Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer"
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film Kodak had to design brand new 65mm film for the black and white ‘Oppenheimer’ sequences

Kodak had to design brand new 65mm film for the black and white ‘Oppenheimer’ sequences

Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer"

Given the historical and psychological complexity of “Oppenheimer” – the biographical thriller about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the “father of the atomic bomb” – director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema ventured into uncharted territory with the large format IMAX camera to explore the panorama of faces. In particular, the faces of Oppenheimer and Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a leading figure in the development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

To help achieve a more intimate spectacle, while redefining portraits and close-ups for 70mm IMAX, Nolan divided the film into separate perspectives and timelines: he called Oppenheimer’s “Fission” (in color) and Strauss’ “Fusion” (in black and white), in keeping with the quantum physics theme.

“This was a three-hour film about faces,” van Hoytema told IndieWire. “And our challenge was to be able to get close with the camera to make those faces our landscape, and to make those faces interesting enough that audiences would be captivated by them.”

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However, shooting close-ups in IMAX was technically more difficult than capturing the panoramas of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Oppenheimer oversaw the creation of the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. Van Hoytema usually relied on narrow 80mm lenses for close-ups, but he needed to get close to within 6 feet for greater intimacy. With no lenses available, Panavision lens specialist Dan Sasak supplied and adapted Hasselblad, Panavision Sphero 65 and Panavision System 65 lenses for “Oppenheimer”.

Kodak had to design brand new 65mm film for the | ManOfTheCenturyMovie
Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy on the set of ‘Oppenheimer’

As with “Dunkirk” and “Tenet,” however, it was impractical to shoot entirely in 65mm IMAX given the noisy camera and dialogue-driven nature of “Oppenheimer.” Van Hoytema shot with IMAX MKIV, IMAX MSM 9802 and Panavision Panaflex System 65 Studio cameras. But he shot IMAX whenever possible for optimal resolution and immersion. The film is shown in a record number of 70mm IMAX theaters: 30 worldwide, including 19 in the United States and six in Canada.

Kodak supplied 65mm film for the IMAX 15-perf and Panavision 5-perf cameras: 250D (5207) and 500T (5219) color negative and Double-X black and white negative (5222). Yet large format black and white was a first for Kodak and finishing it in 65mm was a challenge for IMAX. This required a partnership between Kodak/FotoKem/IMAX and Panavision to support the 65mm black and white workflow.

Aside from a few surreal moments imagined by Oppenheimer, van Hoytema opted for period naturalism in conveying the contrasting personalities and emotions of Oppenheimer and Strauss. Dramatically, the film pitted the celebrated and controversial physicist, burdened with the idea of ​​becoming Prometheus incarnate for his weapon of mass destruction, against a rising star of the industrial/military complex gripped by ambitions for power and glory. What amazing performances and iconic faces van Hoytema had to work with.

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“Actors, of course, make my life a lot easier,” she said. “I’m not asked to make something magically work. They are very film actors and have honed their performances. They have a very good understanding of that intimacy and what the camera sees.

The reference to large-scale portrait photography was essential for van Hoytema. “There was definitely creative leeway, but you’re portraying what might be playing in your lead character’s head,” she added. “You have to be very character driven but almost impure towards your characters.”

Photographing in black and white, however, required more control with lighting. Fortunately, van Hoytema relied on what he learned about the process when he was a student at the Łódź Film School in Poland. “It’s raw and feels very quickly conceptual and aesthetic,” he said. “The black and white motif was largely a way to separate these two narratives, so that intuitively one could easily jump from one to the other. In a sense, we had already done this with the blue and red color coding in “Tenet”. Black and white seemed like a very obvious way to do it in this film.

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But 65mm black and white didn’t exist, so the director and cinematographer asked Kodak if they would be able to produce it. “After months and months of trial and error,” van Hoytelma said, “they came back with several cans with handwritten labels that we could then go through our cameras. We thought this would be the end of our engineering and we would ask them to produce enough films for us.

“But then we had to figure out the cameras,” she continued. “They don’t flip the film while shooting because the emulsion is different and the film backing is different. So Panavision and IMAX had to redesign the cameras, especially the pressure plates. And FotoKem, the lab, had to come up with all kinds of different things, the planning and the infrastructure. When could we do black and white and when could we do color, and how are we going to plan our shoot based on what we can get in the lab?

Aside from the vast landscape of Los Alamos, where Oppenheimer felt most comfortable, the locations consisted of small spaces, which often became a psychological pressure cooker for the physique. “They all represent different moments in his life, different moments in his development, different states of emotion,” said the cinematographer. “So this is something that we’ve been very enslaved to with the camera.”

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“Oppenheimer” screenshots/universal images

There are unforgettable IMAX close-ups throughout, including Oppenheimer observing Trinity’s successful atomic explosion and the sense of horror during his celebratory speech at the Los Alamos gymnasium following the Japanese surrender. This is when he imagines the radioactive fallout from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For this, van Hoytema was able to harness the power and controllability of LED technology along with rear projection with the help of VFX to manipulate the image to gradually vibrate as the scene progressed.

Strauss, who has battled his own demons, expresses terror in a close-up driving a car on his way to a meeting on the Soviet nuclear threat with Oppenheimer and the Atomic Energy Commission. “It’s about brightness and dark and the contrast is a little higher, and you have to overcome that a little bit by lighting it sometimes more aggressively,” said van Hoytema.

But Oppenheimer’s most sublime close-up, by the lake at Princeton, was also one of his most difficult. “You take a shot like that and everyone feels the weight of it,” said van Hoytema. “We tried a few different things. I’ve worked through some rebounds, I’ve moved through some negatives and somehow all of our feelings culminate and all of our work together shakes hands in that moment.

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