Christopher Nolan’s dark arts: ‘He thinks like a magician’

Dec. 25, 2010 | 11:35 a.m.


Guy Hendrix Dyas is accustomed to working side-by-side with intuitive wizards. Before his Hollywood career as a production designer working with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Bryan Singer and Shekhar Kapur, the master’s program graduate from the Royal College of Art London was working as an industrial designer with Sony Corp. under the supervision of Akio Morita, the near-legendary co-founder of  the Toyko conglomerate. Despite the considerable experience with visionary souls and movies of the fantastic — he did production design on “X2: X-Men 2″ and “Superman Returns” — Dyas admits he was a bit awestruck while working with writer-director Christopher Nolan on “Inception,” the most celebrated sci-fi film of 2010 and a strong contender in marquee Oscar categories.  Dyas  (who is now working on Spielberg’s “Robopocalypse” for 2012 release) has written a guest essay for Hero Complex about why Nolan is a game changer in contemporary Hollywood — he’s “leading a mini-renaissance,” Dyas writes.

christopher nolan leaonrdo dicaprio and cillian murphy on set of inception Christopher Nolans dark arts: He thinks like a magician

Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy on "Inception" set (Warner Bros)

Inception” is a science-fiction thriller about deceiving people through their dreams and at first glance there couldn’t be a better candidate for a mainly CGI approach. But Chris Nolan has an innate ability to take elaborate concepts and narrow them down to their essence — he’s instinctive and, in a way, he thinks like a magician. He knows that anything you notice as a digital effect will remind you that what you’re watching isn’t real. During pre-production Chris took the time to watch classic films with his core crew and study how previous generations of directors solved their own challenges.

Anyone who’s had the chance to work with Chris Nolan will agree when I say that he chooses his collaborators very carefully and as a director shooting from his own scripts, participating in every aspect of the filmmaking process is vital. When dealing with a film as complex as “Inception,” like most directors, Chris has come to trust that anything he can conceive is achievable nowadays, especially through the use of digital effects. Yet what is most striking about Chris’ work behind the scenes is how he chooses to use digital tools and how enterprising he’s remained even while working inside the Hollywood studio system. One might say that he’s leading a mini-renaissance in our industry, in a time that’s arguable become the heyday of green-screen films largely realized in post, it’s inspiring to see a talented and successful young director like Chris Nolan avoiding the systematic use of new technologies in favor of more wide-ranging filmmaking methods.

christopher nolan in shadows by liz Christopher Nolans dark arts: He thinks like a magician

Christopher Nolan (Liz Baylen/Los Angeles Times)

When we first discussed creating one of our action sequences, a freight train smashing its way through a busy street, he looked at us with his icy blue eyes and calmly said, “We’re going to shoot this practically and we need to figure out how we’re going to do it in the streets of Los Angeles.”  At that moment, and to my great delight, I realized that Chris is unlike most young directors working in Hollywood today. He still believes that the best way to achieve realism and get great performances from his actors is by trying to shoot everything upfront, even if it means challenging his shooting crew on a day to day basis and being open to the idea of using older set building techniques and special effects. For example, when it came to shooting the fight scenes in our hotel corridor sets, for one particular shot looking out of the hotel bedroom we realized that we needed to extend the length of our corridor but we couldn’t do it as a build because it would’ve had to rotate with the room. Ordinarily this is when we’re encouraged to rely on green screen set extensions, but instead Chris allowed us to try something that was often used before digital effects, mirrors. We placed a 90 degree mirror at each end of the corridor to reflect its length, which made it appear four times longer without any of the added weight. We also concealed a camera track that traveled the entire length of the corridor by designing a bold pattern with stripes for the floor’s carpet, a simple visual trick that allowed the camera to move up and down the corridor and turn in synchrony with the rotating set without being visible.

Too often we’re encouraged to use a tool because it’s available rather than choosing it because it’s the most efficient. Chris is unique in that he brings filmmaking back to its essential art form. And though amazing work was accomplished by our visual effects team, it helped everyone that we still tried to first shoot from reality, we went to Paris to create our exploding cafe scene and get the plates necessary for the folding Paris effect, the same way we shot a beachfront and deserted streets in Morocco to build our crumbling limbo city upon. It’s great to be given the ability to work from reality whenever possible and Chris reminds us that what matters most is creating an illusion, not the artifice or device that makes it happen. It’s also interesting to hear how audiences, as well as work colleagues of mine, seem genuinely surprised and excited about our traditional approach when making “Inception.” There is a general consensus that a film of this genre wouldn’t normally use classic filmmaking methods, but this is where Chris shines as an independent thinker because even while working in Hollywood, with the full backing of a studio like Warner Bros., he still relies on his own methods of problem solving and on each one of his collaborators to come up with innovative and practical solutions.

inception shoot Christopher Nolans dark arts: He thinks like a magician

"Inception" (Warner Bros)

This is a fascinating time in filmmaking, as an art form it’s drastically changing, and the common belief is that there is a general trend toward films with fully digital environments and effects. Yet for many of us it will always be about what’s best for the story and it’s encouraging to see influential directors like Chris Nolan making films their own way. With “Inception” he’s proving that when it comes to films, luckily there are no rules and directors don’t always have to give in to the latest digital tools. In a time when audiences are gorged with so much digital imagery, Chris has shown us that there is a balance to be found between visual effects and shots created in camera and that you can mix tools and techniques to create impressive visuals; actually you might end up with something quite original and unique.

— Guy Hendrix Dyas


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Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

Chris Nolan: “It won’t be the Riddler”

“Inception” DP Wally Pfister: “That ain’t no CGI dust”

“Inception” extras reveal stuff dreams are made of

ON THE SET: “Inception,” Hollywood’s first dream heist

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page dream big

Nolan breaks silence on Superman film

Crossovers? Nolan: Batman doesn’t play well with others

Nolan on his favorite scene in “Dark Knight”


6 Responses to Christopher Nolan’s dark arts: ‘He thinks like a magician’

  1. Michael says:

    An excellent read. This is, I think, precisely where the shortfall was with the second Star Wars trilogy. The original film was remarkably spare, which lent space to all the classic archetypes to breathe. By contrast, the first of the second set (and the subsequent installments seemed to be making up for lost time in the area of visual trickery and gimmicks to the dear expense of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed Inception in the theater, and as Mr. Dyas has shared so eloquently, the movie's strength is in the simple reality of its unreality.

  2. Sophie says:

    Completely agree with Michael on the issue of CGI. I always contrast Christopher Nolan's works with that of the second Star Wars trilogy. Granted George Lucas went all out with what he wanted to portray in the second trilogy, but my mind just checked out watching all that CGI. This article is a good companion piece to the one posted by the video gamer on how groundbreaking the second trilogy was.

  3. Juan says:

    Excellent essay!

  4. AmbroseKalifornia says:

    This is a great article, and I love Christoper Nolan, but it's not really fair to compare this to Star Wars. Lucas was going after a completely different audience with the Second Trilogy then Nolan was with Inception. I can't imagine either approach working for the other's film without radically changing the director's vision.

    • NolanFan says:

      was Lucas seeking a particular audience? I have always had the impression that Hollywood directors are seeking to make the most money possible… and trying to make films with universal appeal

  5. gladys calzadilla says:

    Excellent script and plot, deep. Congratulations

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