Hoyte van Hoytema has learned not to expect anything easy from filmmaker Christopher Nolan. "Every time Chris calls and says, 'I've got a script. Come in and read,' you know that you're going to be flabbergasted when you leave his house," the Switzerland-born cinematographer explains. "You always know that you're in for a crazy adventure and that it's going to take up most of the rest of your year."

Reading the script for Nolan's latest film, Oppenheimer, was no different.

Based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer is a 3-hour biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar nominee Cillian Murphy), known as the father of the atomic bomb. The film follows the titular theoretical physicist as he single-mindedly works to create the world's first nuclear weapon, only to spend his later years plagued by regret over his role in facilitating the ongoing nuclear arms race. It's not a small film, by any means. Oppenheimer is the longest movie that Nolan has ever made, as well as the first to shoot black-and-white scenes using IMAX film cameras.

Hoytema has been Nolan's go-to DP since 2014's Interstellar. For his work on Nolan's World War II action thriller, Dunkirk (2017), Hoytema received his first Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Oppenheimer marks their fourth collaboration to date, and the cinematographer says that tackling seemingly impossible challenges has become a regular starting point in his and Nolan's process.

"Our conversations always start with, 'Oh my God, how are we going to do this?' But that also becomes the motor that keeps us going," Hoytema explains. "It's not a question that needs to be answered straight away, because you know that the journey toward answering all of those questions is going to define what you do. If I would ask Chris, 'So, how are we going to do this?' He would laugh at me. He would smile and say, 'That's for us to figure out.'"

At the 96th Oscars, Oppenheimer is the most-nominated film of the year, with 13 total nominations, including Best Picture and Best Directing. Hoytema, meanwhile, received his second nomination for Best Cinematography. Oppenheimer ultimately won seven Oscars, including for Hoytema's cinematography.

"It feels wonderful to be recognized," he tells A.frame. "My own personal source of happiness comes from the fact that four of the five films that were nominated this year were shot on film. Chris and I have always stuck our neck out to not only preserve celluloid film, but also to put it back on the table as an option for filmmakers to choose from and make movies with. It's still one of the most special mediums we have to tell stories with, and that was exciting for both of us to see."

"There's an extremely beautiful variety of work present this year," Hoytema adds. "Cinematography is alive and well."


A.frame: Oppenheimer is a technically demanding film. Ultimately, what was the hardest thing to pull off?

Very often with Chris' films, there are things that seem impossible on paper because they don't exist, or because they exist on such a molecular or quantum level that they're not visible. The visualization of those concepts and those ideas becomes very much about creating a visual language around them. What I found even more challenging on Oppenheimer, though, was figuring out how we were going to make a film that is essentially three hours long and comprised of close-ups interesting. "How will we make it feel dynamic and absorbing enough to keep the attention of the audience? How are we going to, at least, pretend that the audience that watches it will actually understand the concepts of quantum physics in it enough to fully engage and understand the ambiguity of the moral dilemmas of the film?" Those were all assignments that I didn't have the answers to when I started reading the script. Honestly, I don't think anybody would have those answers right away, but figuring it all out is part of the journey.

As you mentioned, the film largely consists of close-ups — which aren't typically the sort of sequences that you imagine using IMAX format to shoot. As a cinematographer, what did it mean to return to the idea that the human face alone is interesting enough even for an IMAX camera?

I mean, I would argue that it's more interesting than even an IMAX camera can capture. The human face is so interesting that you'd think everyone would want to capture it on the best possible format. Every time you make a movie, though, it becomes a hybrid mix of technology and traditional thoughts about cinema, taste, intuition, depth perception, and color rendition. With Oppenheimer, the assignment was capturing human faces, but when we look at a human face, it doesn't end at the surface of the face itself. It's also about what we project onto that face. As an audience, when you look into someone's eye, you're wondering, "What is he thinking, or what is she thinking? What's going on in their brain?" You see an expression, but beyond that expression, there can be a plethora of emotions and thoughts, and that was something that we were very interested in. We wanted to be able to look into Oppenheimer's eyes, fly through them, and then turn around 180 degrees and look through his eyes into the world. We really wanted to embrace the power of projection.

We got very used to working with IMAX and large-format cameras, and I would almost argue that the way we started to see the world was through that level of depth perception and depth perspective. One thing I love very much about an IMAX frame is that, traditionally when you create a film frame, you draw a boundary around reality. You, as a filmmaker, say, "Okay, this is exactly the amount of reality that we would like our audience to respond to." Then the audience sees that. They see that boundary. When you use an IMAX camera, though, there is a center of gravity and there's a center of attention and the world falls away around it. Your peripheral vision becomes blurred around the edges, so your framework is not as defined as it with other formats. It offers a less defined slice of reality and, even moreso, I would say it presents the chance to be — for a moment — in that reality. That's a very powerful thing that IMAX provides. Your framing, the way you put a window on the world, is not such a definite thing. It's more of an infinite thing. It's much more fluid.

Hoyte van Hoytema shooting a scene between Cillian Murphy and Tom Conti.

At times, the film feels almost like a psychological thriller, and it's incredibly immersive. What conversations did you and Chris have about making sure the audience always knew visually what was going on in Oppenheimer's mind?

We used a lot of trickery to do that. Sometimes, it was extremely simple. Sometimes, it was more involving and complex. The only thing I know for sure is that every time we got to a scene where Oppenheimer disassociates, it always became a big conversation about finding the right level of immersion and closeness. What's interesting about Oppenheimer is that, if you shoot using only close-ups, then a typical close-up doesn't feel like a close-up anymore. An extreme close-up becomes a close-up, and you have to reserve that for very different moments. Angles become very important. For me, it became more of a fine-tuning game in terms of shooting. When you shoot a film like Tenet, for instance, it's much more like drawing with rough charcoal. It's a wide shot and then a close-up and there's a constant visual dynamic and impact. It's more of an obvious way to shoot a film as a filmmaker.

With Oppenheimer, it was a lot less obvious. For example, I knew that the last close-up of the film had to be powerful, but when you've been firing the most intimate and harsh and deep close-ups already throughout the whole film, how do you make sure the one close-up in the end feels special? It has to really feel like you can look into the soul of a human being in that moment. For that reason, there are a lot of considerations that you're making across the board and all the way throughout your working process.

When you were in the desert filming the Los Alamos portion of the movie with those IMAX cameras, was there ever a part of you that felt like you were making an old-school Western?

Of course! I think we always think like that. We always shoot something and it feels like it belongs to a specific genre. We always realize, "Oh, we designed these shots because we’ve seen those films or those films." We always recognize that and then we usually just smile a little about it. It never becomes a conceptual or purposeful thing. It's a subconscious thing, and it really shows your love and affection for a certain film or genre, you know? It's interesting because Oppenheimer does sometimes feel a little bit like a Western. When we filmed him riding into town on a horse with his hat on in the rain, the first thing Chris and I said to each other was, "Have you ever seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller? It feels a little like that, doesn't it?" We weren't looking at McCabe & Mrs. Miller at any point and saying, "It has to feel like this." It's much more that those films are just in the back of our heads. They're part of our lives, and they inevitably mingle and mix with our own stories and souls.

Chris is known as a filmmaker who fully embraces the physical aspects of filmmaking. As the cinematographer who has had to carry that massive IMAX camera on his shoulders, what is the physical toll of shooting a movie on this scale?

I'm all for the result. I have a very strong belief that, as a cinematographer, you're not there to be comfortable while handling equipment if it doesn't give you the best result. Chris and I, we watch our dailies on a big screen. We watch them blown up and we do a lot of tests. We literally respond to what we see. When we first started working with IMAX together, we would look at each other and say, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could get closer with this format and we could shoot just faces with it?" So from the beginning, we've really been engineering a way to do that.

On set, you know, it looks kind of silly. [Laughs] You have this mini fridge on your shoulder and you're putting it in peoples' faces, but the end result really justifies the means to get there. Me walking around with a big IMAX camera on my shoulder is just a practicality. It's just a necessary little evil in order to get the best result we can.

Hoyte van Hoytema backstage at the 96th Oscars. (Photo by Matt Sayles/AMPAS)

You've spent the past 10 years predominantly working on big, blockbuster films. What is it about films of that size that appeals to you so much as a cinematographer?

The funny thing for me is that all the films I've made recently are definitely big, but they've all been made with directors who are known for their specific visions and who have learned to be fearless within a studio system. Size didn't feel like a restriction or burden on any of those films. For all of them, the thought was, "These are the kind of films that the directors want to make," and they have the resources to do them at that scale. In the end, size is strangely enough not so important to me. It's more about the stories that the filmmakers want to tell. Some directors, they have big visions and they need more resources, and I've been very lucky to connect with those directors.

With Chris, his ideas are just too complex to do them on a small scale. That doesn't mean that I don't think we couldn't ever do a small film together. Making movies with him always feels, in a very strange way, like we're making small films anyway. If working on Oppenheimer reminded me of anything, it was doing those student films I did back in Poland, because there are so few people actually around the camera. There's the dolly grip, the focus puller, Chris, the camera, and there's an actor. That's where the fire burns the hottest on his sets. There are, of course, all these other very important people working on his films, too, but he always keeps his core camera team very close to the action. The concentration on his sets is very intense before, after, and as the camera is rolling. His films always feel very specific, intimate and focused in that way.

How has it been to see Oppenheimer be embraced so widely and warmly over the past six months?

Chris always takes such big risks. He's always bleeding for his work, and he's never cutting corners. He's never taking the easy way out. Of all the people I know, he's the hardest on himself. He's always trying to stay true to his creative principles, and when things don't work out, it causes a lot of pain — and not for any economic or commercial reasons. With Oppenheimer, the fact that he took a book that is virtually unfilmable and about extremely complex themes and still managed to press it into a film that has made people respond to it? I just imagine that must feel like a huge vindication for him.

He really did stick his neck out with this one, and I'm super happy for him. I'm also super happy for myself. [Laughs] There's only one studio location in Oppenheimer. The rest of it was shot in real places. Both Chris and I tried to stay as pure and honest about what we were doing as possible, and we put ourselves through quite a bit of discomfort to bring it to life as best we could.

By Alex Welch

This article was originally published on Feb. 14, 2024.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.


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