Home Genres Cinematography Oppenheimer Analogue: Why #filmisnotdead in movie production

Oppenheimer Analogue: Why #filmisnotdead in movie production

Oppenheimer analogue: Claim on a movie poster in Sweden
“Shot with IMAX film cameras”: The new movie, “Oppenheimer” is living proof of the fact that #filmisnotdead.

Remember the #filmisnotdead hashtag fired off by Leica last year? Things have quieted down a bit since then. But film is alive and kicking, even in cinema production. Take the latest example: Christopher Nolan’s analogue epic “Oppenheimer”.

It was with the advent of the new-old M6 that Leica revived interest in silver-halide film. #filmisnotdead was meant to make people curious about what most of them already knew – that Leica was going to release a new film loading rangefinder camera. But there had to be a reason for it, and #filmisnotdead came in handy. Anyway, film is still in use. And I discovered that even Hollywood cinema productions with their many hours of footage still rely on conventional film.

Oppenheimer, analogue? The poster is promising

I read in some reviews of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” about the specific visual quality of the photography. Hoyte van Hoytema, the cinematographer, received praise for the aesthetics of the film, while the overall reception was somewhat mixed. I will not comment on this, but I must say that I was also intrigued by the claim “shot with IMAX film cameras” when I saw the film poster in Sweden. Openheimer analogue, can that be? #filmisnotdead in the big movie business?

“Film cameras” means “film loading cameras”, right? And indeed, the team shot the film on 65mm stock. This results in ultra-high resolution images that give the best experience in dedicated IMAX theatres. I am by no means an expert on cinematography, but I understand that the huge negatives have a special visual effect in terms of detail resolution, depth of field and overall look. Or as cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema says about the Oppenheimer analogue project: “There is still nothing that can beat the resolution, depth, colour and roundness of the analogue image, nor the overall feeling that film conveys”.

Oppenheimer, analogue? Yes, say Kodak

After discovering this quote in a long and interesting (especially towards the end) article published by Kodak themselves, I received confirmation from their Director of WW Communications that Nolan did indeed use analogue Kodak film for his “Oppenheimer” film. In fact, Kodak made the black-and-white film used in long takes of the film specifically for this production. Unfortunately, we cannot show a few film stills here because of copyright questions. 

A bit like a medium format slide after all the digital stuff

It is a bit like looking at medium format slides after you have seen many images made with smaller format digital cameras. With a photographer’s eye, I think I can see some peculiarities. The colours look both saturated and muted, while the black and white parts have an enormous range of shades of grey. It all looks classic in a way, and I suppose that this is what Nolan wants to achieve with his ambition to create nothing less than a timeless piece of culture. The depth of field is remarkably shallow, which you can only achieve with a large ‘sensor’ (in this case, film), relatively long focal lengths and wide apertures. I am sure that Hoyte van Hoytema had access to everything he wanted.

Oppenheimer analogue aesthetics: Almost a Noctilux rendering

Some scenes, especially in the second half of the film (after the bomb blast), almost reminded me of Noctilux images, with their super shallow depth of field, with the pupil of one eye sharp and the other already a little blurred. In a few instances, I wondered if this was really intentional (and heaven knows, you have plenty of time to look at all these details during the film’s long 180 minutes) or if even a cinematographer in van Hoytema’s league could sometimes miss the focus.

If algorithms were good enough, nobody would use film, right?

Perhaps experts could have reproduced Oppenheimer’s analogue look with digital data and algorithms. Film is expensive, after all, and even with a production budget of 100 million dollars, there will be people trying to cut corners. But on the other hand, Nolan and van Hoytema must have had their reasons for going this expensive route. In the aforementioned Kodak article, Van Hoytema is quoted as saying that “shooting Oppenheimer on analogue film was a no-brainer from the start, and that the immersive quality of 65mm in IMAX 15-perf was an irresistible lure”.

Hoyte van Hoytema also explained what some trained spectators might have discovered on their own: Why he used 50mm and 80mm as the main focal lengths, and why he chose the T1.4 aperture, which is wider than an f/1.4 lens for still photography. And of course, this film could not make do with off-the-shelf lenses, read more on this in the Kodak article. And you can discover on a dedicated Kodak website that a surprising number of recent cinema productions have been shot on film.

Oppenheimer analogue: Only a few theatres will give you the full visual experience

Unfortunately, I was not able to see the film in one of the rare IMAX or even 35mm analogue versions, so I do not want to go too far. But I do agree that the film had a unique look. The film stock used is 250D daylight and 500T tungsten — names we know from the German Silbersalz project (read on Messsucherwelt about Claus Sassenberg’s experiences with it). In any case, the cinematographer, quoted by Kodak, should have the last word. “Although I shoot a lot of commercials with digital cameras, I still believe that film is more engaging to look at and much closer to the human visual experience”.

What do you think? Does the choice of medium really make a difference? Do you think you could tell a film shot on analogue material with the naked eye? And — without getting into a debate about the film itself — did you have a particular visual experience when watching “Oppenheimer”?

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  1. It was Malcolm Taylor – the Leica repair specialist – who first told me that we had the movie industry to thank for the survival of film. Thank you, David B, for the additional background information.

    • .
      And it was Malcolm who rebuilt Barnack’s movie camera for Leica! (It had been ‘sitting in a drawer’, so to speak, at Leitz/Leica for many years, and was no longer usable, but I think Andreas Kaufmann asked him to strip it down and rebuild it so that it now works again.)

  2. Just in case anyone here is interested in any of this, being Leica chaps and chapesses..

    Emil Mechau – who worked at Zeiss, and who then moved to Ernst Leitz & Sons, and introduced his friend Oskar Barnack to Leitz, and the rest is well-known history – devised a film projector which did NOT stop the film at every frame, and DIDN’T drop the shutter to deliver an occlusion of blackness between every frame.

    Instead, it had a revolving drum of mirrors, which ‘followed’ the film as it moved continuously, non-stop, through the projector till a frame was out of sight, so to speak, and then brought into sight the next frame.

    When Mechau moved to Leitz to perfect this new-style projector, which was gentler on film, a ciné camera was needed to shoot some movie so that the film could be run through Mechau’s new-fangled projector ..and Mechau’s pal Oskar Barnack got the job of devising and building a 35mm movie camera to complement Mechau’s projector.

    (..From this came, of course, Barnack’s association with 35mm movie film, and his idea to try to make a small stills camera which used 35mm movie film.)

    The Mechau projector didn’t gain much traction, and generally faded away (see a bit more about it, with Mike’s permission, on Leica Barnack Berek Blog at tinyurl.com/M3ch4u) except that his projector became the basis for projecting films for television, as it continuously scans a film, and so is more suitable for projecting it into a TV camera, than using a normal cinema projector which interrupts the projection 48 times every second.

    The Mechau projector was used by John Logie Baird to offer films on his TV service, and a few were installed at Alexandra Palace in London for the BBC’s own television service. The Mechau machine then really came into its own when Baird’s company Cine Tel (Cinema-Television) – or parts of it – were bought by the UK’s famous film-centric Rank Organisation, which then produced a series of ‘Rank CinTel’-branded film-to-television transfer machines ..which are still in use today.

  3. Hi J-P,

    Around 2014 quite a list of film directors petitioned Kodak to continue making film – rather than completely shutting down their film-making plant – saying that they’d guarantee to buy a specific amount (length, or value) of film in order to make it worth Kodak’s while, even though Kodak’s sales of motion picture film had declined 96% in the 10 years to 2014, according to the LA Times.

    Q Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Chris Nolan, Judd Apatow, JJ Abrams (for ‘Star Wars’ sequels and prequels) and several Hollywood studios on their behalf (Warner Bros, Universal, Paramount, the Weinstein Co. and Walt Disney) succeeded in persuading Kodak – or what’s left of Kodak! – to continue.

    As Jane Giles says in her gigantic book about London’s Scala Cinema (1978-1993), there’s something different in the ‘luminosity’ of an image created by shining light through a piece of plastic film onto a screen, compared with ‘digital’ projection, which bounces light off teeny mirrors and then through filters onto a screen.

    My take on it is that the slightly jerky procession of individual images projected through film, 24 of them a second (..actually, with each image shown twice, that makes 48 images a second, each separated by an almost equal period of blackness onscreen..) gives the experience a ‘hyper-realistic’ look and feel, compared with the smoother, more common and lifelike blending of less staccato digital images. That’s without even considering the granularity (or not) of the images, their depth-of-field, or their sharpness or saturation.

    Film has a different (what you might call) ‘texture’, and a different ‘cadence’ (refresh rate) onscreen compared with video, or ‘digital film making’ ..and I think that’s what those directors who use film want to deliver ..as well as a continuity with the past, and the the beginnings of cinema in 1895. Using film constitutes an homage to previous generations of film-makers ..the people who have given us ‘L’Arroseur Arrosé’, ‘Safety Last!’, ‘Bringing Up Baby’, ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’, ‘Singing’ in the Rain’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Back to the Future’ and ..of course!.. ‘Blade Runner’.

      • .
        ..and ‘Our Gracie’ in ‘Shipyard Sally’ and ‘Sing As We Go!’

        (Anyone not from the UK may wonder what on earth these films are about!)

        • Ah talk about great minds. It was a toss up between George Formby and Gracie Fields. Formby won because he came from Wigan (did I mention it’s my home town?).

    • Thanks for the list of classics. For the younger generation, the first two are available to view on Wikipedia!

      Der Blaue Engel, anyone?

      • .
        Er, I think I prefer ‘Pandora’s Box’ ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018737/ ) ..more interesting photography, use of light and shade, more realistic acting, etc. Enticement not quite laid on with a trowel, unlike Marlene’s.

        [I prefer Marlene’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, in which she showed that she could do more than look svelte and alluring. (I say “Marlene’s”, as she – effectively – produced it: bought the rights to Agatha Christie’s book, summoned Billy Wilder to Paris to discuss it and for him to sign on as director ..so it was really her baby from start to finish!)]

    • Thanks for this as well., David. I had read about this initiative a fee years ago, but only your comment bring it really back to my memory. Great that you have all the details. Much appreciated. And yeas, the analoge viewing experience is different. I always notice it when I turn on the slide projector. So different from what the digital projector is showing. So let’s hope Kodak will continue to supply Hollywood and us amateurs. JP


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