"It's an intimate, emotional and immersive psychological drama, as well as spectacular event cinema," says cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema FSF NSC ASC, as he reveals details about capturing Christopher Nolan's nail-biting thriller, Oppenheimer, in IMAX (15-perf) format using KODAK 65mm large-format film, including, for the very first time, sections on 65mm B&W shot in IMAX.
"I am super proud about the result and know it will provoke a lot of interesting discussion and debate," he adds. In addition to standard cinemas worldwide, Oppenheimer is released in various analog film formats, including Kodak 70mm film screened in IMAX (30 prints), standard 70mm (113 prints) and 35mm (approximately 80 prints).
Directed, written and co-produced by Nolan, the Universal Pictures production transports viewers back in time to one of the most significant events in world history as theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led the development of the world's first nuclear weapons in WWII's top-secret Manhattan Project. With a running time of three hours, the film depicts Oppenheimer's life and delivers a powerful exploration of the moral complexities, dilemmas and consequences of scientific advances.
Indeed, following the detonation of the first nuclear weapon – codenamed Trinity – at approximately 5:30 a.m. on July 26, 1945 in the Jornada Del Muerto desert, New Mexico, Oppenheimer uttered the words, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" – a verse from the holy Hindu Bhagavad Gita scripture – to express his deep-held qualms about the destructive power he had unleashed upon the world.
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin. It stars Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, with a supporting cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr. and Florence Pugh, plus Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Benny Safdie, and Casey Affleck.
Oppenheimer is van Hoytema's fourth collaboration with Nolan, following Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and Tenet (2020), all of which were variously shot using KODAK 65mm film in IMAX (15-perf) format in combination with 65mm (5-perf) or 35mm (4-perf) analog film formats. Van Hoytema is also known for his collaborations with Sam Mendes on 007 James Bond Spectre (2015), James Gray on Ad Astra (2019) and Jordan Peele on Nope (2020), all also shot on analog film.
"It's always a surprise when you realize how little you actually know about a historical figure, and I knew very little about Oppenheimer himself, other than he was the father of the atomic bomb," admits van Hoytema. "Chris wanted me to read his script before I started digging into any other existing historical material about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. I discovered that he had boiled down the story into a dramaturgical structure that was very personal, intimate and thrilling. In our previous films the emphasis was on the action, but for this film he wanted a very simple, unadorned style to the photography, especially on faces to support the unfolding psychological drama.
"As with our previous films, I also knew early on that he wanted to shoot as much as possible in camera, utilizing practical effects and miniatures, as much as possible, keeping CGI, bluescreen and VFX to an absolute minimum.
"When I then read the biography, American Prometheus, and absorbed references from other departments on the production, I was flabbergasted as to the enormous scale of the Manhattan Project itself – the same magnitude as NASA Apollo mission – and it re-iterated to me how unbelievably important it was in defining the geo-political structure of our world since."
Van Hoytema adds, "As we all dug deeper into researching the period and the events, I was particularly interested to learn more about Oppenheimer and the scientists themselves, and to investigate things like the side development of extremely high-speed, ultra-light-sensitive and split-field cameras, plus very long lenses, that were specially-made to record the Trinity explosion. In this respect, Peter Kuran's book How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb proved quite astonishing.
"I was also fascinated by the personal descriptions of the bomb going off. Some described the mushroom cloud like an optical illusion, others how the morning sky was suddenly lit by searing bright white before turning golden yellow, then red to beautiful purple and violet. While a lot of this was subjective, I found it really compelling as I sought to get to the essence of what those people experienced during that period and on that particular day."
Pre-production on the film got underway in January 2022, with principal photography wrapping some four months later in May.
An interesting aspect of Oppenheimer lies in the choice of locations. Through attention to detail and dedication to historical authenticity, most of the film's settings are accurate to actual places in Oppenheimer's life, providing a window into his extraordinary experience and the events that shaped him. The authenticity of the film's shooting locations also enabled the cast and crew to immerse themselves in the atmospheres that Oppenheimer experienced personally.
Oppenheimer was filmed across various U.S. and European locations, including Princeton, N.J., New York City, Los Angeles, Zurich, Cambridge and the desert sandscapes of New Mexico, where constructed sets by production designer Ruth De Jong included a 1940s-style town and the Trinity test/detonation site. Filming locations in New Mexico also included the original house in Los Alamos in which Oppenheimer and his family resided during the course of the Manhattan Project.
Other practical filming locations included the campuses of the University of California, Berkeley, where Oppenheimer was a professor between 1929 to 1943, UCLA, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Oppenheimer arrived after WWII and eventually became Director.
Van Hoytema says that shooting Oppenheimer on analog film was a given from the get-go, and that the immersive quality of 65mm in IMAX 15-perf frame size was an irresistible lure.
"Large format photography gives clarity and places the audience in the reality you are creating for them," he says. "Of course, as the film has grand vistas and deals with the explosion of the world's first atomic bomb, it had to be a blast, and there is nothing better than IMAX for creating that spectacular cinematic experience.
"That said, Oppenheimer is also a human drama, and my biggest technical challenge with shooting this film in large format was managing the myriad of close-ups while keeping the faces interesting and appealing and making the end result feel intimate and psychologically powerful.
"Through the years we have discovered that the sweet spots with IMAX are 50mm and 80mm. Anything beyond those focal lengths and you start to diminish the immersive quality of the image. If you go too long the image appears compressed and more graphic, as if you're looking at a sort of flat screen. Anything too wide becomes more like a fishbowl, where the edges start to fall off too fast. So, the 50mm has become our wide lens, the 80mm our tighter lens. On close-ups they give you the right proximity and wideness, and everything around starts to function like the peripheral vision of your eyes.
"But when shooting our close-ups, we didn't want the camera to be six feet away from our subject. We wanted to be much tighter, so that you really feel the perspective and the intimacy. Also, I knew we would be filming in low-light situations and would need to shoot at T1.4 rather than a T4."
Such close focus lenses are not readily available off-the-shelf, and van Hoytema once again turned to the talents of Panavision's lens guru Dan Sasaki to deliver a range of different optics – including Hasselblad, Panavision Sphero 65 and Panavision System 65 lenses – that would be used on the IMAX MKIV, IMAX MSM 9802 and Panavision Panaflex System 65 Studio cameras during production.
"Dan is an amazing lens artist, a magician, who met what I thought were impossible demands, as he tweaked existing lenses or re-engineered others from the ground up," says van Hoytema. "He even built a special, waterproof snorkel lens for use with the IMAX cameras that didn't exist before, so that we could get extreme macro shots on the miniatures and interesting views for some of the more imaginative scientific scenes in the film."
Van Hoytema shot Oppenheimer on KODAK 65mm large format negative film stocks, using KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 for exteriors and brighter day interiors, and KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 for low-light and night scenes. To support the distinction between different storylines, he also shot using EASTMAN DOUBLE-X Black & White Negative Film 5222, specially manufactured for the production by Kodak for use with the IMAX and Panavision System 65mm film cameras. Film processing was done at Fotokem in Los Angeles.
Kodak’s 2022 creation of DOUBLE-X B&W film in 65mm format specifically for Oppenheimer was a first for Kodak, considering this film had never-before been tested through IMAX workflow. Kodak’s manufacturing process required extraordinary ingenuity, extensive testing, and careful collaboration with the filmmakers, IMAX, Panavision and FotoKem. The B&W on-screen results are spectacular.
"Although I shoot a lot of commercials using digital cameras, I still believe film is more engaging to watch and is much closer to the human visual experience," remarks van Hoytema. "The 250D and 500T are workhorse speeds that I knew would cover pretty much all of the lighting situations I would encounter, and even though the larger surface area of the emulsion means the grain is finer – especially in IMAX – they still had enough texture for me. There's still nothing that beats the resolution, depth, color and roundness of the analog image, nor in the feeling overall that film conveys. When you watch an analog print, especially in an IMAX theatre, the level of impact is freaking inspiring."
To support the intricate structure of the script, Nolan with van Hoytema's support, pushed to use B&W to help draw a clear distinction between different events and points-of-view.
"It was a gutsy choice. One of my very first phone calls was to Kodak, enquiring if they had any 65mm large-format B&W filmstock," the DP recalls. "But they had never made that before, and early on it was uncertain as to whether they would or could achieve it in time for this production. But they stepped up to the plate and supplied a freshly manufactured prototype DOUBLE-X 5222 65mm filmstock, delivered in cans with handwritten labels on the outside.
"However, as that filmstock was unfamiliar to everyone, had never been run though IMAX or System 65 cameras, and required the reconfiguration of a 65mm film processor at the lab, making the DOUBLE-X 5222 a feasible proposition involved a great deal of collaboration with Kodak, IMAX, Panavision and Fotokem. It became quite a complex engineering process – encompassing things like the thickness of the backing for the film emulsion, and making new gates and pressure plates in the cameras so as to avoid scratches.
"But wow, was it worth it!? When Chris and I saw the first projected tests – portraits of Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. – we were blown away, and were like little kids with big smiles. We'd never seen anything like it – very special, very beautiful.
"Of course, there were several methods I could have used to create a B&W image, but you never get the same feeling as when using real B&W analog film. And shooting B&W also took me right back to my student days at the Polish National Film, Television & Theatre School in Łódź, where understanding the greyscale, using your spot and incident light meters, and making your own personal judgement were critical in making the final image."
Motivating the camera during production involved cranes and dollies, but when it came to working handheld van Hoytema literally shouldered the responsibility of operating the IMAX camera himself – not an inconsiderable feat when the cumbersome camera and lens package weighs-in at around 50lbs.
"Yes, it's heavy, but it's perfectly manageable," he says. "We were not doing long takes, and I only had the IMAX camera on my shoulder in short bursts. Plus, I had a rock-solid crew with whom I have worked on many films before. My key grip Kyle Carden and dolly grip Ryan Monroe were very sensitive and sensible towards my needs in wrangling the camera and making sure that I got it on and off my shoulder in good time. I must also mention Keith Davis, my genius focus puller, in getting the cameras ready in the first place to do some run-and-gun work."
As for lighting the movie, van Hoytema says that while it involved some creative, interpretive work to enter the mind of a quantum physicist at the forefront of atomic science, the overall goal was to have honesty as to where light was coming from and to produce a naturalistic result. He was supported in this task by gaffer Adam Chambers ICLS, another regular crewmember from previous productions.
"I had a mix of everything during the shoot – old-fashioned Tungstens and workhorse 18K ARRIMAX HMIs for when I needed some punch, together with newer fixtures like ARRI Skypanels," remarks van Hoytema. "I have to say that LED lighting has come on dramatically in the last few years. The lighting is rich, the color rendering indexes are way up there, and the controllability is great. Adam, together with his brothers Noah and Shane, have developed an extremely solid, no-latency, 100% wireless DMX control system. This meant our lights were instantly controllable from the board as soon as we put them up.
"For the scene in Room 2021, when there's a long hearing with Oppenheimer, I didn't use a single fixture inside that set – all the lights were outside the windows. We could tune to and follow the color of the real daylight from the board, and know our light was perfectly matched to the ambient light. It's such a fast and versatile way to work.
Reflecting on his experience of shooting Oppenheimer, van Hoytema concludes, "Having shot three films with Chris before using KODAK 65mm film in IMAX – evolving, developing and perfecting the medium each time for our purposes – working with it felt very intuitive. But Chris always pushes the boundaries, and I like being part of the innovations he brings to each film we make together – in this case getting the camera in close for the close-ups and encouraging Kodak to manufacture the B&W 65mm film stock.
"Along with having a very good handle on the technology, Chris is a great advance planner too. He knows exactly how long a magazine will last before reloading. He knows what he wants from every shot. And every single shot we make goes in the movie. There are never any reshoots, and we generally finish on time or ahead of schedule. It's super-efficient filmmaking. Oppenheimer was great to make, and it will be a thought-provoking and intense experience, especially if you can see it on a large screen."