The engineering behind Christopher Nolan films
Christopher Nolan is a celebrated writer and director of films with five Oscar nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, five BAFTA nominations, and numerous other prestigious acknowledgements. His films are known for their innovativeness, whether that means in the nonlinear storyline of the 2000’s crime drama “Memento,” the dark take on the classic super hero in the Batman Trilogy, or the heavily researched concepts of 2014’s sci-fi drama “Interstellar.”
What some viewers may not know about Nolan is that despite the intricacies of his films, he dislikes using C.G.I. The amount of creativity and imagination that it takes to form these storylines is incredible, but so is what it takes to make them a reality. To say it plainly, there are some pretty awesome bits of engineering that went into making his films – let’s go through the highlight reel.
Transportation in the Trilogy
To begin with a heavy-hitter, the Batman Trilogy includes some of the most critically acclaimed films of the past twenty years. Across the three films, “Batman Begins” (2005), “The Dark Knight” (2008), and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), Bruce Wayne suits up and straps into some pretty sick rides – all of which were really built!
The Tumbler is the Batman’s choice vehicle in the first film and it had some pretty tricky constraints to match. With a 5.7 liter Chevy V-8 engine, a truck axle for its rear, and the suspension system of Baja racing trucks, this auto had to be able to reach a speed of over 100 miles per hour, go from 0 to 60 in five seconds, handle the sharp turns required to maneuver through the cramped streets of Chicago, and withstand a self-propelled launch of up to 30 feet. By the end of design, there were four street-ready Tumblers built with two of those four being specialized – one including hydraulics to detail the close-up shots where the vehicle propels through the air and the other with a jet engine attached. Prototyping and design of the race car took several million dollars and the final products cost around $250,000 to build.
Even stranger still, the Batpod featured in “The Dark Knight” was quite a challenge. The motorcycle’s two wheels are large, chosen to balance the vehicle without a kickstand when stationary. The wheels are so wide that the front wheel had to get shaved down for it to turn. The body of the vehicle can change the elevation of its driver in order to dodge gunfire or other obstacles. It does so by elongating or retracting, respectfully either lowering or raising the bike’s gastank, which the driver lays across. The production crew ultimately built six models of the Batpod with the prototype built in Nolan’s own garage. The complex design made it so difficult to drive that only one of the film’s stunt drivers could manage it.
The final vehicle of the Dark Knight’s was named simply “the Bat.” Appearing in “the Dark Knight Rises,” the aircraft is inspired by the Harrier Jump Jet, the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, and the Boeing AH-64 Apache. Although it did not fly on its own, the model was supported by wires, suspended by frames and helicopters, and mounted to a vehicle built specifically with hydraulic controls to simulate movement.
Flight in history and the future
Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017) is a WWII film that surrounds a 1940 campaign where 400,000 allied soldiers were pinned in by Germans in the French port city of Dunkirk. The film is so immersive and realistic that many felt it was difficult to see in theaters. For much of the film’s marine transport, recovered craft from that era or newly made scale models were used.
When it came to filming the aerial battles, there were no green screens involved – the crew actually flew single-seat, British Spitfires. For scenes filming from inside the planes, the Soviet Yak-52 was incorporated because it was a two-seater and looked similar to the Spitfire – this way the actor and the cameraman/pilot could be in the plane at one time. Flight action views were done with a 54-pound IMAX camera mounted to the plane’s wing. Extensive testing was done to ensure the extra weight didn’t affect the flight controls of the planes. For shots of planes crashing into the English Channel the crew used large-scale, radio-controlled model aircraft.
Although the real thing would’ve been cool, scale models were used to create the spacecraft in “Interstellar” – a sci-fi drama about a group of scientists attempting to find inhabitable planets after depleting the Earth’s natural resources. The three ships created were the Ranger, the Endurance, and the Lander.
The Endurance had a shooting model that was at a 1/15th scale and still managed to span 14 feet. It was built using a steel armature and 3D printed details. The Ranger and the Lander were both built to scale, with the body patterns CNC (computer numerical control) cut and the details 3D printed. A scene in the movie includes an explosion on one of the ships and instead of using CGI, the crew built a specialized model and filmed a pyrotechnic stunt. Some of the models were mounted on six-axis gimbals during filming to represent how they would move through space.
Hallway within a centrifuge
Nolan’s thriller about manipulating people through dreams, “Inception,” is rife with mind boggling imagery and abstract themes. Although there is a fair amount of computer imaging in the film, one of the most memorable scenes goes without.
An integral concept to the film is that dreams can be multi-layered – there can be a dream within a dream. In the story, within a particularly complicated dream, the dreamers are rolling down a hill in a van. This causes the next level of the dream to experience a rotational change in the direction of gravity, aligning with the rolling of the van.
The production designers built the set of those scenes inside a giant centrifuge. The centrifuge was made up of a series of eight, 30-meter-diameter rings, each of which was run by a motor with cam shafts and drive wheels. The tolerances had to be very tight, otherwise problems such as vibration, bumps, or inaccurate fabrication could occur. The rings spun the sets to give the illusion of gravity changing. The rings were spun mostly at six rotations per minute, but the crew would fluctuate the speed depending on what was safe for the actors.
The feats of engineering done by the creators of these films are as incredible and innovative as the storylines themselves. Next time you have the chance to watch one of Nolan’s works, keep an eye out for any examples of cool engineering you might see!