Christopher Nolan Explains His Love For Shooting On Film, And Disinterest In 3D

There has been a great deal of talk in the past couple years about how traditional 35mm film stock is being phased out of Hollywood, whether by the novelty and functionality of new digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa and RED Epic, or the prevalence of digital film projection and studio disinterest in distributing films on 35mm negative.

There are holdouts in the old analog film world, however, who continue to champion the power and detail of film. Christopher Nolan is one of the chief traditionalists who prefers film to digital. He shoots in a specifically controlled manner, using only one camera for non-action scenes (many directors now use two or more) and eschewing popular organizational methods such as shot lists and full storyboards.

In a new interview Nolan talks in detail about his work process, with specific details about choices he makes on a daily basis and the thought that goes into each. Some of his comments specifically relate to the use of film over digital, and they're worth taking into consideration.

Here's how Nolan described his film-based workflow in an interview with the Directors Guild of America magazine:

For the last 10 years, I've felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I've never understood why. It's cheaper to work on film, it's far better looking, it's the technology that's been known and understood for a hundred years, and it's extremely reliable. I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo. We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I've never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That's the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I've just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there's a good reason to change. But I haven't seen that reason yet.

Skip this bit if you're fully acquainted with the terms used in that quote. For others, let's parse a few of those statements for those who aren't totally up on the workflow that sees raw film or digital stock turned into an edited film. The intermediate stage is related to color timing, also called color grading — both things mentioned above by Nolan. In short, at the end of a production shoot there will be a collection of exposed film or video segments that feature a variety of different color casts, thanks to the many different lighting conditions found in the wild. The intermediate stage is part of the creation of one master edit in which the color is uniform to the director and cinematographer's specifications. That is done in part through color timing, which involves contact printing an interpositive using specifically controlled light (when using film) or scanning the negative and digitally manipulating color when working digitally.

Now, most color timing is done through a digital intermediate stage. (Earlier today I linked an interview where Robert Richardson talks about shooting film and digital; he mentions the blurred lines between the two formats that come in part thanks to the prevalence of the digital intermediate stage.)

OK, now back to Nolan. He also explained his general feeling about 3D using language that is slightly more specific than what we've seen him use before:

I find stereoscopic imaging too small scale and intimate in its effect. 3-D is a misnomer. Films are 3-D. The whole point of photography is that it's three-dimensional. The thing with stereoscopic imaging is it gives each audience member an individual perspective. It's well suited to video games and other immersive technologies, but if you're looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace. I prefer the big canvas, looking up at an enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life. When you treat that stereoscopically, and we've tried a lot of tests, you shrink the size so the image becomes a much smaller window in front of you. So the effect of it, and the relationship of the image to the audience, has to be very carefully considered. And I feel that in the initial wave to embrace it, that wasn't considered in the slightest.

There is also a bit of talk about re-shoots, which might be of interest given how often we end up reporting on reshoots done by various large productions:

I've never done a re-shoot, knock on wood. It all comes down to editing, just craft, just hammering it with my editor every day, trying radical cuts, pulling things out, abandoning bits of exposition, saying, 'OK, does the audience really need to understand this? What if they don't?' I always overwrite the exposition in my scripts so that I've got multiple ways to get a point across. If you tell the audience something three times they won't understand it, but if you tell them only once, they will. It's an odd thing. So a lot of cutting for time is, for me, cutting for clarity. It's finding where you can just pull dialogue out that you have overwritten, so you can find that one simple way an audience can get the right point.

While some of Nolan's comments will seem revealing to those who criticize the director's style of action filmmaking, I find that his thoughts on 3D closely mirror my own. I certainly share his preference for the true spectacle of IMAX over the more illusory attraction of 3D.

The entire interview is quite detailed about Nolan's process as a whole, and serves as a fine retrospective of his career to date.