(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 016 July/August 2023)
By Ron Prince
“Please watch this film on the biggest cinema screen you can find,” entreats cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema FSF NSC ASC, as he reveals details about capturing Christopher Nolan’s nail-biting, biographical thriller, Oppenheimer, in IMAX (15-perf) format using KODAK 65mm large-format film, including, for the very first time, sections on KODAK 65mm B&W, shot in IMAX too.
“It’s an intimate, emotional and immersive psychological drama, as well as spectacular event cinema. I am super-proud about the result and know it will provoke a lot of interesting discussion and debate,” he adds. In addition to standard cinemas worldwide, Oppenheimer is released in various analogue film formats, including Kodak 70mm screened in IMAX (30 prints), standard 70mm (113 prints) and 35mm (around 80 prints).
Directed, written and co-produced by Nolan, the $100m Universal Pictures’ production transports viewers back in time to one of the most significant events in world history, as theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led the development of the world’s first nuclear weapons in WWII’s top-secret ‘Manhattan Project’. With a running time of just under three hours, the film depicts Oppenheimer’s life and delivers a powerful exploration of the moral complexities, dilemmas and consequences of scientific advances faced by him and his fellow scientists.
Indeed, following the detonation of the first nuclear weapon – codenamed Trinity – at 05.28am on July 26th, 1945, in the Jornada Del Muerto desert, New Mexico, Oppenheimer uttered the words, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – a verse from the holy Hindu Bhagavad Gita scripture – to express his deep-held qualms about the destructive power he had unleashed upon the world.
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph And Tragedy Of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin. It stars Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, with a supporting cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr. and Florence Pugh, plus Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Benny Safdie, Casey Affleck and Gary Oldman.
Oppenheimer is Van Hoytema’s fourth collaboration with Nolan, following Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and Tenet (2020), all of which were variously shot using KODAK 65mm film in IMAX (15-perf) format in combination with 65mm (8-perf) or 35mm (4-perf) analogue film formats. Van Hoytema is also known for his collaborations with Sam Mendes on 007 James Bond Spectre (2015), James Gray on Ad Astra (2019) and Jordan Peele on Nope (2020), all also shot on analogue film.
“It’s always a surprise when you realise how little you actually know about an historical figure, and I knew very little about Oppenheimer himself, other than he was the father of the atomic bomb,” admits Van Hoytema. “Chris wanted me to read his script before I started digging into any other existing historical material about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. I discovered that he had boiled-down the story into a dramaturgical structure that was very personal, intimate and thrilling. In our previous films the emphasis was on the action, but for this film he wanted a very simple, unadorned style to the photography, especially on faces to support the unfolding psychological drama.
“As with our previous films, I also knew early-on that he wanted to shoot as much as possible in-camera, utilising practical effects and miniatures, as much as possible, keeping CGI, bluescreen and VFX to an absolute minimum.
“LED lighting has come on dramatically in the last few years”
“When I then read the biography, American Prometheus, and absorbed references from other departments on the production, I was flabbergasted as to the enormous scale of the Manhattan Project itself – the same magnitude as NASA Apollo mission – and it re-iterated to me how unbelievably important it was in defining the geo-political structure of our world since.”
Van Hoytema adds, “As we all dug deeper into researching the period and the events, I was particularly interested to learn more about Oppenheimer and the scientists themselves, and to investigate things like the side-development of extremely high-speed, ultra light-sensitive and split-field cameras, plus very long lenses, that were specially-made to record the Trinity explosion. In this respect, Peter Kuran’s book, How To Photograph An Atomic Bomb proved quite astonishing.
“I was also fascinated by the personal descriptions of the bomb going off. Some described the mushroom cloud like an optical illusion, others how the morning sky was suddenly lit by searing bright white before turning golden yellow, then red to beautiful purple and violet. Whilst a lot of this was subjective, I found it really compelling as I sought to get to the essence of what those people experienced during that period and on that particular day.”
Pre-production on the film got underway in January 2022, with principal photography starting at the end of February, before wrapping some four months/80-shooting-days later, in May.
An interesting aspect of Oppenheimer lies in the choice of locations. Through attention to detail and dedication to historical authenticity, most of the film’s settings are accurate to places in Oppenheimer’s life, providing a window into his extraordinary experience and the events that shaped his life. They also enabled the cast and crew to immerse themselves into the atmosphere that Oppenheimer experienced personally.
Oppenheimer was mainly filmed in the desert sandscapes around Los Alamos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where constructed sets, by production designer Ruth De Jong, included a 1940’s-style town, the Trinity test/detonation site, as well as the house in which Oppenheimer and his family resided during course of the Manhattan Project.
Filming also took place on the campuses of the University of California, Berkeley, where Oppenheimer was a professor between 1929 to 1943, and University of California, UCLA where he taught physics. After WWII, Oppenheimer’s journey took him to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he became a school director.
Van Hoytema says that shooing Oppenheimer on analogue film was a given from the get-go, and that the immersive quality of the IMAX 15-perf frame size was an irresistible lure.
“Large format photography gives clarity, and places the audience in the reality you are creating for them,” he says. “Of course, as the film has grand vistas and deals with the explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb, it had to be a blast, and there is nothing better than IMAX for creating that spectacular cinematic experience.
“That said, Oppenheimer is mainly a human drama and my biggest technical challenge on this film was how to carry three-hours of close-ups, keeping the faces interesting and appealing, and making the end-result feel intimate and psychologically-powerful.
“My biggest challenge on this film was how to carry three hours of close-ups”
“Through the years we have discovered that the sweet spots with IMAX are 50mm and 80mm. Anything beyond those focal lengths and you start to diminish the immersive quality of the image. If you go too long the image appears compressed and more graphic, as if you’re looking at a sort of flat screen. Anything too wide becomes more like a fishbowl, where the edges start to fall-off too fast. So the 50mm has become our wide lens, the 80mm our tighter lens. On close-ups they give you the right proximity and wideness, and everything around starts to function like the peripheral vision of your eyes.
“But, when shooting our close-ups, we didn’t want the camera to be six feet away from our subject. We wanted to be much tighter, so that you really feel the perspective and the intimacy. Also, I knew we would be filming in low-light situations and would need to shoot at T1.4 rather than aT4.”
Such close-focus lenses are not readily-available off-the-shelf, and Van Hoytema once again turned to the talents of Panavision’s lens guru, Dan Sasaki, to deliver a range of different optics – including Hasselblad, Panavision Sphero 65 and Panavision System 65 lenses – that would be used on the IMAX MKIV, IMAX MSM 9802 and Panavision Panaflex System 65 Studio cameras during production.
“Dan is an amazing lens artist, a magician, who met what I thought were impossible demands, as he tweaked existing lenses or re-engineered others from the ground-up,” says Van Hoytema. “He even built a special, waterproof snorkel lens for use with the IMAX cameras that didn’t exist before, so that we could get extreme macro shots on the miniatures and interesting views for some of the more imaginative scientific scenes in the film.”
Van Hoytema shot Oppenheimer on KODAK 65mm large format negative filmstocks, using KODAK VISION3 250D 5207 for exteriors and brighter day interiors, and KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 for low-light and night scenes. To support the distinction between different storylines, he also shot using KODAK DOUBLE-X 5222, specially-created for the production by Kodak for use with the IMAX and Panavision System 65mm film cameras. Film processing was done at Fotokem in Los Angeles.
“Although I shoot a lot of commercials using digital, I still believe film is more engaging to watch and is much closer to the human visual experience,” remarks Van Hoytema. “The 250D and 500T are workhorse speeds that I knew would cover pretty much all of the lighting situations I would encounter, and even though the larger surface-area of the emulsion means the grain is finer – especially in IMAX – they still had enough texture for me. There’s still nothing that beats the resolution, depth, colour and roundness of the analogue image, nor in the feeling overall that film conveys. When you watch an analogue print, especially in an IMAX theatre, the level of impact is freaking inspiring.”
“Nothing beats the resolution, depth, colour and roundness of the analogue image”
To support the intricate structure of the script, Nolan with Van Hoytema’s support, pushed to use B&W to help draw a clear distinction between different events and points-of-view.
“It was a gutsy choice. One of my very first phone calls was to Kodak, enquiring if they had any 65mm large-format B&W filmstock,” the DP recalls. “But they had never made that before, and early-on it was uncertain as to whether they would or could make it for this production. But, they stepped-up to the plate and supplied a freshly-manufactured prototype KODAK DOUBLE-X 5222 65mm filmstock, delivered in cans with hand-written labels on the outside.
“However, as that filmstock had never existed before, had never been run though IMAX or System 65 cameras, and required the reconfiguration of a 65mm film processor at the lab, making the DOUBLE-X 5222 a feasible proposition involved a great deal of collaboration with KODAK, IMAX, Panavision and Fotokem. It became quite a complex engineering process – encompassing things like the thickness of the backing for the film emulsion, and making new gates and pressure plates in the cameras so as to avoid scratches.
“But wow, was it worth it!? When Chris and I saw the first projected tests – portraits of Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. – we were blown away, and were like little kids with big smiles. We’d never seen anything like it – very special, very beautiful.
“Of course, there were several methods I could have used to create a B&W image, but you never get the same feeling as when using real B&W analogue film. And, shooting B&W also took me right back to my student days at the Polish National Film, Television & Theatre School in Łódź, where understanding the greyscale, using your spot and incident light meters, and making your own personal judgement were critical in making the final image.”
Motivating the camera during production involved cranes and dollies, but when it came to working handheld Van Hoytema literally shouldered the responsibility of operating the IMAX camera himself – not an inconsiderable feat when the cumbersome camera and lens package weighs-in at around 50lbs.
“Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s perfectly manageable,” he says. “We were not doing long takes, and I only had the IMAX camera on my shoulder in short bursts. Plus, I had a rock-solid crew with whom I have worked on many films before. My key grip, Kyle Carden, and dolly grip Ryan Monroe, were very sensitive and sensible towards my needs in wrangling the camera and making sure that I got it on-and-off my shoulder in good time. I must also mention Keith Davis, my genius focus puller, in getting the cameras ready in the first place to do some run and gun work.”
As for lighting the movie, Van Hoytema says that whilst it involved some creative, interpretive work to enter the mind of a quantum physicist at the forefront of atomic science, the overall goal was to have honesty as to where light was coming from and to produce a naturalistic result. He was supported in this task by gaffer Adam Chambers ICLS, another regular crewmember from previous productions.
“I had a mix of everything during the shoot – old-fashioned Tungstens and workhorse 18K ARRIMAX HMIs for when I needed some punch, together with newer fixtures like ARRI Skypanels,” remarks Van Hoytema. “I have to say that LED lighting has come on dramatically in the last few years. The lighting is rich, the colour rendering indexes are way up there, and the controllability is great. Adam, together with his brothers Noah and Shane, have developed an extremely solid, no-latency, 100% wireless DMX control system. This meant our lights were instantly controllable from the board as soon as we put them up.
“For the scene in Room 2021, when there’s a long hearing with Oppenheimer, I didn’t use a single fixture inside that set, all the lights were outside the windows. We could tune to and follow the colour of the real daylight from the board, and know our light was perfectly matched to the ambient light. It’s such a fast and versatile way to work.
Reflecting on his experience of shooing Oppenheimer, Van Hoytema concludes, “Having shot three films with Chris before using KODAK 65mm film in IMAX – evolving, developing and perfecting the medium each time for our purposes – working with it felt very intuitive. But Chris always pushes the boundaries, and I like being part of the innovations he brings to each film we make together – in this case getting the camera in-close for the close-ups and encouraging Kodak to manufacture the B&W 65mm filmstock.
“Along with having a very good handle on the technology, Chris is a great advance-planner too. He knows exactly how long a magazine will last before reloading. He knows what he wants from every shot. And every single shot we make goes in the movie. There are never any reshoots, and we generally finish on time or ahead of schedule. It’s super-efficient filmmaking. Oppenheimer was great to make, and it will be a thought-provoking and intense experience, especially if you can see it on a large screen.”