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Christopher Nolan Offers Thoughts on Film vs. Digital and More

 

For fans of Christopher Nolan - which I'm assuming is a lot of you - the director's recent interview for the Directors Guild of America is a must-read. I want to encourage everyone to read the full piece because Nolan has some really great things to say about the filmmaking process, growing up with a camera in his hand, his relationship with actors, and much more. But in case you're just looking for some brief points, I've listed a few excerpts below.

On what it was like going from a $45 million budget with Insomnia to triple that with Batman Begins:

I don't know if other people’s experiences mirror my own, but for me, the difference between shooting Following with a group of friends wearing our own clothes and my mum making sandwiches to spending $4 million of somebody else’s money on Memento and having a crew of a hundred people is, to this day, by far the biggest leap I've ever made. It was a bit like learning to swim once you're out of your depth: It doesn’t make any difference if it’s 2 feet or 100 feet down to the bottom—you’re either going to drown, or not.

The difference from Insomnia to Batman Begins, I would say, is we had very large-scale sets. But I had found a production designer on Insomnia, Nathan Crowley, who'd done a lot of art directing on big, big builds, so he came on board and we figured it out together. Those sorts of logistics are quite challenging and it was the first time I'd done a major visual effects movie. But for me, the process itself has always been fundamentally the same: You stand there and look at what the scene is going to be and then everything else falls away, or it should if you’re concentrating correctly.

On why he's one of the few holdouts in an industry that's steadily converting to digital:

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. We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I've never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I've just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven't seen that reason yet.

Has he thought about telling other directors and the industry as a whole his thoughts on the matter?

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 forThe 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.

His feelings toward 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. We try to enhance our stunt work and floor effects with extraordinary CGI tools like wire and rig removals. If you put a lot of time and effort into matching your original film elements, the kind of enhancements you can put into the frames can really trick the eye, offering results far beyond what was possible 20 years ago. The problem for me is if you don’t first shoot something with the camera on which to base the shot, the visual effect is going to stick out if the film you’re making has a realistic style or patina. I prefer films that feel more like real life, so any CGI has to be very carefully handled to fit into that.

I love hearing insights about making movies from one of the true masters of his craft. The full interview is much more revealing, delving into the hallway scene in Inception to his deeper thoughts on IMAX to not working with a second unit on action sequences. Definitely make it a point to check out the full interview at the DGA's website if you have time. What do you think of Nolan's stance against digital filmmaking? Do you think he's behind the curve, or does he have a point?

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