70 millimeter film makes ‘Dunkirk’ more realistic and captivating

Esdras Lopez/ Contributing Writer

Christopher Nolan, director of epics like “The Dark Knight,” “Memento,” and “Inception,” returns in full force with a new masterpiece: “Dunkirk.”

I had the privilege of seeing “Dunkirk” in 70 mm celluloid film at the Coral Gables Art House Cinema and was not only impressed by the deeply suspenseful and personal story—Nolan’s grandfather was an aviator who died in WWII— but also a riveting and beautiful tour de force from a technical perspective that pulled me into the war itself in a way that was both stressful and captivating.


70mm is a large scale format for analogue film presentation. With Nolan’s use of shooting “Dunkirk” on a mix of IMAX 65mm and Kodak 65mm film, this wide format of image capture provides a much larger, clearer and more photorealistic image.

Five extra mm of soundtrack are added to create the astounding movie experience that is more vivid, bright and sharp than the standard 4K digital resolution of most cinemas. Often, the film used very inventive camera placement—like inside the cockpit of a spitfire during an aerial dogfight—to provide a fully immersive experience.

Another fascinating aspect of the film is how unconventional it was in its style. It was both traditional and inventive, old and new. It emphasized real locations and real sets—the Spitfires and Battleships are real repurposed WWII vehicles on the actual beaches of Dunkirk, France—but it also had the classic Nolan trait of cross cutting between different timelines to tell the story from the perspectives of land, sea and air.

“I approach [story] structure from a very mathematical and geometric point of view,” Nolan said in an interview with Film4.

The enemy of the film, the Nazis, are never seen, adding to the suspense of the film in the same way one would make a monster movie or psychological thriller. In fact, to emphasize the psychological aspects about war and survival, Nolan worked with Hans Zimmer to compose the score in a very particular musical structure called the Shepard’s Tone.

The Shepard’s Tone, named after Roger Shepard, is a musical illusion in which you ascend or descend a scale in a seemingly infinitive manner by super positioning multiple pitches “moving” in the same direction. For “Dunkirk,” Nolan and Zimmer devised a soundtrack involving this principle by using synths, an orchestra, various kinds of drums and Nolan’s own watch.

On the film’s intended psychological effects, Melissa Valdes, a sophomore majoring in psychology said: “The use of steady crescendo with the strings and the tick-tock sound effect added a lot of suspense and tension because it made you anticipate something about to happen. You didn’t even notice it in the background at some points because you’re absorbed in the action, but it definitely affects your level of suspense.”

Surprisingly, this film has very little dialogue—almost none—which is a stark contrast to Nolan’s other dialogue heavy movies. As a director, he was inspired by other masters of suspense cinema such as Alfred Hitchcock, to whom dialogue was secondary.

“Everything for me in this film is about intensity and suspense. It’s about trying to stay in a human scale of storytelling, but get across the clarity of the larger movements of the evacuation,” Nolan said in his interview with Film4. “When the emphasis is not on the words…it’s on the feel of things.”



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Photo taken by Esdras Lopez.

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