The 12 Greatest Special Effects in Christopher Nolan's Movies


HomeHome / News / The 12 Greatest Special Effects in Christopher Nolan's Movies

Jul 29, 2023

The 12 Greatest Special Effects in Christopher Nolan's Movies

For two decades, Christopher Nolan has raised the bar with what a director can accomplish with massive stunts and special effects. For two decades, Christopher Nolan has wowed his audiences with a

For two decades, Christopher Nolan has raised the bar with what a director can accomplish with massive stunts and special effects.

For two decades, Christopher Nolan has wowed his audiences with a combination of blockbuster prowess and art-house cinema. He has been a champion of keeping film alive. Always making it a point to see his films and films in general on the big screen where they are meant to be seen. Nolan's stances on cinema are firm; he never seems to budge, and his views of cinema in an age of streaming and oversaturated content have yet to really hurt his career.

One thing Nolan does well is give us a big spectacle on screen with minimal use of CGI or any form of special effects created in post-production. He does everything he can to get what he wants in the frame of the shot in a practical sense. When it was announced in his latest feature, Oppenheimer, that there was no CGI in the film. Critics and audiences flocked to the theater to wonder one thing: how was Nolan going to pull off the shots of the atomic bomb without any visual effects? With that large effect and many others in past films, Nolan has been raising the bar for accomplishing great achievements in practical effects on a grand scale. Here are the twelve times he has done it.

When crafting the third installment of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman was in dire need of a new toy to help defeat Bane in his takeover of Gotham. Enter The Bat, or, as some may know it, The Bat Jet or The Bat Plane. But in The Dark Knight Rises, it was known as just The Bat. Christopher Nolan usually gets what he wants on a production, so there may have been a possibility of creating an actual airplane for Batman to actually fly around the city.

But here is one case where CGI was implemented: In the scenes where The Bat is in hot pursuit of Bane's militia, it's actually attached rigged up to a truck below it. The truck is obviously composited out of the shot in the final cut to give it the look of a low-flying jet.

Related: Best Moments in Chrstopher Nolan Movies

As Nolan's stance on special effects and shooting on film has gotten stronger and stronger, the plots for his movies seem to get bigger and bigger. So when he directed the World War II drama Dunkirk, the thought came to mind about how he was going to accomplish the level of filmmaking he would want for it. In today's day and age, war dramas are loaded with green screens and fake explosions. Dunkirk has actual sinking ships with explosions and sweeping shots of allied soldiers on the beaches surrounded by the Nazis.

And to dial back the cost of special effects for these grand shots on the beach, what does Nolan do? He puts in cardboard cutouts of soldiers. They're hard to spot, as a lot of them were used for the shots of POVs of a Nazi plane dropping bombs on the beaches.

Related: Dunkirk and the Real Story of the World War II MIlitary Disaster

2005 marked Christopher Nolan's biggest movie to date, Batman Begins. If you go back and watch all of The Dark Knight Trilogy, you really see the prime era of Nolan's evolution as a filmmaker. And you can feel the studio loosening the reigns by the time 2008's The Dark Knight was made. Batman Begins feels like a different film than the other two; it has a lot of CGI, one of which is the monorail that goes around Gotham. By the time it comes crashing down in the film's climax, it blends both CGI and practical effects during the fight between Batman and Ra's al Ghul.

It even sneaks in a few shots of miniature train cars rolling through the streets of Gotham. Something that feels reminiscent of the bat jet crashing in Tim Burton's Batman. It's a nice blend of practical in-camera effects and nicely rendered CGI for its time.

Tenet has been labeled as a sore spot in Nolan's filmography. A big-budget action spy thriller with a complex plot to it that Robert Pattinson, one of the stars of the movie, doesn't even know what it is about. The coronavirus pandemic put a hex on this film with its theatrical release, something Nolan fought with the studios about. Despite the drama surrounding the film and the critical disputes about it, it does have some wild special effects and set pieces. One of which is Nolan actually having a plane crash into an airport hangar and explode. No CGI explosion, no fake plane; they actually crashed a very large aircraft into a building.

Related: Tenet: Explaining the Story and the Ending

A true sign that earth is a dying place in Interstellar are the dust bowls that engulf the town where Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family live in. In the scenes where the dust storms happen, the particles of dust are actually food additives, so if swallowed, they won't harm any of the actors. We've seen disaster movies where CGI is used in scenes like the ones in Interstellar, but again, Nolan goes with the practical, and it helps enhance the issue at hand with the issues of the planet.

It's remarkable how acres and acres of corn make this list, but it's very deserving. In Interstellar, Nolan could have gone with the idea of CGI'ing corn fields for the scenes that take place at the farm in the first act of the film, but why would he at this point in his career? Corn is one of the few crops still growing on Earth in the world of Interstellar. So the production decided to plant rows and rows of corn for the famous drone chase scene early in the film. The production reportedly sold the land and its crops back after the film was done.

When it was announced that there wasn't any CGI in Nolan's newest film, Oppenheimer, people immediately wondered how he was going to film the Atomic Bomb test. It's a pivotal moment in the film and one of the major draws people have towards buying a ticket to see it. Nolan enlisted the aid of Oscar-winning visual effects' supervisor Andrew Jackson. It becomes apparent early on that in order to accomplish this sequence, they had to actually make a real bomb.

Nolan uses the oldest trick in the book in terms of filming an explosion, as he shoots it close up and not in full. But the actual bomb that was used was, of course, nowhere close to the actual Atomic bomb. The explosion consisted of gasoline, petroleum, aluminum powder, and magnesium flares.

Related: How Oppenheimer is the Culmination of Christopher Nolan's Career

Inception is a film that primarily takes place in a person's dream. So things need to happen that don't make sense, like a freight train driving through the center of a major city. The production has set pieces that were shot all over the world, one of which was downtown Los Angeles. In a section of the film when Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team have begun their mission in a man's dream, a freight train comes barreling through traffic where the team is. The train is actually there and isn't computer-generated at all. There were no tracks laid down for it to run on; it's just bashing through rows of cars on a stretch of road.

There are a lot of memorable things about The Dark Knight. Its stamp on comic book adaptation movies is will never be erased. A Batman film that has brilliant drama, and character arcs, and remarkable stunts. One of which is the flip of an 18-wheeler Mac truck in the middle of Gotham City (filmed in Chicago).

One of the best chase scenes in film history culminates as the truck that the Joker is driving flips upside down, and it's all real. To think that if this big rig were not to flip and land like it should, and the damage it would cause, is incredible. But without the use of CGI and the help of highly professional stunt workers, it goes down as a great moment in cinema.

In Inception, when a car crash in the first layer of the dream world happens, it shifts the second layer of it, which begins to make gravity a completely obsolete thing. In a scene with Joseph Gordon Levitt fighting henchmen in a hallway, the floor, walls, and ceilings all begin to turn. This is all done with the magic of wires and a rotating set.

Gordon-Levitt seems to be doing all his own stunts in this scene while the set turns, as the camera is, for the most part, remotely close to the actors. It feels like this sequence was one of the hardest to achieve, yet it is one of the most memorable moments of the movie.

Dunkirk is a war film that follows three intertwining stories of the historic World War II battle: one by land, one by sea, and the third by air. The Spitfire fighter pilot segments of the film are a thrill to watch as they are all done practically. Any other filmmaker would have used smaller cameras or CGI explosions, but Christopher Nolan opted to put IMAX cameras at angles where nobody had ever used cameras like that before. With this kind of technical aspect of the scenes of the aerial dogfights, it puts you on edge and right in the battle with the actors. But it wasn't the first time Nolan directed a stunt in midair.

In late 2011, audiences who went to the IMAX screenings of the newest Mission Impossible film got a sneak peek of the prologue to Nolan's final installment to The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. The film would come out eight months later, but it showed you the amazing opening sequence that involved an airplane being hijacked by Bane and his militia. All of the exterior shots are a real aerial stunt, and the interior scenes were done on a sound stage.

The scene consists of Bane and his crew kidnapping a doctor who is in CIA custody. In order to do that, Bane's primary plan was to get himself caught by the CIA, so they could snatch the doctor from their custody and crash the transport plane. The aerial shots of one plane above another, with men jumping down via rope and cable to perform the sequence, are incredible and all real. And the icing on the cake is that they really did drop the smaller plane from the sky for the scene's final shot. The Dark Knight Rises has been called the least-liked entry in Nolan's Batman Trilogy, but even in his lesser-loved films, he still seems to find a way to wow us with a major stunt all performed by people without the aid of CGI.

Christopher NolanThe Dark Knight RisesDunkirkBatman Begins.Tenet InterstellarInterstellar,OppenheimerInception The Dark Knight