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IMAX Explains How Christopher Nolan Uses Large-Format Film for Tenet

IMAX Explains How Christopher Nolan Uses Large-Format Film for Tenet


Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is one of the best partners IMAX has ever had. While the large-format film system was founded by documentary filmmakers and originally known as a creator of museum-quality movies depicting nature and geography, Christopher Nolan saw huge potential for the clarity and size of IMAX images when used in his own movies.

Beginning with BATMAN BEGINS in 2005, Nolan has used IMAX format film to elevate the presentation of his films in unprecedented ways. The filmmaker uses IMAX to create a sense of both space and intimacy, as seen in the opening heist sequence of THE DARK KNIGHT. Since then more and more narrative movies have used IMAX, but no one does it quite like Nolan.

Now, with TENET, the director is using IMAX more extensively than ever before. While the specific details of his approach in this movie are as secretive as everything else related to the film, we do know enough to expect a unique visual experience. To get some understanding of how IMAX and Christopher Nolan worked together on TENET, we spoke with IMAX's Chief Quality Guru David Keighley, who has worked with Nolan on all his IMAX endeavors.

IMAX and Christopher Nolan have a long-running partnership. He is perhaps the biggest champion of IMAX among commercial filmmakers. Is there anything different about TENET and how IMAX worked with Nolan to make this movie?

Well, you're right. We've had a long relationship, going back to BATMAN BEGINS, with Mr. Nolan. He is the Hollywood filmmaker who puts his heart and soul into IMAX. He's our biggest supporter. He calls IMAX film capture and display the gold standard, and we certainly agree with him.

This movie is the eighth film I've worked on with Mr. Nolan. It is unique and in many ways, it's a masterpiece, in my opinion. Chris always keeps everything very close to the vest and I like to do the same, but I can tell you that he uses the IMAX film cameras in a unique way — a way that people could have used them in the past, but they possibly didn't have the understanding of the cameras that Chris does. We did some tests and it worked in this special mode. I would love to tell you what he did, but he uses the camera in completely unique ways. I don't think any filmmaker has ever used a motion picture camera in this way.

Did the new use of the camera require anything technical or specific from IMAX?

We knew that the camera would do this, but we'd only done it for short periods of time. So we had to do tests. We made sure that it would accomplish this feat flawlessly for whole rolls of film, and it did. There really was very little adaptation, which shows the incredible versatility of a camera that was basically developed 50 years ago. It's still the gold standard of capture 12x18K resolution. No other camera in the world can come close to that. Chris knows that and loves to use it in new and different ways.

Did Nolan shoot primarily on actual film or did he use a mixture of film and digital IMAX cameras?

No, it's one hundred percent captured on film. TENET was captured with a 65-millimeter five-perf film and 65-millimeter, 15-perf IMAX film. (Note: See the image below for a visual comparison of the frame sizes David describes here. The 5-perf film runs through the camera vertically, while the 15-perf passes through horizontally.) So it was all captured on celluloid, silver halide motion picture film. It was all analog, with no digital capture at all in the movie.

Film format sizes

What will make the audience experience different seeing TENET projected in IMAX versus any other format?

Well, every place that you see it, other than IMAX, it will have a 2.20:1 aspect ratio. Actually, if you see it on 35mm film, it might be 2.40:1. But 2.20:1 is the aspect ratio everybody else will see it in. In an IMAX you'll see it in 2.20:1, expanding to 1.90:1 aspect ratio in many of our theaters. And if theatres are equipped with the technology, it will expand from 2.20:1to 1.43:1.

Since many people will see TENET projected digitally, is the benefit of shooting on IMAX film lost?

You know, when Mr. Nolan looks at dailies of his film footage, it's all sent back here to Los Angeles. We process it and make a 35-millimeter print. That's how he first sees all his footage. He doesn't see it digitally. He sees it on celluloid because he feels that's a better representation of what he has, and there's no manipulation of it. He really likes that; he's a true believer. I wish there were more true believers, but we're committed to keeping this medium alive.

The other thing you have to remember is since it's shot on film and all the [photographic] elements are silver halide, it does carry through to all other formats, including others that aren't IMAX. Because the silver halide look is the basis of all these images, these images are more nuanced, a rounder look than digital. It has, I think a more balanced look, a rounder look.

So what am I talking about? The aesthetic of film is different than digital. A piece of silver halide is very small. The smallest a pixel gets is about five microns, very tiny. It's a square either red, green, or blue. That's what accepts the photons to make your picture in a digital camera. In that five-micron space, which is very, very small, there are 17 pieces of silver halide that are random shapes. When you really get down to it, that's the difference. There are no squares. A movie captured on film is 17 times more nuanced than a digital image. That's the esoteric part that you can't put your finger on that makes it kind of magic.

With every new movie, Christopher Nolan uses more IMAX footage. Do you think we'll ever see an all-IMAX production?

I think it's true that Chris would love to film an entire movie in IMAX. We'll get there eventually. The secret is that the camera is a little bit too noisy for intimate dialogue. We've been working on that for years. To operate a camera with film stock running through the camera at 337.5 feet per minute is quite a daunting task. That's why, for intimate scenes, he sometimes uses another format. Those cameras are quieter, but we're working it. Hopefully one day we'll [be able to do] the entire movie.

Tickets for TENET are now on sale!

All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, unless otherwise indicated.

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