Aug 16, 2023

'Oppenheimer' Uses IMAX Lenses That Didn't Exist, Hoyte van Hoytema Says

It's a Christopher Nolan film, of course it did.

Christopher Nolan likes to break new ground when he films a new movie. Less of a trendsetter, and more of a leader in practicality, the man adores film, and everything to do with it. His latest film, Oppenheimer, is arguably his magnum opus and one could argue that the biopic of the theoretical physicist who helped create the nuclear arms race, to his immense regret, is also his most beautifully filmed piece of work to date. That is down, largely, to his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema.

Van Hoytema began his collaboration with Nolan on Interstellar, after long-term Nolan partner Wally Pfister decided to go out on his own as a director. The pair have now worked together on four films, with Dunkirk and Tenet following Interstellar. Nolan is a proponent for filming things using real film, rather than digital, as well as utilizing the IMAX format. IMAX cameras are, famously, rather unwieldy and extremely large which presents its own challenge. They're also only designed to be a certain length, another thing Nolan decided to change.

IMAX was originally designed for documentary filmmaking, the gigantic screens being intended for wide-angled cinematography meant to showcase vast spaces. Nolan, on the other hand, had written Oppenheimer from the perspective of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which meant lots of intimate, close-up shots and intense depth of field, filming at 70mm. However, the lenses required didn't exist.

Speaking with Collider's Steve Weintraub, van Hoytema opened up on the process involved with building the glass that would allow that level of intimacy to be brought into the filming. Nolan has already previously revealed that Kodak had allowed the possibility to shoot the film in IMAX black-and-white for the first time, which truly meant this shoot was groundbreaking for IMAX films going forward.

As much as we wanted this to be IMAX and part of the IMAX sequences, we realized that we want to shoot a lot of microphotography on IMAX format, [which] doesn't really have those kinds of possibilities, right? So straight away, we started engineering those specific lenses for the IMAX camera. Effectively, when you do this sort of microphotography, when you want to have a camera, for instance, in between here, or track in between here to enlarge the world of this to sort of a life-size format, you need special lenses. You need what we call probe lenses. They didn't exist for IMAX, so Dan Sasaki from Panavision built us this pro lens, and we experimented with it, and we improved it, and in the end, it was something that we used a lot for aquarium work and micro work and macro work. So, that was very exciting.

Nolan has also — famously, by this point — stated that there were no CGI shots used in the making of the film. Weintraub asked about the process of working alongside the visual effects team in order to show off the sort of scenes that Nolan intended, from a practical level. None of those effects are more remarkable than the Trinity Test reconstruction, which, due to the absence of computer-assisted effects, had to be filmed up close.

While the temptation to actually build their own nuclear bomb was, plainly, quite tempting, the filmmakers did manage to resist, instead filming explosions in aquariums, bursting balloons and trying lots of different methods until they found something that worked. The final result is remarkable, and infinitely memorable.

"The visual effects department, you could say, was a tent that was always put up next to our set where we’re doing all these science experiments," said van Hoytema. "We would shoot molded metal, shoot into aquariums with silver particles, or do micro explosions of balloons in reverse, et cetera, et cetera.

"There's a lot of small, little, very tactile physics experiments going on that we then tried to film in different ways, with different kinds of cameras, as well. And then sort of cobbled together this kind of idea of the quantum physics or particle physics, or atoms crashing into each other, or a gigantic nuclear explosion, et cetera, et cetera."

Oppenheimer is playing in theaters and IMAX now. Seek out your closest IMAX to see it in all its glory. For more with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, you can watch our full interview below.

Chris is a Senior News Writer for Collider. He can be found in an IMAX screen, with his eyes watering and his ears bleeding for his own pleasure.

Christopher Nolan OppenheimerHoyte van Hoytema. Interstellar, Wally PfisterJ. Robert OppenheimerSteve Weintraub