Christopher Nolan Talks 3D, Why He Shoots IMAX, His Approach to CGI, and Much More in Fascinating DGA Interview

by     Posted 2 years, 132 days ago

It’s safe to say that the name Christopher Nolan is quite well known around these parts.  He revitalized the Batman franchise with thought provoking films that didn’t settle for being standard popcorn-fare, and he made an extremely successful movie (Inception) that was based off of a wholly original screenplay instead of a board game or toy.  With the impending release of the concluding chapter in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan recently sat down with the Directors Guild of America for an intensely in depth interview covering everything from his thoughts on 3D, to why didn’t shoot Inception in IMAX, how he approaches CGI, and much, much more.  Hit the jump to see what he had to say.

Christopher NolanAs Nolan is a huge advocate of shooting on film as opposed to digital, we’ll get to his thoughts, via DGA, on why he still shoots film first:

“For the last 10 years, I’ve felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I’ve never understood why. It’s cheaper to work on film, it’s far better looking, it’s the technology that’s been known and understood for a hundred years, and it’s extremely reliable. I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo.”

Given the fact that the film format is in grave danger of becoming extinct, Nolan decided to do something about it:

“I’ve kept my mouth shut about this for a long time and it’s fine that everyone has a choice, but for me the choice is in real danger of disappearing. So right before Christmas I brought some filmmakers together and showed them the prologue for The Dark Knight Rises that we shot on IMAX film, then cut from the original negative and printed. I wanted to give them a chance to see the potential, because I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented. It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion. The message I wanted to put out there was that no one is taking anyone’s digital cameras away. But if we want film to continue as an option, and someone is working on a big studio movie with the resources and the power to insist [on] film, they should say so. I felt as if I didn’t say anything, and then we started to lose that option, it would be a shame. When I look at a digitally acquired and projected image, it looks inferior against an original negative anamorphic print or an IMAX one.”

christopher-nolan-the-dark-knight-rises-imageFilmmakers in attendance at the prologue screening included Edgar Wright, Joe Dante, Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, and many more, so we’ll see if Nolan’s little gathering had an effect on the directors in their subsequent films.  Since he’s touted IMAX as the “gold standard” in quality filmmaking, Nolan was asked why he didn’t use the format for Inception:

“We didn’t shoot IMAX for Inception because we were trying to portray the reality of dreams rather than their extraordinary nature, so we used a handheld camera and shot it in a more spontaneous way. Whereas the operatic quality of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises felt very well suited to IMAX’s larger canvas. So it’s different depending on what film you want to do. But, in each case, as a filmmaker who’s been given sizable budgets with which to work, I feel a responsibility to the audience to be shooting with the absolute highest quality technology that I can and make the film in a way that I want.”

What Inception did include was a bevy of incredible visual effects, most of which were done with as much in-camera work as possible.  As such, Nolan talked about how he approaches CGI:

“The thing with computer-generated imagery is that it’s an incredibly powerful tool for making better visual effects. But I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in.”

christopher-nolan-the-dark-knight-risesAfter CGI and IMAX, the next topic to tackle would be 3D.  Nolan admitted that Warner Bros. would have been elated if he chose to shoot The Dark Knight Rises in 3D, but he explained why he’s not the biggest fan of the format:

“Warner Bros. would have been very happy, but I said to the guys there that I wanted it to be stylistically consistent with the first two films and we were really going to push the IMAX thing to create a very high-quality image. I find stereoscopic imaging too small scale and intimate in its effect. 3-D is a misnomer. Films are 3-D. The whole point of photography is that it’s three-dimensional. The thing with stereoscopic imaging is it gives each audience member an individual perspective. It’s well suited to video games and other immersive technologies, but if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace. I prefer the big canvas, looking up at an enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life. When you treat that stereoscopically, and we’ve tried a lot of tests, you shrink the size so the image becomes a much smaller window in front of you.”

Nolan has many more fascinating insights in the full interview, which I highly suggest you check out.  He addresses why he doesn’t use a second-unit while filming, how he’s never done reshoots, and talks at length about his approach to working with actors.

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  • Reggie

    And all Nolanites commence slurping in T-minus 3,2,1, initiate.

    • luke

      Loser troll. You must like crappy movies since you hate on a good director for no reason.

  • Sam Borley

    Just a shame the majority of Imax cinemas arent actual 70mm film projection and theres only one proper imax feature film a year

    to me imax dmr is as bad as post converted 3d

    I love true imax (TDK, TDKR, mission impossible 4, transformers 2) at a true imax cinema (london bfi waterloo) though.

  • Bobmann

    Im really curious how The Hobbit would look in 70mm IMAX, I would imagine that the quality would be lessened.

  • Strong Enough

    Nolan The Gawd

    who is james cameron again? ha!

    • wipe your mouth

      the guy who gave us aliens and terminator

      • Jazzy Jace

        Jim Cameron, the douchebag who made R-rated classics up until True Lies, then sold out with TiTanic and Avatar. That’s who.

      • Tarek

        Well…coming from you it sounds like a compliment.

        Poor you…^^

      • luke

        Ridley Scott is responsible for the Alien franchise.

      • Jazzy Jace

        @ Tarek: “Well…coming from you it sounds like a compliment.”

        It’s a half compliment you moron.

      • tarek

        You’re right Jazzy. I’m a half moron then. and you deserve only half of “poor you”. ^^

        Which reminds me of my beloved Hobbit who said: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

      • Jazzy Jace

        Well, at least we’re in agreement then!

  • Dave

    His comments about CGI really ring true when I think about the set pics that have been released from Prometheus-which had those actual awesome sets-to something like the Star Wars prequels. As good as they are, they just lack that real life feel.

  • j

    Great filmmaker, I wish there were more like him… can’t wait to see what he does after the Batman trilogy

    • Sean

      Unfortunately he’s doing a YAWNER Biopic about Howard Hughes……
      I only call it a “yawner” because it just doesn’t seem interesting right now but Nolan is undoubtedly the best movie director on the planet and i’m confident he wont disappoint!

  • Dogg

    He summed up the problems with 3D perfectly. Films freakin’ ARE 3D. That’s why they have depth of field. The stereoscopic effect stuck on top destroys natural 3D as captured by the camera. It’s like dumping ketchup on a $50 steak. Nolan will make a fan of me yet.

    • Jim

      Ketchup is good, but steak was not made with ketchup in mind.

      When shooting in 3D, you have to be mindful of what makes good and bad 3D.

      Don’t make a steak if you’re planning on dousing it with ketchup- make French fries.

  • sense 11

    cant wait cant wait cant wait

    This man’s purpose is to create masterpieces on film, you cant hate on that

  • potterboy

    with the award season Director’s Roundtable next year, it would be interesting to see the five guys that could be nominated, talk about this issue with Digital and 3D

    if they all make great films. the “buzzed” directors will be


    all shoots but one still shoots films on film.

    it’s also interesting to note that Scorsese made a great use of 3D in HUGO, which completely changed my idea that Digital is inferior to film. now i’m in the middle. i guess both should stay, but the thing is, film will go extinct if our current situation continues. Nolan is sort of saying, both should stay.

  • Phil Beta


    I want yer babies… ya’re tha best

  • snapperhead

    Nolan is a great filmmaker, but the statement “It’s cheaper to work on film” is simply not true. And I’m not just talking about the cost of filmstock (he probably gets a serious discount) and processing. There’s the time spent on set. Shooting on digital is faster, and getting done on time means getting everyone off set on time, and maybe even getting done a few days early (if you’re Robert Rodriguez).
    You can argue that film looks better (though that’s kind of subjective), but cheaper? No.

  • MGS

    I think Nolan means in the way those Big Budget Movies are made, where every Crewmember gets paid in full, the costs of filmstock and processing are negligible – on one of those Batman Films, they probably spend more on craft service. But his example of colortiming photochemically in the Lab for a few days vs. paying a colorist and a DI Suite (incl. Assistants, Scanning, Data Management etc.) for 8 weeks makes sense – he is right, thats cheaper.

    Of course when you are making a Low to No-Budget Movie with friends helping out and using an Editing-Suite on the weekend for free, getting favours, etc. – then yes – Digital is way cheaper.

    • snapperhead

      Those are valid points you’ve made. When a big budget movie like TDKR is being made, the cost of filmstock and processing is negligible. Absolutely. And all of the principal cast and crew are getting paid whether they wrap early or not. Also true.
      Furthermore, I want to be clear that I don’t fully believe when someone like Rick McCallum says they spent $16,000 for 220 hours of digital tape on Attack of the Clones, and a comparable amount of film would have cost them $1.8 million. Yeah, sure Rick. If it was that much of a difference, only an idiot would still shoot on film. My point was only that Nolan is pro-film the same way McCallum and his boss Luca$ are pro-digital. So of course Nolan is going to assert how much better it is to shoot on film. That doesn’t make it fact.
      It’s simply a matter of preference.

  • Nancy

    He’s handsome. wow.

  • Tarek

    “One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in.””

    The second part is for Luca$ and Bay.

  • Rorshach

    I’ll take McCallum at his word on the cost of digital tape as opposed to film, but how much did the actual camera development, the cameras themselves, plus all the post-production processes cost by the end of the process, he didn’t mention that, did he? Chris Nolan prefers film and other directors prefer digital, it’s not an either/or process, both have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s nice to have the choice…

  • Eyes

    Nolan is right that film usually looks better. He is wrong that film is cheaper to use, unless you are talking about mega-budget productions where the volumes and expenditures are so high that the cost difference becomes insignificant.

    Nolan is right that if you use stereo, you can’t watch the picture from any angle. He is wrong that “if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace” – totally meaningless statement.

    So, only 50% accurate. The fact that Nolan has a fanboy crowd applauding his every move doesn’t seem to help him get his facts straight.

    • Jazzy Jace

      Trouble is, you’re the only one disagreeing with Nolan. I rest my case!

  • Ged

    If Nolan could find a way to give us Justice League, that would be the height of greatness.

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