Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas on ‘Wow Moments’ Filming in Imax

Since the advent of the Imax theatrical experience, filmmakers are able to think in grander terms than they did before and strive for the mind-blowing visuals that have come to define the giant-screen experience. And in the increasingly cluttered space of entertainment options, seeing a film projected in Imax offers a reason to enter an auditorium and become immersed in a story in a way that can’t be matched by any other medium.

But how do filmmakers approach filming in Imax from a creative point of view, and how do they balance nitty gritty logistics with their overall vision and ambition for the project?

Different filmmakers have embraced Imax technology in various ways, but it’s clear that the intellectual investment that Imax has made in Christopher Nolan is vast and personal. The 2005 pic “Batman Begins” received the Imax DMR treatment, bringing audiences closer than ever before to the caped crusader.
DMR — digital media remastering — is Imax’s proprietary process that up-converts conventional films to the Imax format. The technology lets Imax venues show films shot on conventional 35mm film.

But it was the unforgettable work that Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister did on “The Dark Knight,” the first Hollywood film to use Imax cameras during principal photography, that really made people take notice. “The first big creative ‘wow moment’ was when we were shooting the prologue for ‘The Dark Knight,’ and seeing Heath Ledger standing in the street from behind,” says Nolan. “The iconic nature of the shot really stood out.”

This trailblazing move opened the doors for a new method of filmmaking. “It’s a very unique situation in that a major company is working so in-depth with a filmmaker,” Nolan says. “And our relationship hasn’t even fully exploited the technology’s fullest potential. Shooting with their cameras makes you think in terms of tableaux and iconography. We’ve learned about the power of the visual image when shooting with Imax cameras, and by holding shots just a bit longer you open up the viewer to tremendous background detail that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Along for every step of the way of the creative process is Nolan’s wife and producer, Emma Thomas. “The team at Imax has been a tremendous artistic collaborator,” she says. “They’ve helped us to push major boundaries with each project.”

When Thomas saw the first aerial footage from “Dunkirk” she knew how immersive the experience was going to be for the audience. “Those Spitfire sequences completely blew my mind, and the image clarity that’s achieved with Imax technology is stunning,” she says. “The Imax experience can’t be replicated at home, and it creates a legitimate urge to get out of your house.”

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has shot both “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk” for Nolan, while also lensing the James Bond adventure “Spectre” in the Imax format, and understands that the technology allows for innovative decisions that might otherwise be unattainable.

Van Hoytema is also a pioneer in operating a hand-held Imax camera on-set during traditional photography. “Hand-held creates a very direct and reactive relationship with the subject,” he says. “Needless to say, the size of the Imax camera is a limiting factor. It became an obsession for us to apply the pure window of Imax the same way as one would do with any other camera. After some engineering, training and intuitive cooperation, we really reached a point where the initial limiting factors weren’t an issue anymore. This process taught me to not dismiss a technical mind when inventing and creating compelling images. Engineering and aesthetics, like form and function, are all connected.”

Director Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” was remastered into the Imax format using Imax DMR for its re-release in theaters in 2003.

“Avatar” was a pivotal moment for Imax, and it still stands as the highest-grossing Imax film of all time. It also became a cultural sensation in China and that helped to spur rapid theatrical growth in that market.

“Avatar” also helped to kick-off the 3D movement, which when applied correctly, has yielded phenomenal results for moviegoers, and has given filmmakers an added creative dimension with which to experiment. “When the film leaves our hands, we have no control over how it’s being shown on screen. But when a film is presented on an Imax screen, we know what we’re getting into, and it’s the best. It’s seeing it the way it was meant to be seen,” says Jon Landau, COO of Lightstrom Entertainment, who has worked on the “Avatar” universe with filmmaker James Cameron.

Plus, having the capacity to show the multilayered world of “Avatar” in the Imax format was an extremely exciting prospect on an artistic level. “Imax technology reassures us that we’re getting the best of the best, and for the way Jim makes his films, where there’s an attention to detail in every frame, it’s helped us craft something where the effects are always in service of the story,” Landau says. “The upcoming sequels will truly transport audiences to another world, and that’s what audiences want these days — that feeling of escape.”

And never forget the dynamism that Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” demonstrated after it was re-mastered into Imax using Imax DMR, and then re-released in theaters in 2003. It was the first Hollywood film ever to use that process and became the case study that Imax used to pitch studios to get them to release their films in the format.

“It was a delightful experience as I’ve always been an Imax fan, and had always dreamed of doing a project in the format,” says Howard. “Creatively, it was unique, because I had to go back with my editor, Dan Hanley, and he removed 12 minutes of footage to meet the maximum platter size at the time. And I think that version is better. It was an unexpected lesson and a great artistic exercise. The format is so inviting and immersive without being exhaustive, and even in the more intimate moments, the Imax image allows for a level of intimacy that really draws the viewer into the story.”

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