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How Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is changing the way movies use IMAX cameras

For his movie about the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, France, the typical war-story treatment wasn’t going to do

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Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

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Christopher Nolan doesn’t do things halfway. When Heath Ledger’s Joker blows up a hospital in The Dark Knight, the filmmaker found an actual building his crew could demolish in Chicago. So for Nolan’s movie about the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, France — a crucial moment in World War II when more than 300,000 cornered Allied soldiers retreated safely across the English Channel — the typical war-story treatment wasn’t going to do.

Nolan set out to tell a survival story, one where the danger and immense scale of the evacuation were baked into the filmmaking. “I kept coming back to the firsthand accounts, with people describing the sights and sounds of being on that beach, or being up in a plane above that beach, or being on a boat coming across to help the situation,” Nolan says. “I think the confusion, not knowing what’s really going on, was one of the most frightening and disturbing things for people.”

Beyond hiring thousands of extras to stand on the actual Dunkirk beaches, Nolan and his director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema used unwieldy 54-pound IMAX cameras in ways that had never been done on a feature film. “Hoyte hand-held the [IMAX] camera for a few sections of Interstellar very effectively, and then on this I had to break the news to him that he was going to be doing it for a massive amount of the film,” Nolan says. “We definitely bought him a lot of massages along the way.”

The large-format cameras were able to follow the cast wherever they went — whether it was newcomer Fionn Whitehead lugging a wounded comrade on a stretcher across the beach, as in the scene shown above, or Tom Hardy inside the cockpit of an actual Spitfire fighter plane. The shooting style allowed for an intimacy not typically associated with IMAX. “We could get on a small boat with a number of characters and just shoot IMAX as if we were shooting with a GoPro camera,” Nolan says. It sounds beyond intense, and for a Christopher Nolan film, that’s saying something.

Dunkirk opens in theaters on July 21.