The Cinematography Podcast Episode 252: Hoyte Van Hoytema

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, ASC and director Christopher Nolan have crafted some of the most visually stunning and intellectually stimulating films of the 21st century. The film Oppenheimer marks their fourth collaboration, and they’ve achieved an ease and rapport with each other over time. “In all these years, we’ve spent so many endless hours in scouting vans and on airplanes and on film sets. So we have done a lot of the talking together. Chris is a very meticulous filmmaker, but this process has also allowed us to be very intuitive and we can kind of skim through a lot of bullshit just by knowing each other,” Hoyte says.

Hoyte first began working with Nolan on Interstellar in 2014. At first he found the scale of the film extremely daunting. “I was literally looking up at that crazy, gigantic mountain in front of me and thinking, how am I going to do this and how am I going to even technically wrap my head around this? But (Nolan) was always very calm and very reassuring and he said, ‘Let’s just start’.” Despite it being their first project together, the synergy between Nolan’s bold vision and Hoyte’s keen eye for detail was immediately apparent. They employed a combination of practical effects and cutting-edge visual techniques to bring the vastness of space and the intricacies of theoretical physics to life on the screen. Nolan uses practical effects as much as possible, and he needed creative techniques to get across the idea of atomic energy on Oppenheimer. The second unit crew spent time experimenting with shots to create the effects of atomic particles and atoms interacting for scenes when Robert Oppenheimer envisions harnessing nuclear energy.

To tell a story as big and complex as Oppenheimer, Nolan and Hoyte chose to shoot on IMAX. This required some invention and innovation. Nolan wanted to shoot the congressional hearing scenes in black and white, but black and white film stock for IMAX did not exist. Kodak was happy to manufacture it for the movie, although it was challenging to use. The black and white film didn’t fit into the camera the same way, so they had to re-engineer the camera gates and pressure plates.

Even though they were shooting with an extremely large format camera, Hoyte wanted to get very intimate, close shots. “Chris and I had to decide that our vistas in this film, our scope, is not something that comes from landscapes or wideness or action, but it has to come from faces, you know? I always say the faces kind of became our landscapes. But I also believe that scope is something that comes from what you as an audience project onto something.” They opted for a very simple, naturalistic style to the cinematography to support the unfolding psychological drama. Each frame is not just a visual composition but a narrative device, serving to deepen the emotional resonance of the story and engage the audience on a visceral level.

Oppenheimer is playing in theaters, available on VOD, or streaming on Peacock starting February 16.

Hoyte Van Hoytema is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Find Hoyte Van Hoytema

Close Focus: A brief discussion about the Superbowl and Taylor Swift; production is starting to get back to normal, but for television, there are definitely less shows and less episodes per season as streaming services cut back.

Ben’s short end: Scott, Prop and Roll, a YouTube channel for props, about making props and discussing props in movies.

Illya’s short end: Tokyo Vice season 2 just started and it’s just as solid as season 1.

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