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How Christopher Nolan and Crew Created the World of Oppenheimer
November 24, 2023
By Marriska Fernandes
There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is one of the biggest movies for the year both critically and commercially. The movie is a big screen spectacle that not showcases tour de force performances from the cast, especially Cillian Murphy in the title role, but it also excels as a cinematic achievement in terms of the visual and special effects, score, and costumes. The film is now available on home video after helping to rejuvenate the box office with this year’s Barbenheimer summer.
“Oppenheimer‘s being quite a ride for all of us and now is the time we get to release the home version of the film that we’ve been working very hard on for months,” Nolan told the Los Angeles audience at the world premiere of the home entertainment feature, The Story of Our Time: The Making of Oppenheimer.
“I’m known for my love of theatrical and put my whole life into that, but the truth is that the way the film goes out at home is equally important to me,” Nolan said. “The Dark Knight was one of the first films where we formatted the film specially for Blu-ray release because it was a new format [at the] time. In the case of Oppenheimer, we put a lot of care and attention into the Blu-ray version, but also particularly the 4K UHD version, and you’re trying to translate the photography and sound for the IMAX format 70mm and putting that into the digital realm with a version that you can buy and own at home and put on a shelf so no evil streaming service can come steal it from you.”
He continued, “But if you’re a collector like me, I’ve had so much joy and interest as a film buff in watching all kinds of secrets revealed by some of my favorite filmmakers on their DVD extras. So I’m a big passionate fan of that format, though I’m not actually going to reveal any of my secrets.”
Emma Thomas, producer of the film and Nolan’s wife, joked that the gift of working with Nolan is that he makes her look good. She told me during an interview that he knows exactly what he wants and she trusts that. “This is something that we talk about a lot: that he wants to be responsible, to the extent that he gets asked back. And the fact that he knows exactly what he wants means that he’s able to give me answers. Sometimes we’ll have arguments about things where I’ll say to him, ‘Do we really need that? Because that’s far too much money.’ So I know that when tells me, ‘Yes, I need that’ it’s because he has a proper reason.”
She gives an example of one of Dunkirk’s most iconic scenes. “In Dunkirk, there was a very large boat that we shot. I thought it was insane, because it was so much money. And he was like, ‘No, I need it. And the reason I need it is I know what that’s going to look like in the film. I can guarantee you that this is important.’ And sure enough, it’s one of the most striking images in the movie. We use it in all the trailers. He knows what he wants and he knows why.”
When it came to the looks in the film, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick was surprised to learn that the iconic scene with Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein became a go-to costume for Halloween this year. Talking about the look, she said, “Oppenheimer and Einstein were epic because both of them didn’t exist before. Creating this look, of course, was topped by a most significant hat [that Oppenheimer wears]. A hat that we had to build and we built it from photographs. We never saw anything for real. We saw black and white photographs as a matter of fact, not even colour photographs, so we had to use our imagination. As to what colour it actually was based on research and things that talked about Oppenheimer and how he appeared.”
Production designer Ruth De Jong shared that she loved having a director that was all for going out and world building. “Going out to Los Alamos and creating 360, going down to Berlin to erect the Trinity set and the base camp and the bunker where they push the button—being able to do all of that on camera 360 degrees was great,” she said. “We had our own private backlot, that we owned, completely inhabited, and had total control. I think you dream of those opportunities and for him to be so behind that and push that was one of the many reasons why, I think, with all of our crafts coming together, we were able to do our best work.”
Visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson was one of the first people Nolan showed the script to. “The challenge was to find the things that we were going to make and film because it wasn’t described in script exactly what to do,” he explained. “I had to experiment with Scott [Scott R. Fisher Special Effects Supervisor] to find things that we could make quickly, that would look really exciting, and related to the story and the lines in the script. So that really was the challenge there.”
Jackson continued: “It’s always really a high priority for [Nolan] to capture everything in camera. Film is his medium and he wants that to be the way that all the effects are done. In the past, we’ve had a little bit more leeway, but because of the subject matter on this one, he was very determined that everything was [to be] filmed and generated from filmed elements. There were visual effects, but only using filmed components.”
De Jong and Mirojnick echoed the same sentiments that working with Nolan is a special experience. “Every single department head was able to deliver,” De Jong said. “He provides a platform for you to do your best work and there’s a trust there even having not known him or worked with him before. You’re not going to fail and you don’t have the option to fail but also he is at the very top of his game.”
Mirojnick added, “He has a vision and he communicates magnificently and collaborates with you every single step of the way. This is really rare in our business, unfortunately, but it is true. It’s a very rare quality. There is no one like Chris Nolan. That’s why what you see is what you see.”