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‘Dunkirk’: 6 Movies That Prepared Christopher Nolan’s Go-To Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema

On the eve of "Dunkirk," we rank the movies of the Dutch-Swedish cinematographer, who's risen to the top of his craft.




Hoyte van Hoytema has emerged as one of the great cinematographers of our time: cerebral, emotional, poetic. He creates texture and beauty with formal precision. He’s the thinking person’s cinematographer, who synthesizes the past and the present, but prefers shooting on film for organic, analog warmth.

No wonder director Christopher Nolan was drawn to the Dutch-Swedish cinematographer. They are kindred spirits, and their work on “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk” (shot mostly with the 15-perf IMAX film camera) recalls the scope and intimacy of the legendary David Lean and Freddie Young pairing on “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago.”

In all likelihood, “Dunkirk,” which portrays the heroic evacuation of Allied soldiers from German occupation during the early stages of World War II, should result in Hoytema’s first Oscar nomination. Shot from three perspectives — land, sea, and air — the footage we’ve seen thus far is breathtaking in its visceral force.

So, until “Dunkirk” arrives on July 21st (with the biggest 70mm launch this century on 125 screens), let’s rank Hoytema’s most remarkable efforts:

"Let the Right One In"

“Let the Right One In”

Magnolia Home Entertainment

6. “Let the Right One In” (2008)

Hoytema’s breakout work with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson was a horror film about the friendship between two 12-year-olds in 1982: a bullied boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), and a vampire, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Only Hoytema treated it as a romance in the frigid cold. With very bright lights and a muted color palette, the cinematographer achieved a painterly expression. Referencing the paintings of Hans Holbein, Hoytema borrowed his unconventional use of eyelines, allowing Oskar and Eli to catch their glances gradually with suspense.

Shooting in Super 35mm, light became a symbol of vulnerability for both Oskar and Eli, so Hoytema shot everyday life under dull fluorescent lights and streetlamps. When light became a threat, however, they captured electrical light and sprayed it throughout Eli’s apartment. Hoytema also shot through glass to create a sense of life going on from a distance.

“The Fighter”

5. “The Fighter” (2010)

Hoytema’s first American movie with director David O. Russell was the gritty boxing biopic about half-brothers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale). Again, a doppleganger pattern emerged, with ascending and descending trajectories. This time, though, when Russell wanted to shoot digitally to keep costs down for his looser, improvisational style, Hoytema came up with a film compromise: the 2-perf French 35mm camera, the Aaton Penelope. This was still economical, allowed Russell to shoot extended takes, and provided a grainy, doc-like look as well.

Meanwhile, the boxing scenes were shot with outdated Beta Cams to recreate the realistic tone of the original fight scenes shot for HBO. They even recruited the same director and cameramen. But Hoytema keenly captures a family on the ropes in search of unity and redemption.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

4. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)

Hoytema reunited with Alfredson on the adaptation of John le Carré’s Cold War spy thriller starring Gary Oldman. It was shot like a voyeuristic, claustrophobic puzzle, squeezing people into keyholes and capturing them in bubbles as part of the secretive world of MI6. The color palette consisted of black, gray, brown, beige, and teal. This perfectly complemented the tweedy atmosphere of the bureaucratic spy world, as well as the smelly, rain-sodden, strip-lighted London of the ’70s.

Hoytema employed a one-camera philosophy and took a cue from Erwin Fieger’s “London, City of Any Dream” for its use of rectangles and flattened imagery. Despite the exquisite formalism, though, it’s the way that Hoytema elegantly captures Oldman’s cagey George Smiley that lingers in the memory. He pops out of the bland scenery with such cunning.


3. “Spectre” (2015)

The reintroduction of nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and his eponymous terror organization allowed director Sam Mendes to wrap-up loose ends for Daniel Craig’s James Bond, while also paying homage to franchise highlights. For Hoytema, this allowed him to interject romantic imagery and an overall looser, unpredictable feel. Once again, shooting on 35mm film complemented the warm textures and the use of hand-held shots heightened Bond’s journey to finally bury his past.

Shooting in Mexico, Rome, Austria, and Morocco offered alternating color tones, while London was dark and foreboding. The highlight, however, was the “Day of the Dead” pre-credit sequence, shot in a series of continuous takes that allowed Bond to demonstrate more of the effortless skill that defined the Connery era.


2. “Interstellar” (2014)

What makes Nolan and Hoytema such an intriguing pair is their interest in how the past haunts the present. The cinematographer applied an organic approach to Nolan’s first sci-fi spectacular, re-engineering the bulky IMAX camera for hand-held shots (we can expect a lot more of that in “Dunkirk,” but like a Go-Pro).

Hoytema grounded the early scenes of blight in a swirl of wind and dust. But he never loses touch with naturalism, even when the journey gets fantastical in space. The marbled ice planet (shot in Iceland) looks fittingly otherworldly, but the most visually arresting image occurs in the daughter’s bedroom, where sand mystically speaks to her from the great beyond of time-space.



Warner Bros.

1. “Her” (2013)

With Spike Jonze’s anti-dystopian, L.A. romance, Hoytema achieved a special visual poetry. It’s an enchanting love story between Joaquin Phoenix and his OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and Hoytema beautifully captures all of its tactile gentleness. However, he achieved it digitally with the ARRI Alexa. He wanted to maintain the vibrant nighttime skyline from inside the apartment, thanks to the low-level lighting. This was a case where film would’ve been a hindrance.

It’s a warm color palette of red, yellow, and orange (without a trace of blue). But again, it’s about performance, and Hoytema captured the intimacy between Phoenix and the off-screen Johansson with a series of well-timed close-ups on the actor’s face. The trick was keeping it interesting, and, with Hoytema, there’s never a dull moment.

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