5 Facts About the Cinematography of “Dunkirk”

Some have hailed it as a masterpiece, others have complained it left them cold. Personally, seeing it on 70mm, I found Dunkirk a highly immersive and visceral film, cinematic in the truest sense of the word. The huge, sharp images free from any (apparent) CGI tampering, combined with the nerve-jangling gunshots and rumbling engines of the superlative soundtrack, gave me an experience unlike any other I can recall in recent movie-going history. I can imagine that it was less effective projected from a DCP onto a smaller screen, which may account for the underwhelmed reactions of some.

But however you feel about Dunkirk as a film, it’s hard not to admire its technical accomplishments. Here are five unique aspects of its cinematography.

 

1. It was shot on two huge formats.

Director Christopher Nolan has long been a champion of large-format celluloid capture, eschewing the digital imaging which has become the dominant medium in recent years. “I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented,” says Nolan in a DGA interview. “It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.”

Imax is a process which uses 65mm film (printed on 70mm for exhibition, with the extra space used for the soundtrack) running horizontally through the gate, yielding an image over eight times larger than Academy 35mm. Following some test shots in The Prestige, Nolan captured whole sequences from The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar in Imax.

For Dunkirk, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, NSC were determined to eliminate 35mm altogether, to maintain the highest possible resolution throughout the movie. Imax cameras are noisy, so they shot dialogue scenes on standard 65mm – running vertically through the gate – but Imax footage makes up over 70% of the finished film.

 

2. The movie was framed with three different aspect ratios in mind.

Those who watched Dunkirk in an Imax cinema got to see the native aspect ratio each sequence was captured in, i.e. 2:20:1 for the standard 65mm dialogue scenes but the much taller 1.43:1 for the Imax material, the bulk of the film. Those, like me, who attended a standard 70mm screening, saw it in 2:20:1 throughout. And those hapless individuals who watched it digitally apparently saw the standard Scope ratio of 2.39:1, at least in some cases.

This means that, when composing his shots, van Hoytema had to have two ratios in mind for the dialogue scenes and three for everything else. “Framing was primarily for the 2.40 [a.k.a. 2:39:1], then protecting what was outside of it,” 1st AC Bob Hall explains. This left close-ups, for example, with a large amount of headroom in 1.43:1, but the huge size of Imax screens made such framing desirable anyway.  “Imax is such an immersive experience that it’s not so much the composition that the cinematographer’s done as where your eyes are going on the screen that creates the composition.”

 

3. Parts of the camera rig were worn as a backpack.

Breaking with the accepted norms of large format cinematography, van Hoytema captured a significant proportion of the movie handheld. The 65mm camera package weighed over 40kg – about three times the weight of a typical Alexa rig – with the Imax camera only a little lighter. To avoid adding the weight of the batteries, video transmitter, Cinetape display and Preston (wireless follow focus) brain, these were placed in a special tethered backpack which was either worn by key grip Ryan Monro or, for water tank work, floated on a small raft.

Unfortunately, Hall quickly found that electromagnetic interference from the Imax camera rendered the Cinetape inoperable, so he ended up relying on his extensive experience to keep the images sharp. “I had to go back to the technology of the 1980s, where I basically guess how far famous people are from me,” he remarks drily in this enlightening podcast from Studio Daily.

 

4. A periscope lens was used to shoot spitfire cockpit interiors.

“I wanted to tell an intensively subjective version of this story,” says Nolan. To that end he requested over-the-shoulder views out of the windscreens of Spitfires in flight. Furthermore, he wanted to be able to pan and tilt to follow other aircraft passing by. Given the huge size of the Imax camera, there was no room to rotate it within the cockpit. Instead, custom periscope lenses were built which could snake over the pilot’s shoulder, and pan and tilt independently of the camera body, using prisms to maintain the correct image orientation to the film plane.

Other glass used on Dunkirk included an 80mm Imax lens belonging to Nolan himself, and converted stills lenses.

Note that the camera is mounted upside-down, to compensate for the flipped image generated by the prism in the periscope lens.

 

5. At one point the camera sunk to the bottom of the sea for an hour and a half.

A specific Spitfire POV required was from a damaged plane diving towards the sea and hitting the water. The practical effects department devised a catapult to launch an unmanned mock-up from a ship, the grips built a crash housing for the Imax camera which would be inside, and a plan was devised to recover it before the mock-up sank. But they weren’t quick enough, and the crew watched the plane and the camera disappear beneath the waves and plunge to the bottom of the English Channel, where it sat for 90 minutes until divers retrieved it. Incredibly, once dried out and developed, the film footage was found to be completely undamaged. “The shot was all there, in full colour and clarity,” says van Hoytema in the American Cinematographer article. “This material would have been lost if shot digitally.”

 

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5 Facts About the Cinematography of “Dunkirk”

5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who

Reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the new Doctor pretty much broke the internet last month. While the majority appear to be in favour, a significant minority reacted with hostility.

At first glance, the haters did seem to have a reasonable point. The Doctor is a man, has always been a man, so it’s weird to regenerate them into a woman. After all, there are constants across every regeneration, different as it may be to its predecessors. For example, the Doctor always has a British accent. If the Doctor ever gained an American twang, there would be outrage; the Doctors’ Britishness is a fixed point of their ever-changing character. Is it so unreasonable for their gender to be another fixed point, something to anchor their character and reassure viewers that despite the new actor, this is still the Doctor you know and love?

But as soon as you start to think about it, this argument collapses completely. After all, Doctor Who‘s 54-year history is littered with contradictions and continuity errors. The majority of the episodes produced under Steven Moffatt were full of plot-holes, so to suggest that there is anything fixed, immutable and logical about the show is utterly ridiculous. It’s pure fantasy. Fantasy – that’s a key word that I’ll return to later.

Let’s consider some of the most common negative reactions that appeared online…

 

1. “It’s Not Doctor Who any more.”

People said that in 1966 when the Doctor first regenerated. They said it when he was exiled to Earth in the 70s. They said it when it got campy in the 80s. They said it when the American TV movie was made in 1996. They said it when Russell T. Davies resurrected the show in 2005. They said it when Tennant left in 2010. And now they’re saying it again.

Change, evolution, moving with the times – these are the reasons that Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi show on the planet. The world has changed enormously since William Hartnell first flickered onto the screen with his magic blue (grey) box. It’s the show’s ability to develop in step with the real world  that makes it a continued success. These changes are visible in the ever-improving VFX, the topical themes of the stories, the shifts in tone under new showrunners, and crucially through Who‘s groundbreaking concept of regeneration.

Doctor Who is change.

 

2. “We have lost an important male role model.”

I saw a post from a man who was angry and upset to lose what he saw as a crucial role model in his life. His argument was that male heroes are usually more physical and violent, whereas the Doctor’s more intelligent approach made him great for encouraging men into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) careers. Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor, expressed a similar concern.

But it is women who are under-represented in STEM industries, not men. And if you’re looking for other intelligent male role models, how about super-brainy Sherlock? Or engineering genius Tony “Iron Man” Stark? Or most of the Star Trek captains and science officers? Even if you reject every other film and TV show’s male heroes as not intellectual enough, you still have the other twelve Doctors. Can’t we let 50% of the population have one female Doctor in there to look up to?

 

3. “It’s a cynical move.”

It’s no secret that Doctor Who‘s ratings have been steadily declining in recent years, so some people have come to the conclusion that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall cast a woman purely to generate controversy and draw attention to the show.

Undoubtedly Chibnall would have seen the press and social media interest as a bonus to casting a woman, but it can’t have been the sole or primary motivator. Chibnall is first and foremost a writer, and no writer would ever cast a lead actor to bring their character to life if they didn’t believe absolutely that that actor was right for the part. The first woman in the role is bound to attract a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than another man when her episodes start screening, so if the show is to have a hope of impressing the critics then the Doctor has to be an excellent actor with an impeccable track record. And Whittaker is definitely that.

This move is far from cynical. It’s bold, refreshing and relevant, and for this fan at least it gives me more excitement about the next season than I have felt for some time.

 

4. “It’s political correctness gone mad.”

Political correctness has become a dirty phrase, but all it really means is being careful not to offend oppressed or minority groups unnecessarily. So to say that Whittaker’s casting is political correctness gone mad is to suggest that it’s placating people who have no valid complaint of oppression or under-representation.

Let me say it again: twelve of the thirteen Doctors are men. (Thirteen of fourteen if you count the War Doctor.) Only one is a woman. That’s less than 10%, compared with 50% of the population being female. That is the very definition of under-representation. And let’s not forget that Whittaker’s casting was announced after the men’s Wimbledon final, not the women’s, because we still live in a world where women, and all the things women do, are considered less important than their male counterparts.

Casting a female Doctor is not “political correctness gone mad”. It’s taking a small step towards correcting a huge imbalance.

 

5. “I won’t be watching any more.”

I suspect the men who wrote comments like this did not stop to consider the more limited choices their mothers, daughters and sisters have in this matter. If women threw their toys out of the pram every time a TV show or film came along with a male lead, they wouldn’t get much else done. Women have got used to watching stories led by the other gender; we men must learn to do the same.

To the people who still say, “but the Doctor is a man,” and suggest that casting female leads in new shows would be better than swapping the gender of an established character, you may be right. And when 50% of all big franchises have female leads there will be no need to do this kind of thing, but until then, it’s necessary. Until then, us men whining that we’ve lost something in this situation is like a millionaire crying because they dropped a penny down the drain.

 

Finally, let’s return to that keyword, fantasy. Because I think the most significant things about Whittaker’s casting are the kids in the playgrounds who will grow up with choice. The girls won’t always have to play the kidnapped princesses, or the love interests, or the companions, while the boys get the roles with agency; they can play Rey, or Wonder Woman, or the Doctor. That can only be beneficial to the future of our society.

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5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who

Anamorphic Lens Tests

Anamorphic cinematography, first dabbled with in the 1920s, was popularised by Twentieth Century Fox in the fifties as CinemaScope. Television was growing in popularity and the studios were inventing gimmicks left, right and centre to encourage audiences back into cinemas. Fox’s idea was to immerse viewers in an image far wider than they were used to, but with minimal modifications to existing 4-perf 35mm projectors. They developed a system of anamorphic lenses containing elements which compressed the image horizontally by a factor of two. By placing a corresponding anamorphosing lens onto existing projectors, the image was unsqueezed into an aspect ratio of 2.55:1, or later 2.39:1.

Since those early days of CinemaScope, anamorphic cinematography has become associated with the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Its optical features – streak flares, oval bokeh and curved horizontal lines – have been seared into our collective consciousness, indelibly associated with high production values.

I’ve not yet been fortunate enough to shoot anamorphic, but I was able to test a few lenses at Arri Rental recently, with the help of Rupert Peddle and Bex Clives. Last week I wrote about the spherical lenses which we tested; our anamorphic tests followed the same methodology.

Again we were shooting on an Alexa XT Plus in log C ProRes 4444 XQ, this time in 4:3 mode, a resolution of 2048×1536. Since all of the lenses had a standard 2:1 anamorphosing ratio, the images unsqueezed to a super-wide 2.66:1 ratio. (This is because the lenses were designed to be used on 35mm film with space left to one side for the optical soundtrack.) You can see the full width of this ratio in the first split-screen image in the video, at 2:08, and in the second image below, but otherwise I have horizontally cropped the footage to the standard 2.39:1 ratio.

We tested the following glass:

Series Length Speed CF* Weight
Hawk V 35mm T2.2 30″ 5.6kg
Cooke Xtal 30mm T2.8 ? 3kg
Kowa Mirrorscope 40mm T2.2 36″ 1.15kg
Kowa Mirrorscope 30mm T2.3 ? ?

* CF = close focus

For consistency with the spherical lenses, we used lengths around 32mm, but in the anamorphic format this is a pretty wide lens, not a mid-range lens. We shot at T2.8, again for consistency, but I hear that many anamorphics don’t perform well wider than T4.

We were only able to test what Arri Rental happened to have on the shelves that day. The biggest and presumably most expensive was the Hawk V-series. Next  in size and weight was the Cooke Xtal – pronounced “crystal” – a 1970s lens based on the much-loved Speed Panchros. The smallest and lightest, was the Kowa Mirrorscope, with a list price of £1,200 per week for a set of four. (Sorry, I couldn’t find any pricing info for the others online.) Note that there isn’t really a 30mm Mirrorscope; to get this length you put a wide angle adapter on the 40mm. As this extra element decreases the optical performance, we tested it with and without, hence the two lengths.

Here’s the video…

 

Skin tones

Click on the image to see it at full quality.

To my eye, the Hawk has a fairly rich, warm skin tone, while the Cooke – as with the spherical S4 tested last week – seems a little grey and flat. The Kowa is inexplicably brighter than the other two lenses, which makes it hard to compare, but perhaps it’s a little cooler in tone?

 

Sharpness

Focus is more critical with anamorphic lenses than spherical ones. From a forum posting by Max Jacoby:

Anamorphic lenses have what is known as a “curved field of focus” that works similarly to the curved movie screens in some large Cinerama theatres. This is one reason that one needs to expose these lenses at a deeper stop. If one doesn’t, the curved field will not be covered by depth of field and either the edges or centre of the frame will be soft.

One day I’d like to re-test these lenses at a lower stop, T4 or T5.6, where they will all undoubtedly perform much better. But in this T2.8 test, on Bex’s face in the centre of frame, the Hawk V and the Kowa Mirrorscope 40mm – both almost a full stop from their maximum apertures – are clearly the sharpest of the bunch. The Cooke Xtal, which is wide open, is unsurprisingly softer. The 30mm adapter on the Mirrorscope completely destroys the image, not only making it very soft but also introducing colour aberration.

Now let’s look at the checkerboard at the side of frame and see if we can spot any differences in sharpness there…

It seems to me that the Kowa, both with and without the adapter, has a greater difference in sharpness between the centre and edges of frame than the the Hawk and Cooke. With the latter two lenses, the checkerboard is reasonably sharp, at least on the lefthand side, with some ghosting/blur visible towards the righthand side. The same thing can be observed on the chart in the flare tests at the end of the video.

 

Breathing & Bokeh

All of these lenses have a noticeable degree of breathe, which I suppose is to be expected from anamorphics. The Hawk V has roughly oval bokeh, the Cooke’s is more circular, while the Mirrorscope has interesting D-shaped bokeh.

 

Flare

The Hawk V doesn’t flare much at all, which is apparently due to the anamorphic element being in the middle of the lens, rather than at the front. The Kowa has a nice streak and glow around the light source, with a funky purple artefact on the opposite side of frame. But it’s the Cooke Xtal which provides the most classic lens flare, with a horizontal line across most of the frame and a partial star pattern around the source, despite the lens being wide open.

At the end of the video you can see how the flares develop on each lens as the light source moves horizontally across frame.

 

Distortion

A bulging effect is very obvious on all of these lenses, due to the focal lengths being quite wide for anamorphic. Notice how at 40mm on the Kowa Mirrorscope this curvature of the image is significantly reduced.

It’s hard to compare the levels of distortion because none of the focal lengths are exactly the same, except for the Cooke Xtal and the Kowa Mirrorscope with the 30mm adapter on. The Cooke’s top right and bottom left corners appear to be stretched away from the centre relative to the other two corners. I suppose that strange and funky stuff like this is exactly why you choose vintage glass.

Interestingly, the Cooke’s image appears a little tighter than the Kowa’s, which combined with my inability to find any evidence online of the existence of a 30mm Xtal, leads me to suspect we may have been given a mislabelled 32mm.

 

Conclusions

When we got to the end of our spherical tests and started putting the anamorphics on, I was shocked by the drop in sharpness. But as noted earlier, this is because anamorphics really need to be used with a smaller aperture than the T2.8 I often shoot at. If I learnt nothing else from this test, I learnt that anamorphic needs more light!

I would love to put the Cooke Xtal’s lovely flares and general vintage look to good use on a period movie one day. The Hawk V would be a good choice if I wanted the anamorphic look with warm, dynamic skin tones. The Kowa system seemed a little cheap and cobbled-together, but could well be a good solution for anamorphic on a budget, as long as I stayed away from the 30mm adapter!

I hope you’ve found these tests useful. Thanks again to 1st AC Rupert Peddle, 2nd AC Bex Clives and Arri Rental UK for making them possible.

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Anamorphic Lens Tests