The dazzlingly authentic and up-close aerial dogfights between British Spitfires and German planes are among the most awe-inspiring scenes in director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Shooting the furious flying action with real planes, often over the location of the pivotal Battle of Dunkirk, was challenging enough without computer effects or green-screen technology.
But mastering the feat with bulky IMAX cameras that brought vivid images and expansive field of view to the large screen was a victory that compelled Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine to say: Dunkirk boasts “some of the most thrilling aerial engagements ever staged.”
Here’s how Nolan and his team pulled them off:
Yes, those are real Spitfires
Three working World War II Spitfires were brought in to depict much of action for the RAF pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden.
“Most of what’s in the film was done with real Spitfires,” says Nolan. “The planes are in incredible condition and can do all the dogfighting, all the aerobatics. They are remarkable machines.”
Painstaking shooting from the cockpit
Nolan wanted to get up-close with the Spitfire pilots as they fend off German Messerschmitt Bf 109s attacking the mass evacuation of Allied troops below.
He incorporated a lookalike Yak-52, a two-seater Soviet-era aircraft, for added shooting space in the cramped cockpit, dressing it to look like a one-seat Spitfire.
“The Yak had an open two-person cockpit. So we could put the camera right over the (actor’s) shoulder and got up in the air with these guys,” Nolan says.
The grounded crew extensively rehearsed each scene before the actor and aerial coordinator Craig Hosking would take flight.
“I would be on the ground waving (them off) as they took off,” says Nolan. “Craig would run the camera and fly the plane. They would do a half-hour sortie, come back and we’d look at the tape.”
IMAX cameras allow for only three-and-a-half minutes of film shooting at one time, so the process was drawn out — each short shoot required a landing, review and film reloading.
“There were literally hundreds of take-off and landings. Up and down. Reload and shoot,” says Hosking
IMAX cameras were mounted on the plane’s wing
Hosking had never seen an IMAX camera successfully mounted to a plane’s wing before Dunkirk.
“I thought maybe a GoPro with some duct tape. But are you kidding me? An IMAX camera on the plane wing? Never been done,” says Hosking. “You wouldn’t believe it would fly with this hunk of steel.”
Not only was the plane tested extensively to ensure the 54-pound camera didn’t affect flight controls, but the mount didn’t shake, vividly capturing the pilots in the cockpit during flight.
Flight action views were captured with IMAX cameras facing outward, placed on the plane’s side and even peering through the gun site.
An additional plane shot dogfight action
Much of the air battle movement was captured by a Piper Aerostar specially equipped with IMAX cameras on the front and back, diving into the action.
“That’s the view that gives the audience the sense of being right in the dogfight, with super-realistic steep banking and rolling. It gives that right-on-them feel,” says Hosking. “We were really dogfighting with the planes, but shooting film instead of bullets.”
Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema were onboard the Piper giving Hosking real-time instructions (and excited cries during high speed turns).
“They were right in my ear coaching me, that’s what translates onscreen,” Hosking says. “This film was epic in ambition and scope, and we achieved the intended results.”