How Christopher Nolan Utilized IMAX Cameras for “Oppenheimer”
“Oppenheimer’s story is one of the biggest stories imaginable,” says writer/director Christopher Nolan at the top of this new look at his upcoming historical epic about the father of the atomic bomb. “Our film tries to take you into his experience, and IMAX, for me, is a portal into a level of immersion that you can’t get from other formats.”
Nolan has long deployed IMAX cameras to achieve his vision, from the streets of Gotham in his Dark Knight trilogy to his war epic Dunkirk to his time-skipping head-tripper Tenet. For Oppenheimer, however, the technology is also being utilized for a more intimate portrait of a man who is thrust into an inflection point in history. The film focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as he leads the United States’ desperate rush to create the atomic bomb. At the time, the notion was they were racing against the Nazis, who were supposedly already well ahead, and the stakes were literally global annihilation. Nolan has turned Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project into its own ticking bomb of a narrative, yet much of the film’s intensity will be centered on the war within Oppenheimer himself. This is a man who famously quoted the Bhagavad-Gita when he reflected upon witnessing the first detonation of the bomb on July 16, 1945. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“IMAX is a format of spectacle, it’s made for vistas and the grandeur, but I got very curious to discover this as an intimate format,” says Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. “The face is like a landscape; there’s a huge complexity and huge depth to it. How can we get this camera closer to people? How can we get this medium also as a very intimate medium.”
One of the important technical aspects of Oppenheimer was Nolan’s decision to mix color and black and white. This presented a unique challenge to the production, as Hoytema explains because 65 millimeter black and white was a format that didn’t exist. So, the Oppenheimer team created the black and white film that they used to shoot, testing it by putting the footage up on an IMAX screen and seeing how it looked.
“The results were just magical and inspiring,” Nolan says.
Emma Thomas, Nolan’s longtime partner, both as a producer and his wife, explains that while they’ve been using IMAX cameras on their movies for a long time now, what they achieved in Oppenheimer was unique. “It sort of makes you gasp; you’re right in their experience,” she says.
“It allows you to fully immerse yourself in the story,” Nolan says. “When audiences see this on IMAX on the big screen, they’ll be able to experience an extraordinary moment in human history.”
Check out the IMAX closer look below. Oppenheimer hits theaters on July 21:
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Featured image: OPPENHEIMER, written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Courtesy Universal Pictures.