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”

My 5 Favourite Cinematographer Commentaries

I won my first DVD player in a trailer competition on a sort of YouTube forerunner site in December 2000. Over the next decade I was entertained and educated by many extras-packed Digital Versatile Discs. Now, of course, physical media is a thing of the past, but many of the anecdotes I heard in DVD commentaries have stuck in my mind. Some have even helped me on set when facing a new situation.

So, if you’ve got these discs on your shelf and never given the commentary a listen, or if you’re passing a CEX or Cash Convertor with a shiny new pound coin burning a hole in your pocket, you could do worse than seek out these classic chat tracks.

 

5. Moulin Rouge

DP Don McAlpine is actually quite quiet on this track, leaving director Baz Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin to do much of the work. This latter pair explain how sets, miniatures and CGI were blended to create the world of Moulin Rouge. At one point Luhrmann notes that he resisted the temptation to digitally stabilise the crane shots in the Elephant Love Medley, preferring to recall the look of classic 20th century musicals which did not have access to such postproduction trickery. A few nuggets we get from McAlpine include his use of blue light on Satine (Nicole Kidman) to make the most of her pale skin, the anachronistic use of follow spots for the stage shows, and how he was briefed by Luhrmann in one scene to light Jim Broadbent like the devil – which he did with flickering orange firelight from a low angle.

Highlight: Performing in what proves to be her final show, Satine wears a diamond necklace which reflects dazzling light onto Richard Roxburgh’s lustful duke. McAlpine reveals that he created the shimmering reflections by shaking some canvas with pieces of broken mirror on it.

 

4. X-Men 2

Although the DVD menu lists it as a director’s commentary, Bryan Singer in fact pairs up with his DP Newton Thomas Sigel for this track. Sigel discusses the importance of building practicals into the sets to enhance realism and flexibility of shooting. He explains how he colour-coded certain scenes so that the audience would more readily understand where they were during the fast-paced action sequences; for example, the corridors of the Alkali Lake bunker were lit with a moss green.

Highlight: The brutal claw-fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike features dynamic and unusual camerawork. Sigel and Singer reveal that they used a cable rig to swoop the camera towards the duelling mutants, knowing that the camera would bounce back when it reached the end of its cable, but embracing this for the extra energy it added to the sequence.

 

3. Garden State

DP Lawrence Sher shares (no pun intended) a commentary track with director Zach Braff and production designer Judy Becker. The trio give an insight into the way that the moods and emotions of the film were enhanced by the colours, design, framing and camera movement. Braff and Sher chose a static look with strong compositions, punctuated by occasional Technocrane moves and at least one quasi-crane move that was actually captured on a Steadicam. Various happy (and unhappy) accidents helped shape the look too, like the constant rain throughout the exterior shoots, the mist and flaring practicals in the pool party scene, and the square of light on the airport wall behind Braff and Natalie Portman in the final shot.

Highlight: Sher explains the use of different film stocks to delineate threads of the story. Scenes with Large’s father (Ian Holm) were rendered cold and clinical by shooting on a sharper, harder Kodak film, while Portman’s sequences were imbued with organic warmth by Fuji stock. The feel was further enhanced by lighting and the colour choices in the respective sets.

 

2. Alien 3

The departure of director David Fincher from Alien 3 – under a cloud of studio interference and re-edits – is an infamous part of movie lore. Less well known is that the director of photography changed a week into shooting, after original DP Jordan Cronenworth (of Blade Runner fame) fell ill. Alex Thompson stepped in, and his humble, soft-spoken observations are spliced with other crew and cast members to form the commentary track on the Alien Quadrilogy boxset version of this film. Throughout the track he explains how he created the cool, toppy look of the prison’s communal areas, the dark, shadowy environs of the basements, and the hot, hellish feel of the lead-works. There are some interesting remarks about practicals too, such as the deliberate use of mismatched, low-CRI fluorescent tubes to give the canteen a run-down look, and tips for creating convincing firelight flicker.

Highlight: To create the illusion of glowing molten metal in the colony’s lead-works set, Thompson placed a veritable arsenal of lamps – almost 1,000 amps’ worth – underneath sheets of trace. Despite their brilliance, the individual units were still visible on camera, rather than a continuous white glow. According to Thompson, it was Fincher who came to the rescue, wiping grease from the side of his nose onto the lens to diffuse the offending lamps. I hope he let the AC put an optical flat on first!

 

1. Armageddon

Whatever you think of this slice of outer-space Bayhem, there’s no denying that DP John Schwartzman’s commentary on the Criterion Collection edition (spliced in with two of the film’s scientific advisors) is a fascinating insight into photographing the biggest of big-budget blockbusters. Schwartzman reveals that seven miles of cable were laid by his electrical department in preparation for extreme wide shots of the Armadillo vehicle travelling across the asteroid – in reality the South Dakota Badlands at night. Elsewhere he discusses lighting through coloured windows, shooting under UV lights (pictured above), dealing with spacesuit helmet reflections, and how Spielberg’s lens-meister Janusz Kaminski stepped in to shoot pick-ups of meteorites wiping out Shanghai.

Highlight: Schwartzman and his team photographed two real shuttle launches for the movie. Nasa decreed that the 35mm cameras had to sit in position on the launchpad, threaded with film and ready to go, for two days before take-off. The camera dept undertook extensive testing to making this possible, dealing with such problems as the condensation that would form as the temperature changed over the 48 hours. When they returned to the cameras after the launch and examined the one which had been the closest to the shuttle’s rocket motors, they discovered that the lens was in pieces, the vibrations having undone every single screw!

My 5 Favourite Cinematographer Commentaries