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‘Dunkirk’: Christopher Nolan’s Cinematographer Viscerally Redefined the IMAX Experience


There’s a thrilling scene early on in “Dunkirk” when Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy carries a wounded soldier on a stretcher through a long line of comrades on the beach. What made it work so viscerally is the fact that cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema picked up the 54-pound IMAX 65mm camera on the spur of the moment and feverishly followed the action.

It was part of the “You Are There” ethos of Christopher Nolan’s immersive World War II survival drama about the legendary evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied troops under German bombardment. which could only be captured through the IMAX film experience.


Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

“It’s quality and there’s nothing like it,” said van Hoytema. And when it came to “Dunkirk” they upped their game. “We always tried to be as much as possible in some sort of a point of view situation,” van Hoytema said. “To experience all these moments as if you were there was the most important visual cue. Where does the camera have to be and what kind of lens provides the most immersive experience?”

Going for Naturalism

Although “Dunkirk” is divided into three separate time lines (land, air, sea), van Hoytema avoided any sort of visual demarcation that might confuse the viewer. Instead, he went for a documentary approach, shooting hand-held in natural, available light whenever possible and as much in-camera.

Indeed, with the help of dolly grip Ryan Monro, they developed the IMAX camera as a run and shoot machine to record whatever action was in front of them. However, filming on location in Dunkirk, Holland, and England was fraught with unpredictable and often harsh weather conditions, which the cinematographer used to his advantage to instill a constant state of confusion.


Melinda Sue Gordon

“We shot in sun, we shot in rain, and our main concern was not continuity,” added the cinematographer. “It was stepping over old-fashioned film concepts of what looks good in certain weather conditions. We wanted to be in the same cadence as the weather conditions.”

On land, the camera followed Tommy, trying to be with him and behind him on the beach. And in the air, the camera stayed with RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). “Rather than finding the most sensational shots, we found the most visceral shots or the shots that would best explain their point of view,” van Hoytema said.

By contrast, at sea, we followed the Moonstone boat as part of the amazing civilian rescue effort. For that, van Hoytema shot with the 5-perf 65mm Panavision camera because the IMAX was too loud to capture dialogue.

Groundbreaking Air and Sea Action

The aerial action, shot in actual Spitfires, was groundbreaking in both authenticity and intimacy. “Chris took us out to fly a real Spitfire and later we were flying P-51s just to understand the G-Force and the light changes and vibrations,” van Hoytema said. “Formation flying was important to understand what it’s like flying so close and when another plane suddenly dives. Simulating dogfights you realize perspective shifts, how they line up, and the three-dimensionality of it. It’s very difficult muscle work. We hadn’t really seen realistic plane work on screen before.”

But such immersion and intimacy for the aerial action required new periscope lenses and lightweight mounts from Panavision. This allowed shooting from both inside and outside the cockpits, providing close-ups and vibrations of the mirrors. “All these little cues make you either consciously or unconsciously realize that you’re looking at the real thing rather than a green screen shot or a computer simulation,” said van Hoytema.


Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

Additionally, the IMAX camera was equipped with special housing or splash back for underwater submersion. “We’re not only hand-holding it but going mid-waist in the water so we could keep on shooting. It was part of that thing where the camera can’t become a limiting factor in recording all that special beauty that was fired at us,” van Hoytema said.

In the end, van Hoytema helped demystify the IMAX camera, no longer requiring set-up time to capture a magical moment. “We made it a usable utensil that we could put in any situation we wanted,” he said. “That put strain and required a lot of prepping. But we embraced it and devoured it.”

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‘Black Panther’ Scorches Box Office Records, Sets the Bar for 2018 and Beyond


Marvel’s “Black Panther” (Disney) arrived with a record-breaking bang at the 2018 box office, outperforming pre-opening estimates for its three day U.S./Canada opening.

Check out its all-time records: “Black Panther” bests “Deadpool” by more than $50 million as the best February and pre-March opening weekends ever. It tops last year’s “Beauty and the Beast” as the best pre-May debut of all time. It nearly doubles “Furious 7” as the best opening for a black-directed film. It is triple the best previous record (held by “Straight Outta Compton”) for initial weekend of a film with a primarily black cast.

Those numbers will be re-counted when Sunday’s actual numbers are reported, plus the boost the movie will get from a four-day semi-holiday on Monday. And adjusting to an even playing field still leaves “Black Panther” remarkably (considering the month of release) among the ten best openers ever.

“Black Panther”

Ryan Coogler’s breakout film “Fruitvale Station” did well in limited release and commercial sequel “Creed” marked a decent wide release. But “Black Panther”‘s grosses are seismic and game-changing for the director. The movie is the biggest non-“Star Wars” opener since “Jurassic World” (with a prime June release date) nearly three years ago. Yes, “Black Panther” comes from within the lucrative comic book universe of adaptations, but by those high standards it ranks #4 (adjusted) after both “Avengers” films and “Spider-Man 3.”

There have been 13 Marvel or D.C. Comic book releases since “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opened to (an adjusted) $204 million in May, 2015. A majority have opened over $100 million (including similar game-changer “Wonder Woman.” But no comic book movie since (the best off-season opener “Batman v. Superman” opened to an adjusted $178 million, “Deadpool” $141 million), despite showcasing a who’s who of comic world characters (“Thor,” “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and the ensemble in “Suicide Squad”) boasted the appeal of this long-overdue all-black cast of heroes and villains starring in an African myth.

The huge initial interest that propelled many fans to Thursday night and Friday shows likely account for a Saturday decline somewhat above some other recent Marvel and D.C. titles. The falloff was 13 per cent (from a higher starting point from most others) for its second full day from the initial totals. “Thor: Ragnarok” dropped  five per cent, “Wonder Woman” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” eight per cent.

But “The Avengers” also boasted an A+ CInemascore and dropped slightly more (14 per cent) on its initial Saturday on its way to a domestic total that was triple its opening (adjusted, its domestic total was just over $700 million).

Can “Black Panther” repeat that kind of long-term performance? There’s no way to judge after two days. The four-day totals will give a hint, but next weekend will be more key to assessing the future.

But even a standard ultimate showing (which would leave this somewhere around $500 million domestic – about 25 per cent above “Wonder Woman”) would change the rules about what American moviegoers want to see. “Black Panther” will elevate a wider range of stories, including Hollywood’s core big-budget action adventures. Yes, there has been a steady supply of black-centered releases going back to blaxploitation in the 1970s, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy lead the way in the 1980s and so on. But these often have come with non-minority creative control, and usually with lower budgets and compensation for many principles based on perceived economics.

"Black Panther"

“Black Panther”

The main excuse for not green-lighting similar films with the $300 million plus production and marketing costs expended on “Black Panther” is the resistance seen historically to black-centered films overseas. The foreign market for top-end productions (though not the “Star Wars” series) is expected to provide roughly two-thirds of the total gross for high end films. “Panther” debuted in a majority of the world, though not the key territories of China, Japan, or Russia yet.

The gross for these initial territories came in a little less than the domestic return ($169 million). What happens in the remainder of them will be important. But it would be reasonable at this point to anticipate at least $400 million overseas, along with at least that much (low end total) domestic. That would put the film at over $800 million worldwide. That total wouldn’t have placed it quite in the global Top Ten for 2017 (it would be about the same as the most recent “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which soared overseas and was similarly expensive). “Wonder Woman” did $812 million combined, with a similar domestic/foreign split. And it’s good enough, to put it mildly, even if the domestic share is higher than usual. It just might take longer for foreign to catch up.

The performance boosted year-to-date numbers, which had fallen below 2017 so far, to a boost of over five per cent (by the time different week day calendars balance out by midweek). “Panther” made up about two thirds of ticket sales (a lower total that the better than 75 per cent share “The Last Jedi” took in its pre-Christmas weekend.)

Early Man

Drowned out by the film was Nick Park’s Aardman animation “Early Man” (Lionsgate), which could only take in an anemic $3,150,000. It was hurt among kids by the draw of the second weekend of the less sophisticated “Peter Rabbit” (Sony), which managed as decent $17,500,000 and a 31 per cent drop.

“Fifty Shades Freed” (Universal), last week’s #1, dropped 56 per cent to fall behind “Early Man” slightly. Buried among the figures during the week though was the film’s dominance on Wednesday (Valentine’s Day). It grossed nearly $11 million, more than half of the day’s business as the clear film of choice to drag men to that night.

Long-running hits “Jumanji: Welcome to the Club” (Sony) and “The Greatest Showman” (20th Century Fox) both dropped around 20 per cent, a bit above their recent average but both amazing holds for films around since Christmas. But they needed company going forward, assuming that “Panther” has decent legs, since they can’t be expected to sustain theaters that much longer.

“Early Man”

The Top Ten

1. Black Panther (Disney) NEW – Cinemascore: A+; Metacritic: 88; Est. budget: $200 million

$192,023,000 in 4,020 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $47,767,000; Cumulative: $192,023,000

2. Peter Rabbit (Sony) Week 2; Last weekend: #2

$17,250,000 (-31%) in 3,725 theaters (no change); PTA: $4,631; Cumulative: $48,223,000

3. Fifty Shades Freed (Universal) Week 2; Last weekend: #1

$16,940,000 (-56%) in 3,768 theaters (no change); PTA: $4,496; Cumulative: $76,134,000

4. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Sony) Week 9; Last weekend: #

$7,945,000 (-21%) in 2,800 theaters (-336); PTA: $2,838; Cumulative: $377,624,000

5. 15:17 to Paris (Warner Bros.) Week 2; Last weekend: #

$7,685,000 (-39%) in 3,042 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,526; Cumulative: $25,433,000

6. The Greatest Showman (20th Century Fox) Week 9; Last weekend: #5

$5,100,000 (-21%) in 1,936 theaters (-437); PTA: $2,634; Cumulative: $154,478,000

7. Early Man (Lionsgate) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Metacritic: 68; Est. budget: $50 million

$3,150,000 in 2,494 theaters; PTA: $1,263; Cumulative: $3,150,000

8. Maze Runner: The Death Cure (20th Century Fox) Week 4; Last weekend: #6

$2,525,000 (-59%) in 1,891 theaters (-1,032); PTA: $1,335; Cumulative: $54,005,000

9. Winchester (Lionsgate) Week 3; Last weekend: #7

$2,230,000 (-57%) in 1,471 theaters (-1,001); PTA: $1,508; Cumulative: $21,860,000

10. Samson (Pureflix) NEW – Metacritic: 17; no budget estimate reported

$1,972,000 in 1,249 theaters; PTA: $1,579; Cumulative: $1,972,000

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