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‘Dunkirk’: Christopher Nolan’s Cinematographer Viscerally Redefined the IMAX Experience

Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema could nab his first Oscar for instilling "Dunkirk" with a new kind of large-format immersion and intimacy.



There’s a thrilling scene early on in “Dunkirk” when Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy carries a wounded soldier on a stretcher through a long line of comrades on the beach. What made it work so viscerally is the fact that cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema picked up the 54-pound IMAX 65mm camera on the spur of the moment and feverishly followed the action.

It was part of the “You Are There” ethos of Christopher Nolan’s immersive World War II survival drama about the legendary evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied troops under German bombardment. which could only be captured through the IMAX film experience.


Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

“It’s quality and there’s nothing like it,” said van Hoytema. And when it came to “Dunkirk” they upped their game. “We always tried to be as much as possible in some sort of a point of view situation,” van Hoytema said. “To experience all these moments as if you were there was the most important visual cue. Where does the camera have to be and what kind of lens provides the most immersive experience?”

Going for Naturalism

Although “Dunkirk” is divided into three separate time lines (land, air, sea), van Hoytema avoided any sort of visual demarcation that might confuse the viewer. Instead, he went for a documentary approach, shooting hand-held in natural, available light whenever possible and as much in-camera.

Indeed, with the help of dolly grip Ryan Monro, they developed the IMAX camera as a run and shoot machine to record whatever action was in front of them. However, filming on location in Dunkirk, Holland, and England was fraught with unpredictable and often harsh weather conditions, which the cinematographer used to his advantage to instill a constant state of confusion.


Melinda Sue Gordon

“We shot in sun, we shot in rain, and our main concern was not continuity,” added the cinematographer. “It was stepping over old-fashioned film concepts of what looks good in certain weather conditions. We wanted to be in the same cadence as the weather conditions.”

On land, the camera followed Tommy, trying to be with him and behind him on the beach. And in the air, the camera stayed with RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). “Rather than finding the most sensational shots, we found the most visceral shots or the shots that would best explain their point of view,” van Hoytema said.

By contrast, at sea, we followed the Moonstone boat as part of the amazing civilian rescue effort. For that, van Hoytema shot with the 5-perf 65mm Panavision camera because the IMAX was too loud to capture dialogue.

Groundbreaking Air and Sea Action

The aerial action, shot in actual Spitfires, was groundbreaking in both authenticity and intimacy. “Chris took us out to fly a real Spitfire and later we were flying P-51s just to understand the G-Force and the light changes and vibrations,” van Hoytema said. “Formation flying was important to understand what it’s like flying so close and when another plane suddenly dives. Simulating dogfights you realize perspective shifts, how they line up, and the three-dimensionality of it. It’s very difficult muscle work. We hadn’t really seen realistic plane work on screen before.”

But such immersion and intimacy for the aerial action required new periscope lenses and lightweight mounts from Panavision. This allowed shooting from both inside and outside the cockpits, providing close-ups and vibrations of the mirrors. “All these little cues make you either consciously or unconsciously realize that you’re looking at the real thing rather than a green screen shot or a computer simulation,” said van Hoytema.


Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

Additionally, the IMAX camera was equipped with special housing or splash back for underwater submersion. “We’re not only hand-holding it but going mid-waist in the water so we could keep on shooting. It was part of that thing where the camera can’t become a limiting factor in recording all that special beauty that was fired at us,” van Hoytema said.

In the end, van Hoytema helped demystify the IMAX camera, no longer requiring set-up time to capture a magical moment. “We made it a usable utensil that we could put in any situation we wanted,” he said. “That put strain and required a lot of prepping. But we embraced it and devoured it.”

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