Christopher Nolan’s upcoming war drama Dunkirk makes extensive use of IMAX camerawork, including a plethora of handheld shots. Whether he’s depicting a crime-ridden comic book city, a bizarrely shifting dreamscape or the farthest reaches of outer space, Nolan is a director who always goes for maximum impact. In his case, going for big, impressive cinematic effects means embracing the use of IMAX, despite the technical challenges that come with employing the heavy and expensive cameras.
For his film Interstellar, Nolan raised the technical bar by moving beyond traditional IMAX camerawork and employing a small amount of handheld IMAX, an approach that among other things proved to be a great physical challenge for his cameraman. For his new film Dunkirk, a World War II survival drama, Nolan stretched out his use of handheld IMAX even more in going for a combination of realism and hugeness.
In an interview with EW (which also unveiled a new image, see below), Nolan talked about his decision to employ the unorthodox technique of using a 54-pound IMAX camera as though it were a small handheld device. Nolan discussed a particular sense of disorientation he read about in stories of the real Dunkirk evacuation and was clearly eager to capture:
“I kept coming back to the firsthand accounts, with people describing the sights and sounds of being on that beach, or being up in a plane above that beach, or being on a boat coming across to help the situation. I think the confusion, not knowing what’s really going on, was one of the most frightening and disturbing things for people.”
And for Nolan the way to get this effect was by revisiting the handheld IMAX technique he first broke out with director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema on Interstellar:
“Hoyte hand-held the [IMAX] camera for a few sections of Interstellar very effectively, and then on this I had to break the news to him that he was going to be doing it for a massive amount of the film. We definitely bought him a lot of massages along the way.”
Employing IMAX in this unusual and physically demanding way also allowed Nolan to put the camera in places you normally wouldn’t, like inside cramped spaces:
“We could get on a small boat with a number of characters and just shoot IMAX as if we were shooting with a GoPro camera.”
One thing Christopher Nolan’s IMAX cameras didn’t capture on Dunkirk was a lot of bloody carnage a la Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge. Nolan’s film will hit theaters with a PG-13 rating, and though some expressed dismay at this, Nolan explained that for him the task was to achieve intensity without showing a lot of gore. Early glimpses of the film suggest Nolan did indeed create an intense experience.
According to Nolan, Dunkirk is a survival film and a thriller more than a war film in the traditional sense. As his revolutionary use of IMAX shows, Nolan was willing to re-invent film technique in order to achieve the effects he was after. But that’s nothing new for Nolan.