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Creative Reactions: Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema on Oppenheimer

A man in lab glasses stands in front of a porthole, through which a blinding light shines.Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer

When it comes to the machinery of moviemaking, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema refuses to be constrained by the bounds of technological precedent. For van Hoytema, “That doesn’t exist” or “That’s never been done” isn’t the end of a conversation, but rather a puzzle to solve. Oppenheimer, a look into the life of the titular physicist (played by Cillian Murphy) and his role in the creation of the first atomic bomb, offered several such puzzles. To enable van Hoytema to capture macro shots in a water tank on gargantuan 15-perf 65mm IMAX cameras to depict physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s visions of subatomic particles, a custom-built waterproof snorkel lens was devised by Panavision’s senior vice president of optical engineering and lens strategy, Dan Sasaki.

Kodak created a 65mm black and white film stock for the movie—a large format version of Eastman Double-X 5222. The stock became necessary when director Christopher Nolan decided to differentiate the portions of the film presented from Oppenheimer’s point of view from that of former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) by shooting the latter in monochrome. The new stock required both IMAX and Panavision System 65 cameras to be outfitted with new gates and pressure plates to accommodate the different thicknesses of the black-and-white and color emulsions, as well as an augmented processing pipeline from FotoKem.

However, not everything on van Hoytema’s wish list came to fruition. The cinematographer of Nope, Her and Let the Right One In initially aspired to shoot every frame of Oppenheimer on 65mm film. However, he was foiled by outmoded prisms and resorted to 35mm for some of the effects-unit work requiring high frame rates. “I actually bought an old Photo-Sonics 65mm [high speed] camera for the film. We put a lot of effort into being able to get higher frame rates on 65mm,” said van Hoytema. “The only problem was that in order to get those frame rates, that camera shoots the light through a big rotating prism, and those prisms are so old that they really break down your image. So, you have to grind new prisms or redesign the camera completely. It was complex enough that we were not a hundred percent successful with engineering the cameras [correctly] in time.”

While van Hoytema fought to break free of the shackles of the aforementioned technical hindrances, Oppenheimer presented other limitations that he not only accepted but embraced, from an abbreviated shooting schedule to an analog-centric color grading process. 

Early on, Oppenheimer eyed an 85-day shoot—less than The Dark Knight Rises (more than 120 days) and Tenet (96 days) but more than Dunkirk (68 days). However, when money needed to be shifted to other departments—particularly to production designer Ruth De Jong for her recreation of Los Alamos, which housed military and scientific personnel during the bomb’s development—Nolan freed up the funds by cutting the schedule down to 55 days. While that might be a generous allotment for some projects, it’s a tight window to create a three-hour, decades-spanning historical drama shot across multiple states and in Europe with a sprawling cast.

The abbreviated schedule only served to energize van Hoytema. “Chris and I are very much filmmakers that work on adrenaline,” said van Hoytema. “We love working very efficiently. We love to keep momentum going, and we love our days packed. We’re very reactive to problems that are fired at us.” The opportunity to work reactively is one of the reasons van Hoytema welcomed Nolan’s decision to shoot multiple scenes in the actual locations where events took place. That included the house that Oppenheimer and his family lived in during their time in Los Alamos, where the cinematographer grappled with low ceilings, limited places to put lights and a bulky IMAX camera squeezed into cramped rooms.

“I always love shooting on location. I love the fact that there isn’t an endless number of possibilities for where to put your camera. You have to be pragmatic, and that pragmatism forces you to be creative and come up with solutions,” said van Hoytema. “When you go to a studio, everything is a possibility. It’s a blank shape, and you have nothing unexpected to react to. You start to work in a very conceptual way, and you never get the happy accidents or the real atmosphere of the place.”

One of those happy accidents occurred in the desert of Belen, New Mexico, where production recreated the Trinity nuclear test. “Shooting out there was very uncontrolled because you’re in a real place, and the weather does what it does,” said van Hoytema. “One day, we got a sandstorm and, in that moment, we decided, ‘Let’s use it.’ So, we changed some things around in the schedule and shot scenes that would benefit from that weather. I don’t know how we would’ve created that otherwise.”

IMAX cameras come with their own well-documented obstacles. In addition to their size, the roar of the 15-perf 65mm film speeding horizontally through the camera makes recording usable sync dialogue extremely difficult. Many blockbusters reserve the format solely for a handful of spectacular, action-driven set pieces. For their fourth collaboration—following Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet—Nolan and van Hoytema opted for a different approach. “We have stepped away a little bit from the concept that whenever things go big, that’s when you go to IMAX. Through the years, we have become more and more interested in also using IMAX as a medium that can translate intimacy,” said van Hoytema. “Our philosophy now is that we always try to shoot whatever scenes we can on the best possible representation that we can, which is IMAX. If we need to shoot with the System 65 for dialogue, we very often will also do a take or two in IMAX, just in case Chris can make it work with the sound.”

In the past, van Hoytema’s go-to lenses for all things IMAX were the 50mm and 80mm. Seeking a greater sense of intimacy on Oppenheimer, the cinematographer often turned to a custom-made 40mm lens crafted by Sasaki for close-ups. Sasaki adjusted the lens’s minimum focus to allow the camera to physically get closer to the actors, while also softening the distortion that can occur in faces when shooting tight with wider lenses. “I’m a very big believer that an audience can feel where the camera is in relation to the subject. They intuitively feel if the camera is close or if the camera is very far away and just shooting with a long lens,” said van Hoytema. “[This movie] was so much about faces and getting inside of [the characters’] heads, and we wanted to be very close to our actors.”

The final image of Oppenheimer is the quintessence of that objective—a slow push-in to the physicist as he contemplates a conversation with Albert Einstein. The shot was captured on both IMAX and System 65 cameras, but it’s the IMAX image that made it into the film. “We played around with a few different eyelines for that shot. It has a very different meaning when somebody looks over the lens compared to the side of the lens,” said van Hoytema. “Ultimately, Chris chose a look that is almost directly into the lens, but slightly underneath. As the camera tracks into [Cillian Murphy’s] face and the depth of field gets shallower, we wanted you to almost feel that the camera is invading his private space, going through his eyeballs and then turning around inside and seeing the world from his eyes.”

The shot situates Murphy in the center of the frame, a choice made often in the film. That comes partially out of a need to create compositions that work for both the 2.2 aspect ratio of the 5-perf 65mm shot by the System 65 camera and the 1.43 ratio of the IMAX cameras. The aspect ratio experienced by the viewer depends on how they chose to see the film, which rolled out in theaters in both standard 70mm and IMAX film prints, 35mm prints and digital projection. “Usually, the information is based in the center of the frame and everything around it becomes peripheral vision. It becomes atmosphere and mood. In that way, the frames [from the different aspect ratios] are very similar,” said van Hoytema. “It is very hard to cater to every format, but we always have favorites, then we try to adapt the other formats to have the same power and impact. But the choice [of what we shoot in which format] is ours. We put those limitations on ourselves.”

Nolan and van Hoytema also self-imposed constraints in the post-production color workflow. Both the IMAX and 70mm releases employed a largely analog color grade that utilized FotoKem color timer Kristen Zimmerman. Once the film was scanned to create DCPs and home viewing versions, the goal of FotoKem Digital Intermediate colorist Kostas Theodosiou was to adhere as closely as possible to the vision of the analog print. “Over the years, Kostas has come up with lookup tables that very closely match our analog process,” said van Hoytema. “Our ambition is always to make the digital version very much mirror our analog version. We literally work with the images side by side. We have a projector in the DI suite with the actual film projected analog, and we try to match it up.”

Working that way means forgoing many of the conveniences offered by a modern DI, a concession van Hoytema was happy to make. “When you are doing an analog color grade, you cannot just use power windows. You can’t just say, ‘We want to make the faces pop a little bit.’ If that wasn’t a decision you made on set, there’s no way to do it [in an analog grade],” said van Hoytema. “What that gives you in the end is a film that is very pure. There’s very little doctoring done to the image from when it was acquired. It usually makes the film feel a little rougher around the edges, which I’m a very big fan of. That’s the trade-off. You choose to give away a little bit of the control in order to get back a little bit of the truth and the purity.”

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