Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s most awaited film of the year 2017. This time he comes up with a war film which has more of emotion of urge for survival than intelligence. He has taken up the real life incident which has happened during the Battle of Dunkirk which took place in Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France, during the Second World War between the Allies and Nazi Germany. The Allied forces including large numbers of British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were trapped from all the directions near the beaches of Dunkirk by the German Army. The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was initiated to evacuate the Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940. Approximately 400,000 soldiers were evacuated successfully.

Nolan has created a fictional screenplay with the help of this real incident. He is not really interested in telling a story to us yet there is a perfect plot in the film which is said in three different perspectives in Non-linear narrative style. In an interview, Nolan stated that:

“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”

He is only interested in telling us about the soldier’s evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk. He directly establishes the whole war situation through small paper pamphlets which are seen below and the rest of the plot revolves around how soldiers have been evacuated. These pamphlets are inspired from the real life pamphlet from the times of WW II. Nolan has used very fewer dialogues in the film. He chose the visuals and actions of the characters to progress the film. Dunkirk is the shortest screenplays of all Nolan’s films with only seventy-six pages. The greatness of writing this film lies in playing the screenplay without showing the enemies (Germans). Most of the plot was completely fictionalised.

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Nolan has presented this film in three different parts in a non-linear narrative.
i. The Mole (a large solid structure made of stone on a shore serving as a pier, breakwater, or causeway)
ii. The Sea
iii. The Air

Here is why the first part was named as The Mole:
During the World War II Dunkirk evacuation, the two concrete moles protecting the outer harbour at Dunkirk played a significant part in the evacuation of British and French troops during World War II in 1940. The beaches have been made unusable for evacuation by the Germans. So the Naval Captain W. G. Tennant who was appointed to take charge of the evacuation after the death of James Campbell Clouston, a Canadian officer who acted as pier-master during the evacuation. The role of Clouston was played by Kenneth Branagh in the film and much of his life was not shown. It is shown that Clouston has taken full charge of the evacuation but in reality, he dies before the evacuation starts in an accident and Tennant was appointed to complete the task. Tennant has successfully used the East moles to take off the troops safely though they were not designed to dock ships.
Nolan said in an interview: “(Clouston) has an incredible story we could not do justice to in the film. I am hopeful it will inspire people who are interested in looking into the stories of the real people who were actually there.”

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Each part happens in different time of the day. Finally, all the three parallel narratives will meet at one point and the tension it has created was breathtaking. The juxtaposing of the problems faced by the soldiers in each part was excellently executed on the screen. This film creates a three perspective excitement and tension which finally ends at the beaches of Dunkirk.

In the climax of the film, white cliffs were shown for a moment. These are called White cliffs of Dover and are very important part of the War of Dunkirk. At the time of evacuation, three different routes were allocated for evacuating vessels. Harrey Garret was a 22-year-old gunner in the Royal Artillery Anti Tank Regiment in 1940. He was one of the survivors of Battle of Dunkirk. He in an interview reveals that the soldiers were kept praying while evacuation and then someone saw the white cliffs and said, there’s Dover. Nolan has portrayed the same in the film with minor changes.

“You knew this was the chance to get home and you kept praying, please God, let us go, get us out, get us out of this mess back to England. To see that ship that came in to pick me and my brother up, it was a most fantastic sight. We saw dog fights up in the air, hoping nothing would happen to us and we saw one or two terrible sights. Then somebody said, there’s Dover that was when we saw the White Cliffs, the atmosphere was terrific. From hell to heaven was how the feeling was, you felt like a miracle had happened.”
— Harry Garrett, British Army, speaking to Kent Online Multimedia.


In the climax, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) reads aloud the news on evacuation from the newspaper. Then he reads out some sentences from the newspaper, which comes as a final voiceover in the film. These sentences are from the original speech delivered by Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister of British to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom on June 4, 1940. He called the events in France as “a colossal military disaster” and called the war of Dunkirk as “The Miracle of Deliverance”.

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Nolan chose to use the real Dunkirk beach and the things belonged to the time of World War II to shoot the sequences. Production designer Nathan Crowley work has to be appreciated as he took us to 1940’s with the setting on the beach. Some of the warships and boats which were used in the film were really used in the evacuation of soldiers in 1940. Nolan used minimal VFX in this film. He preferred to use all the war props of soldiers and military vehicles made of card board which created an illusion of large army.

The cinematography is extraordinary. Most of the film was shot using natural light. The film has fewer dialogues and it depends on the visuals and the actions. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has justified Nolan’s vision. The film was shot on a combination of IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large format film stock in Panavision System 65, using Panavision and IMAX lenses with approximately seventy-five percent of IMAX footage shot than in any of Nolan’s previous films. For the first time in a feature film, IMAX cameras were used in a hand-held capacity.

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While shooting the Airplane scenes, IMAX cameras were attached to the fighter planes back and front with the specially made snorkel lenses (Lenses which allows panning of the objective lens while maintaining a level horizon. Here below picture is an example of Arri Periscope and Snorkel lens). Snorkel lenses are used because the fighter planes were specially designed with two cockpits so as to allow filming in-flight and this lenses help in panning without moving camera from the cockpit making the work of the cameraman easier.

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The wide shots, long takes and the way camera goes in and out of the water when the soldiers were submerged into water will make us feel our own presence in the film. The camera in the water shots seems to remind us the shots from Saving Private Ryan. But the way Nolan connects the situation to the audience was brilliant. The film was projected on IMAX, 70mm and 35mm film.
So common doubt for the people is:
Why the projected film in the theatres has been shrunk a bit than what we see generally?
Here is the reason clearly explained:
Before the film starts, the major multiplexes will display a message on the screen saying that this film was shot in FLAT FORMAT (which means in 1.89:1 aspect ratio – the common US widescreen cinema standard). The film was shot on IMAX 65mm and Panavision 65 HR camera, means the original film stock will be 65mm (2.6 in) wide. For projection, the original 65mm film is printed on 70mm (2.8in) positive film. The additional 5mm is used for four magnetic strips holding six tracks of sound. Each frame is five perforations (the holes on the film stock) tall while IMAX camera uses 15 perforations per frame. The IMAX stock will be in horizontal and moves horizontally in the camera than all other film stocks. The IMAX 70mm film is originally in 1.43:1 and was projected the same those days. But as the film stock and IMAX projectors are very costly and building IMAX theatres are expensive, IMAX has come with digital projectors in 2008 which projected the film in the aspect ratio of 1.89:1 (US widescreen cinema standard) which is equal to 16:9 formats. Nolan wants the entire world to watch the film in IMAX digital format i.e., 1.89:1/1.90:1 and so the difference in projection all over the world. So here in India, almost all our screens are designed to project the film in 2.35:1 (cinemascope – current widescreen cinema standard). So the film which was shot in 1.43:1 is printed on 70mm in 1.89:1/1.90:1 as it is by masking on top and bottom. And this 1.89:1/1.90:1 ratio film is projected on the screen which is 2.35:1 and thus the reason for the shrinkage in the screen size in India.

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Now when we try to fit the whole screen of 1.43:1 film with 1.89:1 picture on it which is masked top and bottom into 2.35:1, here are the results and it is how we have watched the film in most of the theatres.

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IMAX cameras can capture a large portion than what a 35mm film camera can do. So the images look larger than life which are approximately 6 times larger than 35mm film. So here is the comparison between a standard image and an IMAX image. We will miss some of the information when watched in cinemascope or in any other format and so Nolan wants all of us to witness the grandeur of IMAX size images. Though almost IMAX film projections were replaced with IMAX digital, Nolan has released the film in some of the theatres in US in IMAX and 70mm film versions. The experience of watching a film projection is completely different from a digital projection. 70mm Film projections offer an ultra-wide 2.20:1 aspect ratio.

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To conclude this:
IMAX Film projection: 1.43:1
IMAX Digital: 1.89:1/1.90:1
70mm Film projection: 2.20:1 Ultra-wide
In Indian normal theatres: 1.89:1 on 2.35:1 screens as shown above.
YouTube Trailer: 2.39:1
Music by Hans Zimmer has given life to the film. The background music seems haunting and follows the action and the camera movement in the film. For the purpose of the intensity, the background score was composed using Auditory Illusion of a Shepard tone, which has been previously used in Nolan’s previous films like The Pristine and The Dark Knight Rises. The background music was coupled with the ticking sound of Nolan’s own pocket clock.
What does auditory Illusion mean? How it makes the sound and visual so gripping and special?
Auditory Illusion works similar to optical illusion. Observe this two dimensional depiction of Penrose staircase in which the stairs make a 90 degree turns as they ascend and descend yet form a continuous loop. A person could climb the forever and never get any higher but stays there in a loop. This is quite impossible in three dimensions.


So the auditory illusion works the same. Shepard tone is one of the auditory illusions invented by Roger Shepard. This tone is the superposition of sine waves separated by octaves. This superposition creates an auditory illusion of a tone continuously ascending and descending in pitch, but originally seems to get no higher or lower. This tone is continuously played in a loop. So when this tone is played with a visual, the tone seems like increasing or decreasing in pitch according to the action of the scene. Here in Dunkirk the ticking of clock sound coupled with background score seems to be ascending in pitch whenever the action generates some suspense in the visual. But originally the background score is being played in a single pitch. Because of the auditory illusion and the visuals of the film, our brain assumes it to be ascending in pitch. This is truly a fantastic phenomenon.
If Dunkirk is considered to be a Master piece, the complete credit goes to the living intellectual legendary director Christopher Nolan.

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Long Live Nolan. Long Live Cinema.
By Dinesh A

M.F.Tech Cinematography

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