Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking


“I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography.” This statement from a 2012 Directors Guild of America (DGA) interview set a boundary for Christopher Nolan in how he constructs each of his films.

1998 was such an iconic year for Hollywood cinema with the release of classic movies like “The Truman Show”, “Rush Hour”, and “Saving Private Ryan”. This was also an important year for several influential independent movies, such as “The Big Lebowski” by the Coen Brothers and “Rushmore” by Wes Anderson. Disney’s renaissance was also still taking place with the release of “Mulan”, continuing the successful period which had started in the late 1980s with films like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Beauty of the Beast”.

Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Alex Haw and Jeremy Theobald | Following (1998)

In the same year, an indie movie entitled, “Following” kickstarted Christopher Nolan’s career in the film industry. It was a success despite its lack of budget and production equipment, winning several awards during its festival run. This would then be his milestone as a film director and posed as a great start as he was brought to fame. 

But what made “Following” so special? Not only because of its capability to win a bunch of awards or the fact that it was made with such a minimum budget, but the real answer lies in its unconventional way of telling the story to the audience. Christopher Nolan gave his ace card of what makes his movies always interesting, and that is “Non-Linear Plot Structure”.

Even though this method of storytelling wasn’t new, even for that era, it gave the film an advantage in telling a film noir story. It plays with the audience’s mind of which character they should suspect and the blurriness of how the event plays out. This method would then be used as his flagship on making his next movies such as Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, Dunkirk, and the latest on the entry which became the most successful biopic released as well as a popular meme phenomenon, Oppenheimer.

But Christopher Nolan is more than just a man who likes to make his audience feel clueless and wonder what kind of movie they just watch every time they get out of the theatre. There are layers to what makes each of his movies a masterpiece and a time worth spending.

Conventional Approach to Filmmaking

Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Hoyte Van Hoytema and Christopher Nolan | Tenet Behind the Scenes Exclusive

His statement from the 2012 Directors Guild of America interview defines what he really is as a director. For him, directing a movie is not only a matter of placing a sequence of action or a series of events, but giving it a little bit of music, and voila. It’s also about aesthetics, the atmosphere, and how the audience would feel when they see the movie. For Nolan, a movie is as beautiful as the art of photography, it’s more than a digital product waiting to be exported from the studio’s computer, but a life told in a picture.

Christopher Nolan is known as a staunch advocate for the use of film stock in filmmaking, particularly the IMAX format. He believes that shooting on film offers superior image quality and a more immersive viewing experience compared to digital formats and that the usage of digital formats by the film industry is driven by economic factors as opposed to digital being a superior medium to film. Nolan has spoken extensively about his preference for film and his commitment to preserving the medium in an increasingly digital age.

He also argues that film stock captures light and colour in a way that digital cameras cannot replicate, resulting in a richer, more textured image. Additionally, Nolan believes that shooting on film encourages a more thoughtful and deliberate approach to filmmaking, as it requires careful planning and precision on set.

Photochemical colour timing is also his preference over digital colour grading, citing its unique aesthetic qualities and the ability to achieve a more nuanced and natural look. This method also results in less manipulation of the filmed image and higher film resolution.

One notable instance where Nolan discussed his views on photochemical colour timing was during the production of his film “Interstellar.” In an interview with American Cinematographer magazine, Nolan and his longtime cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, discussed their approach to shooting and processing the film. They emphasized their commitment to preserving the integrity of the images captured on film and using photochemical processes for colour timing to achieve the desired look.

You could say that Nolan is a traditionalist, but that epithet comes along with a style, with a class that not many filmmakers today are capable of achieving.

Christopher Nolan’s statement about the absolute difference between animation and photography underlines his minimum usage of computer-generated imagery (CGI). He often expresses his belief in the importance of maintaining a sense of realism and tangibility in his films, which he feels is best achieved through practical effects and in-camera techniques. 

“There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie,” Nolan told Jeffrey Ressner from the DGA. “One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in.” Nolan added.

Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Inception Hallway Dream Fight – Art of the Scene | CineFix

One example of Nolan’s approach to CGI can be seen in his film “Inception.” While the film features elaborate visual effects sequences, including scenes of folding cityscapes and zero-gravity environments, Nolan and his team prioritized practical effects whenever possible. They built intricate sets and utilized practical effects to create many of the film’s signature visuals, with CGI used primarily to enhance and augment these practical elements.

Another great example is the plane crash sequence from “Tenet”, which exemplifies his dedication to practical filmmaking and creating immersive, high-impact sequences. The scene, which features a real Boeing 747 crashing into a hangar, showcases Nolan’s commitment to authenticity and practical effects over CGI. The use of practical effects in the plane crash scene underscores Nolan’s belief in the power of tangible filmmaking techniques to evoke genuine emotions and reactions from viewers. By opting for practical effects over CGI, Nolan aimed to create a visceral and authentic spectacle that would leave a lasting impression on audiences.

Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Cillian Murphy and Christopher Nolan in the Video Club | Konbini

Traditionally producing a film also came with a traditional approach to enjoying it. Nolan is also a supporter of physical media over streaming when it comes to watching movies at home, especially Blu-ray. “There’s much less compression, we control the colour, brightness, and all these things,” Nolan said in an interview with Konbini. “Streaming is like broadcasting a film, we don’t have much control over how it goes out.” Nolan continued, comparing Blu-ray to the streaming services.

Philosophical Themes

Philosophical themes are Nolan’s main device to create intricate plots and engaging storylines, prompting viewers to contemplate existential questions and moral dilemmas. While Nolan himself has not extensively discussed his films in explicitly philosophical terms, his work frequently explores themes such as time, identity, memory, morality, and the nature of reality. Here are three examples from three of Nolan’s movies:

  1. Free Will vs Determinism: Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Cillian Murphy and Leonardo DiCaprio | Inception (2010)

In “Inception”, every bit of reality is put into doubt. The concept of free will versus determinism is a philosophical theme explored in “Inception.” If Cobb could plant a thought of Eames disguising as Browning to Robert Fisher, the characters grapple with the idea of whether their actions are predetermined or if they have the agency to shape their destinies. The manipulation of dreams and the planting of ideas raise questions about the extent to which individuals can exercise control over their thoughts and actions.

The characters’ ability to plant ideas in the minds of others implies a form of manipulation that challenges traditional notions of autonomy and self-determination. The film suggests that external influences, such as implanted ideas, can shape individuals’ beliefs and actions, blurring the line between free will and coercion.

  1. Subjective Reality vs Objective Truth: Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby | Memento (2000)

Leonard Shelby suffers from amnesia and relies on his tattoos, notes, as well as several photographs he took. But these aren’t reliable and so is Leonard’s own memory. Same as he did in “Following”, Nolan blurs the events surrounding the movie to make the audience question whether what they believed in is true or not. This movie is about Leonard’s subjective reality and the objective truth beyond it. In his objective view, he’s searching for a rapist who killed his wife but in reality, his wife survived and he’s the one who accidentally killed her by giving her insulin shot. He fooled himself into believing that he still searching for the guy responsible for it and fabricated a fake memory of Sammy Jankins to prevent him from feeling guilty of accidentally murdering his wife.

  1. Socio-Political Struggle: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne a.k.a. Batman | The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The film depicts Gotham City descending into chaos as social inequalities and injustices come to the forefront. It raises questions about the responsibilities of those in power, the role of citizens in shaping their society, and the potential for social change. One of the central themes of “The Dark Knight Rises” is the portrayal of class struggle and social inequality. The film depicts Gotham City as a divided society, with a stark contrast between the wealthy elite and the impoverished masses. The character of Bane, a revolutionary leader, seeks to overthrow the established order and empower the downtrodden, reflecting real-world concerns about income inequality and social injustice. Bane’s uprising against the wealthy elite symbolizes a populist movement fueled by resentment and disenchantment with the existing power structures.

The Fresh Ideas

Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Robert Pattinson and John David Washington | Tenet – New Trailer

Christopher Nolan is known for his new and unique take on each of his movies. Take “Tenet” for its unconventional way of time travelling or “Inception”’s concept of dream. These movies made their original Sci-Fi rules instead of building on the ideas from stories that came before them. We’ve all already gotten used to understanding the intricacy of predestination time travel or branching timelines, but the idea of Tenet comes with the science of Entropy, and that if you find a way to reverse it, the object could act in reverse. This method of time travel has never been thought of before!

The same goes for “Inception”, the idea that one constructs a dream and lives inside it, and the way the movie expands on that concept is wild. The film takes the audience into the depths of the human psyche, exploring themes of memory, desire, and the subconscious motivations that shape our perceptions of reality. By blurring the lines between waking life and dream states, “Inception” makes us reconsider our understanding of the nature of consciousness and the boundaries of reality.

Speaking of ideas, let’s take a peek at Nolan’s latest cinematic entry: “Oppenheimer”, and how it evolved him as a director.

Christopher Nolan: The Auteur’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer | Oppenheimer Official Trailer

In the making of “Oppenheimer”, Nolan shifted his directing style from the comfort zone of action-packed scenes to historical drama, and in “Oppenheimer” once again he proved that he is a true mastermind in cinematic history.

The recurring theme in Christopher Nolan’s movies is the power of an idea. Starting from “Memento”, Leonard holds firm to the idea that searching for his wife’s killer would bring a purpose to his life, or in “Batman Begins” where Batman becomes a symbol of hope for Gotham that then continues with Harvey Dent as a false idea that leads Gotham to a moment of tranquillity and ends with Batman sacrifice at the end of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

This theme of the importance of ideas played a pivotal role in “Oppenheimer” as leads J. Robert Oppenheimer transforming his theory of quantum mechanics to the creation of the atomic bomb. The depiction of this is shown clearly as the movie progresses as Oppenheimer gets overwhelmed by his thoughts. This idea then has terrible chain reactions that lead to the nuclear arms race and perhaps even starting a new age of warfare.

Christopher Nolan’s rise to becoming a respected auteur in modern filmmaking is a testament to his unparalleled storytelling approach, profound philosophical insights, and commitment to traditional cinematic techniques. From his humble beginnings with “Following” to his blockbuster successes like “The Dark Knight Trilogy” and the epic historical drama “Oppenheimer,” Nolan has consistently challenged and captivated audiences with his non-linear narratives, emphasis on practical effects, and thought-provoking concepts. With this series of masterpieces, Nolan has carved out a niche as an auteur who prioritizes the artistry and immersive experience of cinema.Speaking of filmmaking philosophy, here’s another related article you might want to take an interest in: “Film Philosophy – How to Manipulate the Audience”. Check our latest articles here.


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