Christopher Nolan & Practical Effects
Links and notes for Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk and Oppenheimer.
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1. INTERSTELLAR: Nolan spent $100k to plant 500 real acres of corn in Alberta. After filming, he sold the crop for profit.
“Hate” is probably a strong word: However, the director def prefers to film with camera and on location. In a 2014 interview with BBC, Nolan says he tries to achieve everything he can with a camera first (and uses digital effects to enhance the original camera work).
Did Nolan profit on the cornfield? The director told The Daily Beast that the idea for the cornfield was from Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, which Nolan produced (also via Looper):
That all-American iconography has always been so potent in the Superman myth. It was in this script before I came to the project—he was developing the script for Steven Spielberg to direct, originally—and I think the Americana had worked its way in there. I certainly found it very helpful when I realized we were going to have to grow our own corn. I phoned Zack [Snyder] and said, “Well how much did you grow?” and he told me they grew 300 acres and that it cost X amount, so we grew about 500 acres of corn and actually sold it and ended up making a profit off it!
I got the $100k price tag from an agricultural friend (said it cost ~$200 an acre to plant corn around the time of filming). Of course, there are a lot of variables and some quick Google-ing shows that in Illinois it costed $370-$580 an acre (either way, Nolan says he sold for a profit).
2. INCEPTION: You know that spinning hallway where Joseph-Gordon Levitt is fighting some bad guys. Yeah, Nolan built a giant rotating centrifuge and put a hallway in it along with ridiculously expensive cameras.
How? Good 5-minute video on the making of the spinning centrifuge.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt spent two weeks training for the spinning hallway fight scene, per Slate:
To track the actors’ motion, cameras had to be attached to the set itself, and since the actors were moving to every corner of the set, all of the decorative sconces and lighting also had to actually illuminate the set. But one of the greatest feats was JGL’s performance: The actor took two weeks to familiarize himself with the set, train himself physically, and work on his wire skills. And to make sure he hit his marks and didn’t go crashing into the wrong part of the set? He silently sang Bach to himself.
3. THE DARK KNIGHT: Batman flips Joker’s 18-wheeler truck. To get the FX, a piston was put under the trailer with TNT. When the TNT blows, the piston hit the ground so hard, it flips the truck. The only CGI used was to *remove* the piston from the shot.
Per Polygon, the Joker truck flip was filmed in the bank district of Chicago. There was a ton of city sewage pipings, wiring for the banks and store fronts. Only a small stretch of road that the stunt could actually happen. In the end, Nolan and crew pulled it off in two takes:
Chris Corbould, the special effects supervisor on The Dark Knight, was ultimately the person tasked with figuring out how to safely launch a truck down La Salle street in downtown Chicago. Corbould was skeptical that it could be done, but tasked two members of his special effects team with devising a way to flip a truck at a test site. The result was a truck rig built with a large steel piston that could blast out the back. Using TNT at the base, the piston could be triggered with a small explosion, shooting the back end of the truck up over the cab. Using more reinforced steel, they lined the cab of the truck so there could actually be a driver in the vehicle triggering the piston at speed.
”We did it twice,” Paul Jennings, the stunt coordinator on the film told IGN in 2010. “Once in a big area … a runway, because we had to check that when it got blown over that it stayed straight. Because obviously if it gets halfway up and falls to the side — we were [going to be] in the middle of the Chicago banking district — it would’ve gone through a bank’s window. So we had to flip it once in rehearsal to check the pressure on the ram.” Amazing Corbould, the truck flipped neatly and straight forward during the first test, and it was determined the giant piston could safely be used to flip the truck down the street.
Nolan’s choice of La Salle street as the location for the climax of the chase posed another problem for the stunt crew, as the sewers of the city below, and a series of underground structures for the banks on either side of the street, caused complications. “I kept looking at all these manhole covers all over the road,” recalls Corbould, “and I said to the surveyor, ‘What are these?’ and he said underground vaults for the banks there.”
There were only two places on the road where the piston could be fired in a way where the ram wouldn’t puncture the road or cause a minor collapse of a sewer, wire junction, or underground structure. If the stunt driver could hit one of those two spots, the hundred tons of pressure from the TNT would send the truck flipping, peaking at a nose to rear bumper height of 54 feet in the air.
Behind-the-scenes…very cool. “Chris kept challenging the team to do an action sequence that had never been done before.” The driver — Jim Wilkie — was a beast and the truck cabin was secured with a ton of steel.
4/ TENET: Watched the film twice. Have no idea what the plot is, but mad respect for Nolan crashing a real 747 into an airport hangar. Turns out it was cheaper to buy a 747 and crash it vs. doing CGI.
Cheaper? “I planned to do it using miniatures and set-piece builds and a combination of visual effects and all the rest,” Nolan tells TF. However, while scouting for locations in Victorville, California, the team discovered a massive array of old planes. “We started to run the numbers... It became apparent that it would actually be more efficient to buy a real plane of the real size, and perform this sequence for real in camera, rather than build miniatures or go the CG route.”
According to this Reddit thread, you can get a de-commisioned 747 for $50k-$100k.
Behind-the-scenes…good YouTube video breaking down filming in Tenet. The team mentions that they try to avoid digital effects as much as possible and here is an explainer on the plane crash (6:45 mark).
5/ THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: Nolan filmed this scene in the Scottish Highlands, and got government sign-off to drop an airplane fuselage into the mountain range. The stunt crew was legit on the outside of the plane (jumped from a helicopter and wore parachutes).
The airplane was from a bankrupt Scottish airline called Highland Airways. More notes from BBC:
An aircraft from a collapsed Scottish airline has been used for stunts in the making of the new Batman film, it has emerged.
The fuselage of the Highland Airways plane was used in scenes shot in the Highlands for The Dark Knight Rises.
The Inverness-based airline collapsed in 2010 with debts of £4.5m after a potential rescue deal fell through.
It is understood the fuselage was cut up for some of the film's elaborate stunts.
Shooting scenes for The Dark Knight Rises in the Highlands generated £1.1m for the local economy, according to a Highland Council report published in March.
More details on the mountain region from Jerry Garrett: “The sequence was filmed in Scotland. The dark “CIA turboprop” took off from Inverness airport. The sequence was filmed over the Cairngorm Mountains of the Scottish Highlands. The lonely Cairngorms have been described as “Britain’s highest mountain range – incredibly cold, incessantly windy and one of the harshest environments” in the British Isles. Perfect, I suppose, for littering aircraft debris without hitting anyone or anything on the ground.”
Live shot of the airplane fuselage falling.
6. OPPENHEIMER: Nolan’s newest movie (July 2023) is about the Manhattan Project and the making of the atom bomb. The film apparently recreates a nuclear bomb with practical effects, which is objectively insane (but obviously very cool).
Photo of Cillian Murphy playing Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who was key in the Manhattan Project and creation of Atomic Bomb.
Variety breaks down Nolan using practical effects for a nuclear bomb:
Christopher Nolan revealed to Total Film magazine that he recreated the first nuclear weapon detonation without CGI effects as part of the production for his new movie “Oppenehimer.” The film stars longtime Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leading figure of the Manhattan Project and the creation the atomic bomb during World War II. Nolan has always favored practical effects over VFX (he even blew up a real Boeing 747 for “Tenet”), so it’s no surprise he went the practical route when it came time to film a nuclear weapon explosion.
“I think recreating the Trinity test [the first nuclear weapon detonation, in New Mexico] without the use of computer graphics was a huge challenge to take on,” Nolan said. “Andrew Jackson — my visual effects supervisor, I got him on board early on — was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, a lot of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there — there were huge practical challenges.”
7.DUNKIRK: There were ~400k people evacuated from Dunkirk in WWII. With only a few 1000 extras, the crew created “fences” made of cardboard cutouts of actors posing as soldiers. Instead of CGI, 10s of thousands of cutouts were made and put up for far-off beach shots.
On second look, I think the # of cutouts is incorrect. The Ringer says 6,000 extras were used in the film and supplemented with cardboard cutouts (unclear how many).
8. Nolan on CGI vs. camera: A great Nolan interview with BBC on why he prefers shooting on location and with cameras (vs. CGI). One major reason: It’s “fun for the actors, it’s fun for me.”
Here is the full BBC interview. It’s quite good.
9. The Dark Knight: Nolan blows up a building (hospital in the film), while Ledger plays it perfectly — almost never looking back as explosions are happening.