Wide Lenses Were Created Especially to Film Close-Ups in ‘Oppenheimer’

Robert Downey Jr.'s character Louis Strauss
A wide shot of Robert Downey Jr.’s character Louis Strauss in Oppenheimer.

Christopher Nolan’s love affair with IMAX cameras is no secret and the director’s enthusiasm for them caused new lenses to be created.

Nolan’s summer blockbuster Oppenheimer was shot entirely by IMAX 65mm and Panavision 65mm cameras. They were previously only used for big, landscape, establishing shots. But Oppenheimer is very much a scientific thriller with lots of traditional talking scenes — with the odd exception of a nuclear explosion.

But since IMAX cameras have never been used to get up close to an actor delivering their lines — in large part because of how incredibly noisy they are. The wide lenses weren’t appropriate for talking heads.

In a recent chat with Variety, Oppenheimer’s cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema explains that the close-up shots were only achieved by creating novel lenses.

“Strauss [Robert Downey Jr.] in the car is shot with a much wider lens where we, I hope, literally feel much more in his space or in a protective bubble,” the Dutch cinematographer explains.

“These are close-ups that are shot with wider angle lenses which creates this much stronger depth perspective as well. And because we are so close we get a much shorter depth of field.

“So this is another instrument for us to sort of control the viewer’s focus to really concentrate them and to really understand that we are within somebody’s space. That we’re not just observing somebody but we’re literally there with the camera.”

“There are moments where we allow ourselves to be a little wider with the lenses and to even push the camera a little bit closer,” Van Hoytema continues.

“Traditionally, that was very hard on IMAX cameras because they were very much made for vistas and none of the wide lenses were engineered to have things close to the camera.

“Our magical lens guru Dan Sasaki at Panavision, he retweaked and he made a lot of lenses and really pulled those close focus ranges very close to the lens.

“He put a screwdriver in there and started engineering and really made this lens that we started utilizing a lot for certain, as we say, paranoia close-ups or these very sort of intimidating in-your-face shots on Oppenheimer.”

Christopher Nolan’s biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, landed 13 Oscar nominations this year and has reimagined what movie making is. For instance, Kodak revealed it manufactured a special black and white film stock for use in Oppenheimer.

The Eastman Double-X Black and White film in 65mm was specifically created for use with the IMAX and Panavision System 65mm film cameras — an industry first.