Christopher Nolan: Director Style

Christopher Nolan is a name you cannot ignore, even if you don’t watch movies. Nolan is a British-American screenwriter, producer, and arguably one of the most noteworthy directors of the 21st century.

Nolan is an 11 time Academy Award winner out of the 36 nominations he received. All his films have grossed more than US$5 billion all over the world.

His filmmaking career officially began with his 1996 short film ‘Larceny’ which appeared at the Cambridge Film Festival 1996. The film is considered one of the best short films ever made by UCL (University College London), where he had studied English literature.

Nolan during his early career received one rejection after another and has mentioned that he hardly ever received support from the British film industry.

He made his feature film debut in 1998 with ‘Following’, which he directed, edited, wrote, and photographed. ‘Memento’ (2000) gave him great international recognition, with it being premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September 2000 and also lead him to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. With ‘Insomnia’ (2002), he shifted from independent filmmaking to the studio system.

The Dark Knight Trilogy that includes, ‘Batman Begins’ (2005), ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012) garnered him both commercial and critical acclaim. Between the Dark Knight Trilogy came ‘The Prestige’ (2006) and probably one of his most acclaimed movies, ‘Inception’ (2010), which let him receive eight Academy Award nominations, including the ones for Best Picture and Best Director.

In 2014, came ‘Interstellar’, which everyone, including me, loves watching time and again, which was followed by ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) and ‘Tenet’ (2020). He was nominated for Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director for Dunkirk and rightfully so.

One thing is prevalent in all of Nolan’s films that binds them all together, and no, I am not talking about the mind-bending storytelling or the special effects, but I am talking about time. If one watches Nolan’s films closely, one will notice that time stands as the regular constant in all of his movies.

Perhaps, it is the way Nolan uses time that makes him stand out from his contemporaries like Quentin Tarrantino, David Fincher, James Cameron, and others. Not that I am disregarding the works of others but time is an aspect that Nolan almost specializes in.

Time And Storytelling

Christopher Nolan: Director Style And Techniques
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Nolan and time go hand in hand. There is not one Nolan film that does not deal with time. He either uses non-linear timelines which forces the audience to piece the film together or has characters that deal with time. No matter how complex a Nolan film is, there is one aspect that connects the audience to his films, which is time.

The use of past, present, and future is the basic example of how Nolan uses time. However, he does not just create puzzles with different parts of time but with different locations and events as well.

For example, if we take the instance of Dunkirk (2017). What Nolan did with Dunkirk, many filmmakers aspire to do with their war movies, Nolan, put the audience on the ground along with the soldiers. Except for the jet planes flying by above, the enemy is hardly ever shown. We fear what the soldiers fear, the unknown face of the enemy.

Apart from putting us on the ground with soldiers in the film. Nolan, at first, almost, lets us believe that the story is being told in a linear pattern. However, we later realize that the film has 3 different plots, i.e. The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The war is the one thing that connects the three plots but are different incidents taking place in different places but almost parallelly. The editing is so that the viewer, at first, believes that the story that the three plots or incidents are one whole.

Inception (2010), on the other, has different layers to it, both metaphorically and literally. The whole concept of Inception is based on ‘a dream within a dream’, which therefore leads to the creation of five different timelines.

In Memento (2000), Nolan uses two parallel running timelines, i.e. one running back and one running forward, and both of them finally meet an endpoint. Nolan keeps intercutting between the two different timeless and leaves the audience to piece them all together. To signify the different timelines, Nolan keeps one in monochrome black and white while the other one plays out in color.

Either Nolan’s plots revolve around time and its feasibility like in Interstellar (2014), or he makes the character’s in his films discuss time. Either way, time in his films is a constant.

Time And Music

One of the greatest weapons that Nolan uses is Hans Zimmer. One simply cannot talk about Nolan movies without mentioning Hans Zimmer’s contribution. Zimmer is a German film score composer and record producer. He has contributed to around 150 films like The Lion King (1994), the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and obviously in Nolan’s films amongst many others.

Nolan and Zimmer work closely together to create the epic scores of each Nolan film. Zimmer understands what Nolan wants to convey and starts by using simple sounds to complete a score.

A building sense of tension is an ever-evident factor in all of Nolan’s films, there is almost always a sense of urgency. To keep the sense of urgency alive, Zimmer, for Nolan’s films, uses a sound technique that is known as Shepard’s Tone. 

A Shepard Tone is merely an audio illusion that is formed by overlaying separate tones and octaves that rise and fall. It is used to create an illusion of rising tension since the sound seems to get continuously higher but in reality, it stays the same.

Dunkirk (2017) has a theme of time restraints and time continuously running out which explains why Zimmer used Shepard’s Tone so heavily in the film score, especially in the tracks titled, ‘Supermarine’, ‘Home’, and ‘Impulse’.

There, however, is another thing that makes the score for the film so fascinating. When the film begins we see a soldier scrolling through the roads and if we listen closely the score starts with a ticking clock. This particular track is named ‘The Mole’.

What Zimmer did with ‘The Mole’ is that he got a recording of a stopwatch that belongs to Nolan and built the score around it. The ticking sound makes the score more impactful and conveys to the audience how precious time is for the stuck soldiers. 

In Inception (2010), Nolan used music as a leitmotif and even found a way to write it into the script. The music used by him as a leitmotif was Edit Piaf’s ‘non, je ne regrette rien’. This particular music was used to keep the characters in sync in the various levels of the dream, it made characters aware of the dream they were into and gave them an idea of time within the dream running out. Hans Zimmer took the song by Edit Piaf, slowed it down, and built the score for the movie around it.

Hans Zimmer composed the score for Interstellar (2014) just based on the concept of a father looking for his lost son that Nolan gave him. This emotion led Zimmer to form masterpieces such as ‘Where we’re going’. This also resulted in the score for the film receiving a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.

For Interstellar, Zimmer went back to his organ which helped in the creation of one of the most ethereal and outer-worldly (both literally and metaphorically) scores. Since the organ had once been considered as one of the scientifically advanced inventions, its use in a movie driven by scientific discovery, with the rooted concepts of family and connections was pretty obvious.

The score for Interstellar stands out as one of Zimmer’s best works which in turn makes the score the best score in a Nolan film. The passage of time is an important aspect of the film and it is greatly accompanied by the score by Zimmer.

For instance, when Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway) land on Miller’s planet, they have to race against time because one hour on the said planet is the equivalent of seven years on Earth. The track ‘Mountains’, here begins with the sound of what seems to resemble the ticking of a clock to bring forth the idea of the passage of time.

When they go back to the spaceship, they realize that they have been the Miller’s Planet for too long and that they lost a little over twenty-three years on earth which creates a deeper sense of urgency in the plot.

Cinematography

Christopher Nolan is a cinematographer himself, before working with cinematographers like Wally Pfister, with whom he made classics like Memento, The Dark Knight Trilogy, etc., and Hoyte Van Hoytema, he was the shot his first feature, ‘Following’ (1998) by himself.

Nolan always uses a single film camera to shoot his film which gives him the advantage of having more control over what plays out in his film as a director rather than stocking tonnes of footage to go around. 

Nolan, in the contemporary time, can almost be considered an auteur with the way he directs films and the influence he has in every single aspect of bringing his film to life.

–       Color

Of the bat, one of the easiest things to notice about Nolan is his use of color. He chooses one signature color and develops the palette around it. This is reminiscent of the monochrome black and white films that were shot before colored films came into being. He does so in order to focus his audience on the subject instead of being distracted.

Nolan’s use of blues and yellows is very eye-catching. His film color palettes either consist of a dark cool tone or a saturated warm tone or even both. He does so by creating contrast and setting up the mood for the film. 

The cool tone represents confusion, search, and mystery while the warm tone represents the sense of hope, family, and human connections. One can easily identify a Nolan film when looking at a Nolan color palette.

Interstellar (2014) has a healthy balance between the blues and the yellows. The yellow is mainly used when showing life on Earth which has familial bonds and the blues are used when the characters are on the hunt or searching for a new home. We follow a similar pattern in Tenet (2020) as well.

However, again, in the Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) or Dunkirk (2017), we notice the presence of blues over yellows. This is done because, in all of the above four films, the eerie sense of mystery, action, and confusion stays present.

–       Light

Nolan can almost be termed as a realist when it comes to lighting. He, along with his cinematographers uses natural lighting as much as possible and further on enhances them which does not make it seem like natural lighting at all.

What the natural lighting methods lead to is the creation of lots of darkness and shadows. These shadows make most of the characters in the films have side-lit or half-lit faces.

These half-lit faces create a sense of duality and mystery in the characters which in turn helps Nolan enhance his storytelling techniques. Whether that be Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from The Dark Knight (2008) or Leonard (Guy Pearce) in Memento (2000).

–       Signature Shots

Certain signature shots are seen in most Nolan films, some of them being Uneasy/Handheld shots, Aerial Wide Angle Shots, or even the Nolan classic, i.e. the Barrel Roll Shot.

Starting with the uneasy shots, these are shots that Nolan uses to jar the audience. It represents a chaotic state of mind and confusion. This shot can be used both as a close-up or a wide-angle.

It is seen being used in The Dark Knight (2000) when Joker (Heath Ledger) is being chased. It is also seen in ‘Inception’ (2010) when Mal or Mallorie Cob (Emma Thomas) is seen within a dream with a close-up, lying on the water.

Aerial Wide Shots are a way that Nolan loves to show off the landscape. It is seen in several Nolan films accompanied by an airplane that flies over the landscape, some of them being Insomnia (2002), The Dark Knight (2008), and Dunkirk (2017).

Since Nolan loves his landscapes he does not hold back from showing them off either. Some of these surreal landscapes include the various dreams in Inception (2010) or the world at the end of Interstellar (2014). They symbolize the type of space Nolan has created in the reel world.

On the other hand, keeping the grandeur of landscapes aside, another particular shot that Nolan focuses on is object inserts. He uses these object inserts as leitmotifs to paint a picture and show the importance of the situation. Be it the spinning top from Inception (2010) or the coin flip from Memento (2000), all of them hold their weights.

–       Barrel Roll Shot

Christopher Nolan: Director Style And Techniques
Barrel Roll Shot

The Barrel Roll Shot is something that is seen in every Nolan film and needs a separate column to write about. The shot is used when the set or the reel world is completely turned upside down, both literally and figuratively. This technique puts the audience in the shoes of the protagonist.

In Interstellar (2014), it is used to establish the landscape of Mann’s planet, it looks as if the mountains are hanging upside down. Uncertainty is created in our minds. Exactly after the shot, we see a conflict between Cooper and Mann (Matt Damon), where the latter plans on abandoning Cooper on the planet. We realize that Cooper might even die because he begins seeing images of his daughter in flashbacks.

A similar shot is again used in the film when Cooper is going through the black hole. We, as viewers, get to experience what Cooper is feeling because of Nolan’s brilliant use of the barrel roll on a human body. It is again a time of uncertainty because none of us know what awaits him as he goes through the black hole.

One of the most interesting uses of the barrel roll is in The Dark Knight (2008). When Batman (Christian Bale) captures the Joker. Even though it is Batman who should be in control when he hangs Joker upside down, Nolan makes sure the viewer knows that Joker still controls the situation.

The barrel roll is used to turn out the upside-down image of Joker into right-side up. Joker is seen straight while the world behind him turns upside down. This shows who holds power and chaos in their hand. Because, even though Joker has been captured, he was still able to accomplish his mission.

Use Of Practical Effects

We all know that Nolan lives by his practical effects, but one must not confuse this with the use of visual effects. Nolan builds all his sets from scratch and composites them together in layers to create the reality of Nolan films.

Nolan goes to the extent of actually blowing up buildings that have been developed from scratch to create rotating sets in order to avoid CGI. However, he does not hate CGI, rather he knows when and how to use it.

The famous Hallway Scene from Inception (2010) is a prime example of how Nolan uses both practical and visual effects. He had the entire set built and had it rotating so that he could have the scene he wanted. However, certain debris and wires were used in the scene which was completely CGI. This is what Nolan does, hide CGI in plain sight.

He starts a scene with practical effects to introduce us to realism and carries on into visual effects and makes sure to end the scene with a practical effect too. What this does is, it grounds us, the audience, to reality.

Ending On A Note Of Ambiguity

Christopher Nolan’s films seem to have followed the basic rule of filmmaking and resolve the conflict in the narrative by the last scene. However, this is also where Nolan plays with the audience’s minds. He uses a single shot if not many to confuse the audience regarding the conflict being resolved. 

For instance, if we take the ending of Interstellar (2014), we see that humanity did find a new home, and Cooper is reunited with his daughter Murph (who is also older than him at this point). If following the basic three-act structure, the film would have ended here, but it doesn’t. Nolan here sets up a new quest for Cooper, i.e. finding his partner Brad.

The ending montage of The Dark Knight (2008) is a work of brilliance. The ending is shown in three timelines, the past, the present, and the future, all intercut and edited together. 

The last shot is of Batman riding his bike and cut to black, the audience keeps questioning what happens after Batman takes the blame and becomes the villain.

However, Nolan already answered our question as to what happens after the last shot but not in chronological order. He, thus, ends his films in such a way that the film keeps running in the audience’s mind even though we as the audience already got answers.

Conclusion

Personally speaking, I am what one calls a Nolan fangirl. What intrigues me about Christopher Nolan is how his mind works and how he applies his concepts to his films. The fact that Nolan can confuse the mind of the audience yet at the same time amazes the audience is to applaud.

Christopher Nolan can truly be called an auteur in contemporary times because he is one of the few directors who emerges himself into the complete filmmaking process, overseeing every department closely.

One can easily identify a Nolan film amidst a crowd of many and that is a quality that qualifies him to become an auteur. He will surely go down as one of the greatest filmmakers in times to come. The saying goes, “In Nolan we trust”, and it is not wrong. 


About the Author

Shanaia

Shanaia Debasmita Mondal

Shanaia is a film student, enthusiast, and a student filmmaker currently in her third year of film school. She aims to leave a relevant mark amidst the film community with her contribution.

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