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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