Director Training: Report on Christopher Nolan’s Directing Style

For the purposes of the course, training and assessment in the ‘directing’ category have to do with aspects of ‘mise-en-scéne’ and directing actors. Training for directors may include:

  • an examination and report on a director’s style.


[Image 1: Christopher Nolan]

For the final digital filming project, I was assigned as the first-unit director. A very simple definition of my job is to be the director’s assistant, listening to every single one of her orders and taking charge when the director is missing, along with completing over trivial tasks. For training, there are 6 categories: directing, cinematography, editing, sound, scriptwriting, special effects. Since there is no exact category for me to work in, I decided to do a training in directing, as I am also partially a director, and I have a extremely high interest in studying actual renowned hollywood directors.

In the start of the year, we were told to write down our favourite movie, and my favourite movie was Inception. Inception had a crazy plot as the film explored the boundaries between reality and imagination. However, I did not have a clue for who directed this film. As I did some research, I realised it was Christopher Nolan. He is considered as one of the most popular directors of this era, as he directed the Batman Trilogy, and Memento, and Interstellar. Interstellar was also another crazy movie that incorporated physics concepts that I have a strong passion in. Thus, I have decided to heavily analyse Christopher Nolan’s directing style and learn his secrets of captivating the world’s attention.

Christopher Nolan is from London. His father is from United Kingdom, while his mother is from United States. He had both citizenships, and he began making films at an extremely early age of 7 using his father’s Super 8 camera. Star Wars was Nolan’s inspirations and at the age of 8, he created a stop animation (which I was learning in second semester of high school year), named Space Wars. He earned his college education in Haileybury and Imperal Service College and University College London. He was the president of the Union’s Film Society. Having a close look at his early life, it can be noticed that he had a very strong passion for filming ever since he was young, but there is no noticeable trait that discerns him from other directors and of how his directing style came to be.

What marks Nolan different from other directors is that Nolan took a different path and tried out and explored different styles of filming. For classic hollywood cinemas there is known to be a certain style of filming called the CHC filming. Although Nolan stuck purely to his filming style in the start, this filming style later had a very large impact on him in the later films. What CHC filming style is that it has a special way of having the audience watch the films, forgetting that they are actually watching them. The audience would feel like they are actually involved and is in part of the movie. This filming style is created by a principle known as continuity editing, also known as “the invisible style”. This CHC film style was introduced in 1927-1963 and is still used widely by many directors, and what helped Hollywood earn so much money. The camera is put in position so that it is at eye-level to reality, to the real world, giving a genuine experience the the viewers. The lightning does not interfere and the sound recording is recorded in a way that never gives attention to itself (will never stand out). The editing by the editors are also unnoticeable as there are smooth transitions. This CHC filming style was visible in The Dark Knight, one of Nolan’s most popular films. However, before he produced The Dark Knight, he took a different approach. In Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, the story is presented backwards!! The narration is not direct as there are empty gaps where viewers would try to put in effort to fill in by themselves. The audience actually was forced to figure out what was going on. There are also two plots, which at the end, connects to one. In addition, he uses black and white effect to portray a flashback while colour is to show the present. By presenting the story in a non-linear, complicated way, Nolan did a great job of having the audience feel personally connected to the main character, unlike in the CHC film styling. This unique path was taken by Nolan because no directors dared to risk their job. However, is it because Nolan took the risk, he stands out and is currently renowned.


[Image 2: Memento Black and White]


[Image 3: Memento Non-Linear Story Timeline]

As he was given more budget to work on his films, he started shifting to CHC directing style, and the way he adapted was amazing, not to mention that the box office for Dark Knight Rises was over a billion dollars. In my favourite movie, Inception, we can see that many scenes are indeed on eye-level and it feels that I am indeed in the scene along with them.



[Image 4 & 5: Scenes in Inception]

Lightning was also done very smartly. For example, in the image below, the lightning is set up so that the focus is purely just on the protagonist. All the unnecessary part of the scene is in the dark, but we still get a clear image of where he is and the atmosphere, mood of the situation in the context. Also, it was very clever in The Dark Knight, where the Joker was captured and was in the police station. He was in the interrogation room and it was very dark at first. Thus, the focus was only on Joker, but when the lights are turned on, we realize that batman is also in that same room. Nolan has showed a sophisticated and intelligent way of incorporating the lightning.


[Image 6: Lightning in a scene in Inception]

Christopher Nolan’s directing style has changed over the course of the career and I feel that there is no problem about that. He tried out both the atypical non-linear way of filming and the common CHC directing, but all the films he produced still turned out impressive. Nolan is a great experimenter. Nolan’s miss en scene also fits my taste. A lot of the protagonists in Nolan’s films are usually having personal mental issues (psychologically damaged), and is often in a conflict, seeking revenge or inner peace. Also, a lot of his films seem realistic (when they are not). For example, Inception is about us being able to control our dreams or to hack into other’s minds which is very possible in the future. Interstellar is about the human apocalypse and that time can be represented in a 4D structure. Also, near a black-hole, there is the gravitational time delay, which I thought were interesting. He plays a lot with physics concepts and psychology concepts and I hope to see more amazing films from Christopher Nolan in the future.

Here is a quote by Christopher Nolan that summarises by analysis of his directing style:

“Every film should have its own world, a logic and feel to it that expands beyond the exact image that the audience is seeing.”


 [Image 7: Reality vs Imagination]

I am inspired. So Am I right now in reality or is this all a dream? Haha.

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