Christopher Nolan films include Memento, The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige, and Interstellar. His films Inception and Dunkirk received Academy Award nominations for best picture of the year.
We watched all of Christopher Nolan’s movies, interviews, and documentaries on his films to compile a complete list of filmmaking tips & techniques.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN BASICS
The Essential Christopher Nolan
Have you ever heard someone say “history repeats itself”?
This comes up a lot when researching the Christopher Nolan movies.
They are such heavy films — you almost have to take a day to let them sink in before you can move on to the next movie.
While they are pretty tame when compared to Oscar-nominated prestige films or the dark, lurid stories from some of his contemporaries....
They are still pleasantly exhausting.
But why is that?
“You get this sort of snowballing momentum, and I wanted to try applying that very rigidly to the entire film, so that we’re creating an intensity of experience that accelerates carries the audience forward in a way that, hopefully, they’re not used to.”
When you watch a Christopher Nolan movie from start to finish for the first time, you will often experience two conflicting concepts:
“I know where we are.”
“How did we get here?”
This is the unique quality that Nolan has developed over the years, and it’s all based around a shape…
You’ll find circles all throughout his films..
Dolly moves, VFX composites, barrel rolls, moving sets, black holes, and in many of his films the characters will draw circular diagrams.
But circles can also be found as the structure of his stories.
Circles have always been an integral part of the storytelling, from Joseph Campbell to Dan Harmon:
But what makes Christopher Nolan's movies so unique is that he reinforces his method of storytelling with the two main parts of cinema...
Sight and sound.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN DIRECTING TECHNIQUES
Directing tips from Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan has a lot to offer when it comes to directing.
He goes about things differently than many other filmmakers, which is one of the reasons his stories resonate with so many moviegoers.
He disguises many clues to look like an important cinematic device…
There will be moments in a film that seem as though the story is showing purely subtextual imagery, but this is actually not the case.
Truly, what he actually does… is wave the clue in your face.
Like a criminal who returns to the scene of a crime to troll the police.
The effect is that it both intrigues and confuses the viewer.
He does this by presenting information with a veiled context.
Context that he introduces at optimal points throughout the film.
Just enough time to obstruct any big revelation...
But not so long that you completely miss out on the significance.
Let’s look at an example of how Christopher Nolan does this with a shot list for a really important scene in Insomnia:
This shot above is the master shot for the scene, and while it is relatively simple, you will notice a few things during the scene.
- It establishes orientation for the room.
- It uses a dolly-in for movement toward the action.
- It gives us a somewhat gruesome look at Kay’s body.
- The blocking suggests that Dormer is the center of attention.
Let’s move on to the next shot:
Here is the close-up coverage on Dormer, and this shot is actually the first used in the edit to intro the scene. There are a few takeaways:
- No one else has a true close-up in this scene.
- A slight low angle leads us to the body on the table.
- We get to see all of Dormer’s emotions during the inspection.
Let’s see the next shot:
This shot is complemented by the dialogue. As the pathologist explains some basic information, Dormer points out that the bruises were there before the murder — suggesting that Kay was beaten days prior:
- The shot size tells us that this detail is important.
- Extreme close-up give a gritty feel to gruesome imagery.
- The shallow depth of field allows us to focus on the bruise.
Let’s look at the next shot in this scene:
As the other detectives listen, we get an OTS two-shot on the other detectives. Hap is a bit blase while Duggar looks confused, offended, but also a bit intrigued by the opportunity to watch Dormer at work:
- We gain some extra orientation within the room.
- The blocking tells us that Dormer is a rare detective.
- We feel like another person in the room watching Dormer work.
Let’s check out the next one:
This shot is on Ellie, and she idolizes Dormer:
- Ellie’s performance connects the viewer to the situation.
- Negative space camera right draws our eyes toward the body.
- This medium close-up feels far away like we’re across the room.
Let’s look at the most important shot in the scene:
There are a few takeaways from this scene:
- Close-up shot size suggests this moment is important.
- The corresponding dialogue has multiple meanings in the story.
- Nolan devoted an entire shot to show Dormer take off his gloves.
Why is this shot so important?
When you watch the film, there are these moments peppered in that show someone, presumably the murderer, with blood soaking into fibers.
These moments are intercut with quick shots of the murdered girl, and the images shown in such close succession suggests a temporal connection.
The truth is that they are completely unrelated.
The significance comes from the fact that Dormer is wearing gloves, and there is another time he wore latex gloves that, with the proper context, inform Dormer’s circumstances, and character motivation.
Check out the complete shot list here:
Nolan makes sure that he only makes a film once he has a good script.
While this helps him a lot, what makes Nolan a truly great director is that he takes the concepts on the page and finds a thoughtful way to enhance them through the medium of cinema.
How can you do this with your own stories?
It starts with your script breakdown.
Locate and tag the most important parts of your film — they will be the elements that inform your plot and character motivations:
Then… decide on a way to add cinematic value to those elements.
Either with visuals…
Or with your audio.
You can embed a photo or video for reference directly inside your script breakdown so that your entire team has a clear idea of your needs.
You can also leave a note for your sound department.
Then, make sure to plan shots that show these elements off.
Part of this will be your shot size.
Christopher Nolan will often use extreme-close ups and inserts that provide important pieces of the puzzle.
For establishing shots, he will use extreme wide shots.
There is more than just your shot size...
Use camera placement, angle, and movement.
In Memento, these decisions change with each of the different sequences.
For the color scenes, the camera is more subjective — he often uses tracking shots that stay over Leonard’s shoulder.
Whereas the black and white sections of the film, his decisions were made to create a much more objective experience.
Nolan uses high angles that look down on Leonard, placed up in the corner almost like a security camera.
He knows that all of these creative decisions combine to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Now, it is important to note that Nolan will very seldom use a POV shot, but instead prefers to do a eye-level tracking shot with his character.
Check out this video to learn about tracking shots:
This duel placement allows the audience to see what the character sees without losing the character in the frame.
We get a first-person feel, without sacrificing the benefit of a 3rd person storyteller. And we want that storyteller when navigating the magnificent scope of Nolan’s larger than life worlds.
This subjective “first-and-a-half person” point of view shot pops up in many Nolan films. Like this over-the-shoulder shot from Interstellar:
In The Prestige, we see Angier on stage, also with the camera behind him. We see what he sees, but not from his perspective.
Nolan also uses the technique during a foot chase in Insomnia.
The camera tails police detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) as he pursues murder suspect Walter Finch (Robin Williams).
First, watch the scene:
He urges the audience to experience the chase with, or as, Dormer, while also giving viewers an understanding of the scene that goes beyond Dormer’s perception — a much more complete picture of the action.
Test out this point of view with your own shots by building a shot list. Check out our example of the Insomnia sequence broken down below:
Nolan says he learned camera placement when he was his own camera operator on his first film, The Following.
This shows that it often pays to work other jobs on set before directing.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN WRITING TIPS
Christopher Nolan script writing tips
Christopher Nolan admits that when he writes a film, he makes sure to write in the same order that it will play on screen…
Especially when it has a non-linear structure.
No writing separate sequences and then cutting and pasting together.
He writes his script with a premeditated momentum.
Nolan talks about how his new take on structure for Dunkirk was based on the Shepard tone — a sound that seems to continually build to no end.
This same Shepherd tone has been implemented into the score for each and every Christopher Nolan movie since The Prestige.
A tone that, dare I say, revolves around itself, climbing the scale only to come back around to where it began — much like a circle.
A diagram that illustrates the structure of a Nolan movie looks like this:
This reveals one of the main devices he uses in his storytelling.
Perhaps you’re already familiar with it, but it’s called bookending.
This is where a beginning and end share something identical.
It can be dialogue, props, color schemes, shot sizes, camera movement...
Or an entire scene.
What’s great about bookending is that it forces you to do something that is really important for good filmmaking...
It requires you to survey your entire story to ensure thematic consistency.
One of the last points I want to make is about Christopher Nolan characters.
His best characters are deeply flawed human beings.
Here is a video all about humanizing flawed characters:
Often there was a defining moment that drives their guilt, and that guilt can either haunt them throughout the film, or motivate them to sink deeper.
Flawed characters don't have to have drinking problems, or beat their wives, or yanks the toe nails off a puppy dog — no!
Nolan knows that a great character will often make compromising decisions for what they believe are the right reasons, and furthermore, that they are obsessed with some value system they hold dear — and can't see the forest for the trees.
People should generally like your characters, but that doesn't mean they have to agree with them all the time, or share a moral compass.
Have some fun with your characters, and lean into their imperfections.
David Fincher’s Directing Style
David Fincher and Christopher Nolan are definitely the best examples of modern film noir. There are similarities, but also differences.
Find out how Fincher approaches filmmaking in the next post.