Meet the Cameras That Filmed Nolan’s Latest Masterpiece, ‘Dunkirk’

Ever wonder what a movie in 18K would look like?


Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is already being heralded as the best WWII movie since Saving Private Ryan. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called the film “a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique,” and in Peter Travers’s review for Rolling Stone, he wrote that it “may be the greatest war film ever.” Tom Hardy aside, the film is bereft of any real A-listers — Nolan wanted to cast young, unknown actors. The real stars of the film are the cameras, film and equipment involved.

Nolan shot the entire movie on large-format film (70mm) using two types of cameras, the IMAX MSM 908 and the Panavision 65 HR. About 70 percent of the film was shot using the IMAX cameras, which are 52-pound behemoths. The big difference using IMAX cameras with 70mm film is that they capture scenes in a 1.43:1 aspect ratio, which is just as wide, but a taller image than what other cameras capture.

A traditional 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio (light grey) compared to a full, 1.43:1 IMAX frame (at actual size if you’re reading on a computer)

According to New Atlas, “IMAX 70mm film is referred to as 15/70 due to the 15 perforations that align with each frame of film. As a comparison, regular 70mm film covers five perforations meaning IMAX 15/70 is essentially 3 times larger than a regular 70mm frame.” The picture quality of an IMAX camera paired with 70mm film is the highest you can experience in a theater, not just because of its insane resolution (Nolan’s been quoted saying he estimates it as the equivalent of a digital 18K sensor) but because it creates a visceral experience that makes you feel like you were there. Nolan has described the experience as “virtual reality without the goggles.”

For one scene in Dunkirk where the camera follows a Spitfire flying over the beach, the IMAX camera was bolted to a gyro-stabilized rig on the front of a helicopter. (Photo: Reddit)

The difficulty with filming with IMAX cameras is that they’re heavy and cumbersome, especially when filming in tight spaces, like inside a spaceship cockpit (e.g., Interstellar). They’re also loud — so loud that, according to IndieWire, Nolan reverted back to the Panavision 65mm cameras for dialogue scenes. When watching the film, you’ll notice the scenes shot on the Panavision 65 HR camera don’t have the same aspect ratio (they’re not as tall) as the scenes shot on IMAX cameras.

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And in case you’re curious how much of Dunkirk’s budget of $150 million went towards filming equipment: Renting an IMAX camera costs about $15,000 per week, and the 65mm Kodak Vision 3 film hovers right around $200 per minute. Although that’s nothing compared to buying a $5 million WWII vintage plane to crash on film.

Dunkirk is in theaters now. To get the full experience, watch it at your nearest IMAX theater; these theaters won’t crop the image and you’ll able to experience the film, along with its 1.43:1 aspect ratio, as intended. And if you want more information about how Nolan filmed Dunkirk, head to YouTube.

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