Challenge of re-envisioning and executing iconic creatures to director Ridley Scott’s specifications was a massive VFX undertaking, not to mention all the film’s other digital elements.
First assistant cameraman Bob Hall, who recently spoke with StudioDaily for the Podcasts from the Front Lines series, certainly picked a complicated movie for his return to working with director Chris Nolan when he signed on to assist cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, during production of Nolan’s new movie, Dunkirk. Hall worked with Nolan and his former cinematographer, Wally Pfister, ASC, on several films, dating back to Memento (2000), but sat out Nolan’s last effort — the director’s first collaboration with van Hoytema — when they shot Interstellar in 2014, due to knee replacement surgery.
He returned to a project that both Nolan and van Hoytema were determined to shoot as an entirely large-format affair—largely with Imax 65mm/15-perf cameras, with extended dialogue scenes being shot using the Panavision System 65 camera system (65mm/5-perf), a necessity due to the noise produced by the Imax cameras. However, Nolan and van Hoytema also schemed up a way to shoot a large chunk of the action-oriented World War II epic, based on true events, handheld, despite using the giant and extremely heavy large-format cameras under particularly grueling conditions. Dunkirk, of course, tells the true story of the effort to evacuate British troops from the French beach of Dunkirk in 1940, preventing a horrific disaster at the hands of the Nazis.
Overall, these choices — aimed at giving Nolan what he claims is the highest-resolution negative possible — impacted production and post-production in dozens of ways. But Hall’s job — pulling focus — was among the most complicated jobs, to be sure, because, among other things, the large format presented him with a depth of field to grapple with equal to about three stops less than if they were shooting 35mm anamorphic film. Additionally, while the electronic Cinematography Electronics Cine Tape Measure device is often used by first ACs to judge distance, the unrelenting noise of the Imax cameras, combined with shooting in salt air and on sandy beaches, eventually interfered with the necessary RF wireless signal, rendering Hall’s system useless.
“I had to go back to the technology of the 1980s,” he says. “Fortunately, I have been doing this for quite a few years and have quite a bit of experience judging distance. I would use the old-school approach of pulling out a tape measure and, whenever I could get a focus distance, I would do that. But I have to say that the majority of the movie I was essentially guessing. Like when we were on the Moonstone [a sailboat that plays a key role in the story], in very rough seas — the Moonstone was bobbing, the actors were bobbing around on the boat, Hoyte was bobbing around, and I was also bobbing around. So it took quite a lot of skill and a bit of luck.”
In his wide-ranging conversation with Studio, Hall discussed such issues, and provided an overview of some of the big-ticket lensing challenges the production dealt with. Those challenges included recruiting Panavision to rebuild some Imax and Panavision 65 system lenses and build additional ones from scratch that could match what the production already had; another project to build a periscope lens-attachment system for the Imax camera in order to make it possible to extend the lens into the cockpit of a tiny replica of a vintage World War II Spitfire fighter plane; and figuring out ways to cable the large Imax camera to a specially configured backpack with the camera’s electronics inside so that van Hoytema, who served as his own operator, could maneuver on land, boats, and in the water to capture the POVs that Nolan desired.
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