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The craft that went into the 13 Oscar nods for 'Oppenheimer'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This year's Oscars have a bona fide frontrunner, a film with 13 nominations, more than any other title this year. It is, of course, "Oppenheimer," Christopher Nolan's epic about the making of the atomic bomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

MATT DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) Because this is the most important thing to ever happen in the history of the world.

CHANG: The biopic is not just being recognized for its story and acting but also for its craft. "Oppenheimer" is nominated across many technical categories, including best cinematography and best sound. And today we're going to learn a bit more about how it was made. Joining me now are NPR's Mandalit del Barco and Bilal Qureshi, who spent some time with the people behind the scenes of this movie. Hello to both of you.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. All right, so let's start with you, Mandalit. Christopher Nolan - I mean, he's known for having a very exacting approach to making his films. How do you see that in the way he used sound?

DEL BARCO: Well, he's really traditional. And, you know, I spoke with one of the film's Oscar-nominated production sound mixers, Willie Burton. He told me Nolan is an audio genius who mostly records his actors and the ambient noise around them live on set and on location.

CHANG: Oh, wow. And, Bilal, when it comes to images in Nolan's movies, I mean, there's a similar theme, right? Nolan is this evangelist for IMAX and using the biggest canvas possible, I hear.

QURESHI: Yeah. So we're going to begin this deep dive behind the scenes with the film's cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema. He shot each of Christopher Nolan's last few films, and here he is.

HOYTE VAN HOYTEMA: We kind of like choosing the hardest way to do things or the least sort of logical or the least comfortable things.

QURESHI: That has meant aerial battles in "Dunkirk"...

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE ROARING)

QURESHI: ...Freeway car chases in "Tenet"...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

QURESHI: ...And space shuttles and black holes and "Interstellar."

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL RATTLING)

QURESHI: But "Oppenheimer" is a different kind of epic. Yes, of course, there's the Trinity test in the film's centerpiece explosion, but for the majority of its three hours, it's a biopic that unfolds in classrooms and congressional hearings and in closeups.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

CILLIAN MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) Members of the security board, the so-called derogatory information in your indictment of me cannot be fairly understood except in the context of my life.

QURESHI: Hoyte Van Hoytema says that was both the visual challenge and the opportunity of "Oppenheimer."

VAN HOYTEMA: You know, historically, we've been putting cameras on planes or on boats and did a lot of kind of impossible things. But to really go back to the base and to sort of strip it down and to look at the human face again and three hours long people talking - you know, faces.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: Hoyte Van Hoytema is just one of the great naturalistic cameramen.

QURESHI: Filmmaker Christopher Nolan.

NOLAN: Over the years, using the IMAX format together, I think we'd both found that some of the most striking compositions on that huge screen would come about as a result of a close-up, photographing a face rather than a giant landscape. I mean, the landscapes, you know, are spectacular in IMAX, but more and more we've been drawn to trying to photograph the intimate moments on that format.

QURESHI: Matt Mulcahey writes about cinematography for Filmmaker Magazine.

MATT MULCAHEY: The final image of "Oppenheimer" is just a close-up push in on the character of Oppenheimer with no dialogue and a tight lens. It's a single image that really sums up the story and Oppenheimer's journey.

QURESHI: There's a lot of detail captured by IMAX film, but those close-ups are actually harder that way, as Van Hoytema explains.

VAN HOYTEMA: The camera is not very practical because it's big and it's very loud. The camera itself sounds like a little diesel generator, and the design is kind of like a hotel minibar, you know?

QURESHI: And the black-and-white IMAX film that was required for some of the scenes didn't even exist.

VAN HOYTEMA: They started manufacturing the film for us. And I remember we got these two test rolls from Kodak - 65-millimeter film, thousand-feet rolls.

MULCAHEY: They're not just using old-school techniques. I think they are very, very innovative.

QURESHI: Matt Mulcahey of Filmmaker Magazine says the visual process for how "Oppenheimer" was made - analog film on location and practical effects - makes its biography of a mind a more immersive and emotional experience. Even the abstract scenes that show atoms splitting and stars colliding in Dr. Oppenheimer's imagination were filmed in real life.

VAN HOYTEMA: We did a lot of tests. We did tests with powders and light and molted metal and aquariums with light and with brightness and darkness. But in the end, you know, it's not reality. It's sort of a poetic interpretation of what it is. It's - in many ways, it's un-visualizable (ph). But this was definitely our best attempt to do it.

QURESHI: But that did mean dealing with those minibar-sized IMAX cameras, which also create their own disruptive soundtrack, as my colleague Mandalit del Barco learned.

DEL BARCO: Bilal, those IMAX cameras are super-loud. But Christopher Nolan told us that just like the visuals, he likes to record sound live. He doesn't like to have his actors rerecord their lines later - what's known as ADR, automatic dialogue replacement.

NOLAN: You're looking for that naturalism, that depth to the performance. There's really no substitute for getting a great recording on location that has the appropriate camera perspective and has the genuine performance of the actor in the moment. To do that, I mean, you need a great sound recordist. Willie Burton is one of the greats.

DEL BARCO: When I met Burton at his home in the Hollywood Hills, I found a fellow audiophile.

WILLIE BURTON: What kind of mic is that? Wow.

DEL BARCO: This is a Sennheiser mic.

BURTON: Sennheiser, wow.

DEL BARCO: A shotgun mic.

BURTON: Shotgun, OK.

DEL BARCO: Burton told me he and Nolan both like using boom and condenser microphones, equipment that's wired with cables on set and on location, not wireless or lavalier mics that are used widely on film sets these days.

BURTON: It doesn't have the full scope that - a microphone like you're using today. So it sounds like a close-up all the time. A conventional microphone - you get the full sound of everything. And that's what Chris wants. Chris wants the footsteps. He wants the movement with the actors. He wants to hear the props. He wants all of that. It's, like, old-school. That's how we did it years ago.

DEL BARCO: Over nearly five decades, Burton has worked with other big film directors, including Steven Spielberg and Ava DuVernay. Among his credits are "The Color Purple," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Green Mile." But the 73-year-old wasn't a typical Hollywood type.

BURTON: I was born outside of Tuscaloosa, a little town called Machaway, Ala. It's a country town basically in the woods.

DEL BARCO: Burton eventually earned two Academy Awards. With "Oppenheimer," he could become the first Black person to win three Oscars. For this film, he says he had to dig trenches in the sand to hide the microphone wires. There was wind to contend with and that noisy IMAX camera.

BURTON: It's loud. It sounds like (imitating camera whirring). It's about five times louder than this. Oh, yeah. But, you know, it's so incredible-looking, and it blows your mind.

DEL BARCO: Burton also worked with Nolan on his 2020 film "Tenet."

BURTON: I mean, we spent a lot of money on this, trying to, you know, quiet the camera. And then we realized that it really was going to work. It's still noisy no matter what you do. It's just noisy.

DEL BARCO: For "Oppenheimer," he says they sometimes shot close-ups with a somewhat quieter 65-millimeter camera. One of the more ingenious uses of sound was at the climax of the film, when Robert Oppenheimer and his team test a bomb that could destroy the planet. Here's Nolan.

NOLAN: It's so thrilling to see an entire audience full of people just on tenterhooks, hearing only the sounds of breathing that Willie was able to get from the actors on set and then have everybody jolted out of their seats by the impact of the explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMB EXPLODING)

DEL BARCO: Burton says even he was surprised at the effect on the audience.

BURTON: A lady was sitting next to me, and she had a soda. And it was so loud, she jumped up. It scared her so bad she spilled the soda all on me and in my shoe. So the rest of the movie, I had to sit there with my shoe off.

DEL BARCO: That's the effect of Christopher Nolan's filmmaking approach for a movie about quantum physics and abstract science. I'm Mandalit del Barco.

QURESHI: I'm Bilal Qureshi.

DEL BARCO: NPR News.

QURESHI: In Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "CAN YOU HEAR THE MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.