppenheimer is filmed in a combination of IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large-format film photography including, for the first time ever, sections in IMAX black and white analogue photography. This decision was rooted in Nolan's love for the format. He believes that IMAX offers a level of immersion unmatched by other formats. This choice posed its unique challenges, given the bulkiness and heaviness of the IMAX MSM 9802 camera.
Still, these hurdles did not deter Hoyte Van Hoytema, the film's cinematographer, who was determined to use the IMAX cameras in all modes, even carrying them on his shoulders. He aimed to transform the IMAX from a format known for grand vistas to a more intimate medium, capturing the complex landscape of human faces.
Shooting faces with IMAX cameras presented a unique challenge. The large-format IMAX cameras capture a level of detail that makes it difficult to shoot faces without revealing every minor detail. However, Hoytema and Nolan were unafraid of this complication, instead using it to their advantage to capture a series of intimate, portrait-style shots.
One of the unique elements of Oppenheimer was its combination of color and black and white, an approach that required Nolan and his team to create their own 65mm black and white film. This new format was tested on a giant IMAX screen, and the results were Nolan approved.
Summing Up A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer is a testament to Nolan's innovative approach to filmmaking, pushing the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. With its immersive use of IMAX cameras and practical special effects, the film promises to offer audiences a unique movie-going experience.
Christopher Nolan's reputation as a visionary director continues as he pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from cinema.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
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