To most people, a movie is a movie, but to Christopher Nolan, they’re called films for a reason. The Oscar-nominated director of the new World War II epic Dunkirk has long been heralded as a master storyteller for his imaginative concepts, winding plots, and memorable characters. He has come to be known as one of the most popular and successful directors in recent memory, primarily for his genre-defining Dark Knight trilogy and recent science fiction epics Inception and Interstellar. But despite his penchant for innovative story ideas, Nolan’s technological approach to filmmaking is anything but modern. In an age where Hollywood has all but abandoned physical celluloid in favor of shooting on less expensive digital video, Christopher Nolan represents a rare breed of director who refuses to stop shooting on film.
The director’s passion for film is well-documented, especially in recent history. In the summer of 2015, Eastman Kodak Company, the last existing producer of 35 millimeter film stock, planned to put an end to its photochemical film operation due to a lack of demand from major Hollywood studios. Though he was working on Interstellar at the time, Christopher Nolan took the time to meet with Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke and assure him that, no matter what studio executives may have said about the death of film and the birth of the digital video era, film was too important to the history of Hollywood and the future of cinema to be allowed to perish.
Nolan then called several of his fellow directors, from Steven Spielberg to Judd Apatow, and they in turn contacted studios to push for the survival of film as a medium. Miraculously, due to the pressure, all of Hollywood’s major studios agreed to purchase specific quantities of Kodak film stock over the next several years, allowing for massive recent releases such as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and The Hateful Eight to be shot on film. And it’s all thanks to a British-American director who years ago chose to study English Literature at University College London simply because the school boasted a few 16mm film cameras.
In a sense, film has always been a part of Nolan’s DNA. As a child, he borrowed a Super 8 camera from his father and started shooting short films with his action figures. He met his wife and producing partner Emma Thomas while serving as president of UCL’s Film Society, and screened 35mm films while at school in order to earn enough money to produce 16mm short films during his summer breaks. When approaching his first feature, 1998’s Following, Nolan exhaustively rehearsed each scene with his actors before shooting anything in order to conserve film stock. Only one or two takes were filmed for nearly every shot in the movie.
Since then, after films such as Insomnia and Batman Begins catapulted him into the Hollywood spotlight, Nolan has consistently vocalized his support for the use of large-format film stock like VistaVision, anamorphic 35mm, and IMAX. Accordingly, he has put his money where his mouth is, utilizing IMAX’s 70mm format as much as possible in his own films in order to maximize visual detail and image clarity. This began during production of The Dark Knight in 2007, when Nolan decided to fulfill a long-held desire by shooting select sequences with IMAX cameras.
At the time, this process had never been attempted for a major live-action feature, as IMAX cameras are notoriously large, loud, and difficult to transport. But Nolan got around this issue by waiting for the right film to match the technology, and by using it sparsely. He chose to shoot five of The Dark Knight’s key action scenes with IMAX cameras, while filming the rest with standard 35mm cameras. The minimal dialogue in the chosen sequences meant that the cameras’ noise would have little impact during shooting, and since Nolan tends to use multiple stationary cameras to shoot action scenes, the hefty weight of the IMAX cameras also posed no problem.
The results were impressive, with many critics praising the visually expansive nature of the movie’s 70mm sequences and claiming that The Dark Knight had to be experienced in IMAX in order to fully immerse oneself in the world Nolan had crafted. These words of encouragement were all Nolan needed to continue his 70mm experiments. While The Dark Knight included just over 20 minutes of IMAX footage, its follow-up (The Dark Knight Rises) boasted 72 minutes. In between these two films, he even experimented with 65mm film on Inception. And other filmmakers followed suit, with sequences in such blockbusters as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol shot in IMAX.
These days, Nolan’s passion for the film medium shows no sign of waning. The director’s 2014 space epic Interstellar included over an hour of IMAX footage, and Dunkirk, Nolan’s latest feature, pushes the envelope further than ever before. More than 70 percent of the film was shot with IMAX cameras, a new record among feature films. For the first time in their history, these cameras were used for handheld shots, attached to the wings of planes for dogfight sequences, and brought underwater. Even more impressive is the commitment that Warner Bros. has displayed toward the film. The studio purchased projectors from the Weinstein Company and installed them in select theaters around the nation, allowing Dunkirk the honor of the widest 70mm release in the past 25 years. It all must be a dream come true for Nolan, who only two years ago was working to save film from being completely phased out.
Moviegoers today can choose to see Dunkirk on an IMAX screen or a standard screen, either as a digital projection or a 70mm film projection. As many cinephiles know, film projection offers a somewhat grainier, vibrantly flickering viewing experience that harkens back to the look of classic films, while digital projection provides a cleaner, glossier look that naysayers would describe as overly-sanitized. No matter your beliefs in this ongoing debate, if you were to ask Christopher Nolan how best to view his latest film, he would likely suggest an IMAX 70mm film projection, which offers the traditional look of film on the vast canvas of an IMAX screen. After all, for a director who’s spent his entire career tirelessly working to preserve and promote the medium of film, the words “digital projection” probably wouldn’t sit well.