Oppenheimer Just Made Movie History: How the Christopher Nolan Film Changed IMAX

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema explains how he and Christopher Nolan attempt to change how we see the world in Oppenheimer, and what Nolan and the famed theoretical physicist have in common.

Photo: Universal Pictures

This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. Get your copy here.

For decades he stood at the bleeding edge in his field of study, an undeniable prodigy whose aptitude for drilling down to the theoretical essence of things was only matched by an ability to apply that theory to technological innovation. For better or worse, his has been a talent that shaped worlds. This could easily describe J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist widely credited as the “father of the atomic bomb.” Yet it’s not a bad fit either for the filmmaker bringing the scientist’s story to the biggest movie screen imaginable.

Christopher Nolan has spent nearly a quarter-century pushing the envelope of cinematic spectacle to its most audacious and overwhelming. He is the director who first introduced the concept of using 70mm IMAX photography in Hollywood blockbusters, and he’s the one who developed a surprisingly accurate approximation of a black hole in Interstellar shortly before the real thing was photographed by the Event Horizon Telescope.

And for much of this journey, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has been there beside the director, trying to crack the code for the next big one, beginning with Interstellar. Perhaps that’s why van Hoytema’s chuckle is so knowing when we point out these similarities between artist and subject. As Oppenheimer’s director of photography admits, the comparison is tempting.

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“They’re both very brilliant minds that do see the world in an alternative way that’s not necessarily, on a conceptual [level], graspable for the people around them,” van Hoytema tells Den of Geek magazine. “But they have the power and language to convey it and to make people look at things, to look at the world, in a different way.” This seems to be at least part of the appeal of Oppenheimer’s story for meticulous craftsmen like Nolan and van Hoytema. The cinematographer even muses Oppenheimer was something of an artist in his own right—albeit one who would eventually shudder at the applications of his works.

As the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, which gave the U.S. government the atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War, J. Robert Oppenheimer is probably best recalled in our cultural memory for the great and terrible weapon he made possible, as well as his prescient quotation of the Bhagavad Gita. Upon witnessing the bomb’s first successful test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer lamented, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

However, Nolan’s new three-hour epic about the man’s life is determined to introduce the real person behind the mushroom cloud to modern moviegoers, providing us a fuller glimpse into a brilliant but contradictory mind who left academia out of a sense of patriotic urgency. With this decision, Oppenheimer would help his government develop a bomb that could win all wars… before being cast aside by that same government after he vocally opposed the development of even more powerful nuclear weapons, such as the hydrogen bomb.

In terms of historical subject matter for a film, there are few of greater importance to the world we have inherited. And yet, compared to the type of visceral stories Nolan and van Hoytema usually pursue, it is a departure.

“We had always shot things that were action-packed or at least were spectacles in weird worlds or wide vistas; they were in outer space,” van Hoytema says. “But for the first time, this is looking inwards. It suddenly was people in small, smoky, nicotine-drenched rooms reciting political and scientific rhetoric… So the human face became our vista in a way, and the way we previously treated the landscape in wide shots, we were now going to do with intimacy.” The filmmaker even calls lead actor Cillian Murphy’s face its own kind of canvas, one that “we must drown in.”

To disappear into those reservoirs meant rethinking how to use Nolan’s beloved IMAX cameras as well. Traditionally, true celluloid IMAX photography has been reserved for the most spectacular set pieces or visceral screen moments, with their bulky weight and loud, mechanical noises as they churn 65mm film drowning out performers’ dialogue in quieter scenes (IMAX cameras record in 65mm while the film is projected in 70mm). For a talky picture like Oppenheimer, this meant a smaller percentage of the film could be captured in IMAX 70mm than the last few Nolan joints (the non-IMAX portions of Oppenheimer are shot with 65mm Large Format cameras). Then again, the technical challenges could also be an invitation—an opportunity to think outside the box of what constitutes an “IMAX scene.”

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Says van Hoytema, “What we would very often do is shoot a scene on 65mm until everybody feels confident we have the scene. Then we would usually reshoot the scene in IMAX, or we at least would do one take, just for us to see if we can actually get a long dialogue scene like that in IMAX with the help of either a tiny bit of guidance from sound or ADR or [see] if the sound itself works for that specific scene. We were always trying to keep pushing the IMAX camera.”

Not unlike the team Oppenheimer built at Los Alamos, Nolan surrounds himself with proficient technicians intrigued about discovering new possibilities. Hence van Hoytema likening pre-production on a Nolan picture to that of moviemaking R&D. In the case of Oppenheimer, that included the creation of 70mm black and white IMAX film stock—which will be used intermittently with color photography for the first time in cinema history. However, because black and white IMAX celluloid is thinner than its color counterpart, this, in turn, led van Hoytema and company to reengineer the mechanics of their cameras, changing the pressure plates, putting two cases around the reams of film, and altering how the lab processed the footage.

In its own way, a Nolan project can be a type of cinematic laboratory, and among the most curious innovations for Oppenheimer from that research was Panavision optical engineer Dan Sasaki developing what van Hoytema calls a snorkel lens for the IMAX camera.

“It is basically a very long, thin tube with a lens in the outer end,” the DP explains. “It’s like a micro-lens that has a much bigger depth of field. It’s a two-foot-long, gigantic thing, and we could poke it into an aquarium underwater; we could put it into tanks. As opposed to standing a little bit away [from the scene] with a longer form of lens, you could really be in between things.”

This proved essential when it came to developing the movie’s most ambitious sequences: IMAX photography capturing the quantum world on film. As is true to form for a Nolan picture, Oppenheimer will eschew digital effects wherever possible in favor of in-camera photography—a prospect that is easier said than done when it comes to recreating the micro world in Oppenheimer’s mind’s eye.

“Quantum physics to us is very abstract, and at the beginning, to Oppenheimer, it was also an abstraction,” van Hoytema explains. “He started to understand something that very few people understood. So how can we show this with film, and how can we show that through his eyes?” The answer was to make the abstract literal and visceral by recreating the quantum world on film—or at least a version of it.

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Working concurrently next to the film production, visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson developed what van Hoytema refers to as “micro photography.” This was using various types of practical effects to imitate the molecular world via things like molded glowing metal, ping pong balls skewered with metal pins, and miniature explosions detonated within specialized balloons. That aforementioned snorkel lens? It was inserted into actual water tanks where “Chris’ particles” could float as practical things, blissfully free from CGI enhancement.

Says van Hoytema, “It’s all to build an interpretation of how a super quantum world could look on a molecular level.”

Still, there are times where visual effects will take you only so far. While Jackson was also instrumental in crafting specific images and effects that would be utilized during the atomic explosion sequence at the test site codenamed Trinity, Nolan still needed to film a very real—and very big— fireball. Just how big it was, van Hoytema remains circumspect about. But he laughs, “We had to be far away because otherwise your eyebrows would burn off.”

Recreating that demonstration is to capture world history at a turning point. With the discovery of nuclear power, the Second World War would soon end, giving way to American global dominance and the dawn of the Cold War. This is a profound piece of historical portraiture, although to the film’s cinematographer, it was never meant to be visually treated as such. Acknowledging that there is a certain museum quality to many films set around or near World War II, van Hoytema insists, “The film didn’t want to feel precious. It wants to feel pure and raw. I think Second World War films always become so precious, stately, and very much about getting some smell of the era. In that way, they can also become very distant-shaded.”

While period-accurate costumes and cars are present in Oppenheimer, the mission statement was not to emphasize the era; this is a story a global audience should recognize because it is still their own. In van Hoytema’s mind, it reads like something that happened yesterday on an intuitive level, and in terms of the future Oppenheimer wrought, it did. Perhaps he was less the destroyer of worlds than the architect of our new one. It’s a concept that might appeal to a builder of cinematic landscapes too.

“I’m very proud of the movie, and I’m very proud of Chris,” van Hoytema says. “This was a very risky one, and I think he put himself out there and really made something special.”

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Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21.