Not just a pioneering director in terms of storytelling, Christopher Nolan is also a staunch advocate of the IMAX format. The height, width and depth of IMAX are seen by the filmmaker as pivotal to realising his bold stories of distant galaxies, comic book heroes and war-torn conflict zones.
Nolan's enthralling new movie Oppenheimer is currently poised for release on July 21st and has been shot and designed with IMAX in mind. But before we get there, here's a recap of how Nolan has wrestled IMAX into the mainstream during the course of his movies.
1. The bank robbery from The Dark Knight (2008)
Nolan's revisionist Batman thriller was the first feature-length movie to incorporate IMAX cameras as part of the filming process. It's an approach we take for granted now, not least in Nolan's own films. But The Dark Knight was a game-changer, using width and depth to suggest a city teetering on the edge of absolute chaos.
Nolan nails his cards to the wall in the opening sequence, one of several that was shot with cumbersome and challenging IMAX cameras by cinematographer Wally Pfister. It forgoes any introductory credits – all we see is the fiery outline of the Batman logo set to Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's eerily buzzing score. (This is in fact the Joker's theme, but we haven't met him yet.)
Then, bam – we're into an aerial shot that appears to be honing in on a distant glass-fronted building. Immediately, we're getting a sense of the sprawling Metropolis of Gotham City. And when a single window is blown out by the Joker's crew, we also get a vivid sense of the city's vulnerabilities, not to mention those of its citizens.
The rest of the scene takes our breath away, from the zip-lining of the goons across to the bank to the fluid sense of betrayal as the thugs take each other out at the Joker's command. By using IMAX Nolan re-imagines Gotham, not as the snow-flecked fairy tale universe of Tim Burton, but as a far more recognisable landscape brimming with scarily plausible undercurrents of fear.
2. The revolving corridor fight from Inception (2010)
If The Dark Knight was conceptually ambitious, then Inception was even more so. Nolan had carte blanche to imagine a complex yet engrossing deep dive into the recesses of the mind, an original blockbuster property that champions a viewer's intelligence.
Although Inception was not shot using IMAX cameras (anamorphic widescreen 35mm, with occasional 65mm, stood in), the movie was later exhibited in the format. The depth of field and aspect ratio takes on an appropriately cavernous and sweeping air, even in the routine dialogue scenes.
Throughout, we get a sense of worlds that have been designed and peopled right down to the last detail by the film's expert mind heist crew. And these are worlds that can shift and defy physics on a dime, including the famous Parisian street sequence, where Ariadne (Elliott Page) folds part of the city on top of the other.
The IMAX theatrical experience took on new resonance and immersion, particularly during the corridor fight sequence. As Joseph Gordon Levitt's Arthur battles a subconscious enemy rendered as a human being, the stretch of the hallway, combined with the revolution of obstacles in the foreground, creates a decidedly unique and exciting action scene.
Characteristically, Nolan chose not to use CGI in the scene, but a practical set that Levitt was forced to carefully maneuver. Little wonder the set-piece took three weeks to complete with the input of 500 crew members.
3. The street battle from The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises made far more extensive use of IMAX photography than its predecessor. Whereas The Dark Knight totalled 30 minutes of such footage, Rises clocked up an hour of IMAX-lensed mayhem, in the process proving another gamechanger for Hollywood. It was a sign of how Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister (in his final collaboration with the director) were growing increasingly confident with the format.
Everything escalates in the final chapter of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, as Christian Bale's Batman confronts Tom Hardy's Bane. The latter eventually seals Gotham City off from the wider world, and he's also smuggled in a bomb, with the identity of the triggerman unknown. When Batman finally returns in the midst of a street battle between Gotham's citizens and Bane's goons, it's nothing less than a fight for the soul of the city.
The aesthetic qualities of IMAX are therefore well-matched with the emotional impetus of the scene. We get a sense of height and scale as Batman and Bane fight hand to hand in the midst of the buildings, while the depth of field vividly conveys the violence occurring en masse in the background of the frame.
4. Into the wormhole from Interstellar (2014)
The possibilities of outer space have always provided plentiful opportunities for imaginative filmmakers. In Interstellar, Nolan riffs on the likes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, fashioning a story about a journey toward a new planet suitable for human habitation. At the same time, mankind's potential saviour Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must reckon with leaving his young daughter behind on Earth, an emotional pull that takes several mind-melting directions come the end of the film.
Interstellar famously involved astrophysicist Kip Thorne to design the most accurate wormhole ever seen on the big screen. There are few things better suited for IMAX presentation – with the canvas of space eerily empty and free from visual distraction, we can better focus our attention on the enormity of the wormhole that will continue Cooper's journey.
For the first time, Nolan teamed with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and the latter devised a revolutionary way of making the notoriously cumbersome IMAX cameras easier to manage. He told Den of Geek: "I just had this dream: what if I can shoot on this format but actually do things that are so much more intimate and so much more flexible, like you would do with smaller film cameras?
"So I was just very determined to get the bloody thing on my shoulder. We re-engineered the camera a little. We took some stuff off, you know. We made it a little bit more ergonomic and then at some point we just found ways to put it on the shoulder with some support. That’s how I ended up shooting most of the IMAX stuff handheld."
5. The Stukas strafe the beach from Dunkirk (2017)
IMAX was put in the service of a fact-based World War II thriller in the nerve-jangling Dunkirk. Nolan dramatises Operation Dynamo, the desperate attempt to evacuate Allied troops from France back to England in 1940. Although the movie has a historical basis, with its booming onslaught of sound, it comes closer to a horror movie, in which the divide between life and death shrinks hour by hour.
One of the most terrifying moments is one of the most memorable captured by IMAX cameras. Once again working with Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan frames imperilled soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) laying down in the foreground, as an onslaught of bombs dropped from the airborne Stukas advances implacably forward towards his prone position. Fortunately, Tommy survives, but the IMAX immersion leaves us feeling like we've lived the experience along with the character.
Dunkirk was yet another leap forward for Nolan and IMAX, with an estimated 70% of the movie shot in the 70mm format. "The immersive quality of the image is second to none," Nolan said at the time of the film's release. "We really try and create the sensation of virtual reality without the goggles." Little wonder Quentin Tarantino described this as the greatest shot he had ever seen from a World War II movie.
6. The backward-forward fight scene from Tenet (2020)
What would happen if you could invert time and meet a different iteration of yourself on a separate plane of reality? That's the mind-melting concept at the heart of Tenet, Nolan's ambitiously staged blockbuster that stars John David Washington as The Protagonist.
Once again, the handsome visuals command the attention as Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema scramble our basic conception of physics and gravity. This is apparent during the movie's most famous sequence where Washington and co-star Robert Pattinson enter a freeport, discover one of the movie's time-turnstile Macguffins and are confronted by mysterious masked figures whose movement is in direct opposition to their own.
It's appropriately disorienting and thrilling to watch, proving once again that Nolan is without equal in terms of physically dramatising dense philosophical concepts. By this stage of Nolan's career, the integration of IMAX into the shooting process had become more standardised, a far cry from the relative limitations evident during the making of The Dark Knight.
"Hoyte and his team were able to get the camera absolutely everywhere that I could conceive of," Nolan explained. "We had such fun with them, we were just using them as if they were any old camera."
How has Oppenheimer been captured with IMAX cameras?
Christopher Nolan designed Oppenheimer with IMAX in mind, capturing the film with IMAX cameras, amongst the highest-resolution film cameras in the world, and refining the film throughout post-production in an IMAX cinema to further optimize how audiences will experience the film in IMAX.
To achieve that goal, Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema shot Oppenheimer on a combination of IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film. This includes, for the first time, sections captured in IMAX black and white analog photography that alternate with colour visuals throughout the drama.
When captured with the IMAX film camera, the image projected features almost 10x more resolution than conventional 35mm film. Scenes shot with this camera will expand to fill the entire screen, allowing moviegoers to experience more of the image with unprecedented detail and clarity and for a truly immersive experience.
This is imperative when it to comes to Oppenheimer's aesthetic and visceral impact. The movie dramatises the fiery birth of the atomic bomb, which is lent added resonance via scale, depth and resolution of the IMAX format. Nolan and his crew famously recreated the real-life atomic test known as the 'Trinity Test', and such verisimilitude finds its truest expression in IMAX.
Find out more in the following featurette, which showcases contributions from Nolan, Hoyte van Hoytema, and other key members of the production.
Click the link below to get your tickets for Oppenheimer, opening at Cineworld on July 21st.