What Do ‘Oppenheimer’s Changing Aspect Ratios Mean?

The Big Picture

  • Christopher Nolan’s commitment to shooting on IMAX cameras and his use of shifting aspect ratios in Oppenheimer showcase his unique approach to filmmaking.
  • The wide and full-screen aspect ratios in Oppenheimer serve different narrative purposes, capturing both the objective historical backdrop and the subjective experiences of the characters.
  • The shifting aspect ratios create a visceral viewing experience that adds intensity to pivotal moments in the film, combining the meditative nature of a biopic with the thrills of a great thriller.


Editor’s Note: The following contains Oppenheimer spoilers.

For many, Oppenheimer is the movie event of the year. The new film by Christopher Nolan is a continuation of the director’s admiration of IMAX cinematography. His commitment to shooting film on these heavy, expensive cameras has come to define his artistic style and as one of the true advocates of cinema. Nolan has practically made 70mm IMAX screenings, his preferred format of experiencing Oppenheimer, a household name. His pedantic approach to filmmaking at a populist level is why he is one-of-a-kind. When watching his new film on a glorious IMAX screen, 70mm or not, any observant viewer will take note of the constantly changing aspect ratios throughout Oppenheimer.


Why Does Christopher Nolan Love IMAX?

Robert Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

While the film was shot entirely on IMAX cameras, Oppenheimer shifts between two aspect ratios throughout the runtime, 2:20:1 and 1:43:1. The former is visualized as the wider, standard variation of screen formatting, with the top and bottom of the frame being cropped out, and the latter is the proportion that fills up a gigantic IMAX screen. The ratio frequently changes within respective scenes. No matter what aspect ratio the viewer is looking at, Oppenheimer is an exquisite picture, but there are few feelings more satisfying than when the larger-than-life IMAX screen that soars above you is filled from top to bottom with gorgeous film photography. Christopher Nolan’s advocacy for IMAX filmmaking is passionate enough to earn him the title of the unofficial spokesperson of the format.

Since his no-budget debut, Following, and his ascent to blockbuster filmmaking with The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, Nolan has reveled in manipulating the medium of film and its conventional story structures. The director never saw a narrative that couldn’t be chopped up as a non-linear tale. His liberal use of coherent sound mixing, most infamously demonstrated in Tenet, is frustrating on a basic level, but as an artistic flex, it is commendable. The back-and-forth routine of the aspect ratios in his most recent film is another example of Nolan’s unique sense of formalism. The shifting effect is ultimately unobtrusive in telling the gripping story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his development of the atomic bomb, but it subconsciously adds a visceral element to an already exhilarating historical biopic.

‘Oppenheimer’ Shifts Between a Wide Screen & Full Screen in IMAX

Matt Damon in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

The shifting aspect ratios are entangled with Nolan’s distinct, operatic depiction of a man blessed with a brilliant mind who reckons with utilizing it for immoral means. The wide frame, at 2:20:1, resembles objectivity. This style is familiar with the rudimentary beats of a typical Hollywood biography–satisfying the historical backdrop of the film. The wide frame is meant to capture the moment and basic layout of a scene, including Lewis Strauss‘ (Robert Downey Jr.) cabinet appointment hearing and Oppenheimer’s meetings involving government affairs such as meetings with Secretary of War Henry Stimson (James Remar) and President Harry S. Truman (Gary Oldman).

The tall, IMAX-friendly format, 1:43:1, is deployed to enforce the narrative device of following the Manhattan Project, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. affairs with domestic communism, and the dawn of the Cold War through Oppenheimer’s perspective. The screen expands its parameters as if it’s mimicking the opening of the physicist’s mind. By nature, the full-screen format represents the subjective–often when the titular character is reckoning with his ego as a brilliant scientist and guilt for the human atrocity that he is responsible for. Nolan sets the tone with the dream-like, contemplative shot of water droplets splashing in a puddle cutting to Oppenheimer staring at the ground. Anytime his power escalates, such as when he walks along the Los Alamos neighborhood and testing sight, the screen expands to evoke his larger-than-life influence.

In the dawn of IMAX, the format was primarily utilized for educational short nature documentaries viewed inside a museum. Based on the high-resolution pristine image of IMAX photography, and the scope of its lens, capturing vistas and animals around the globe was well-suited for this format. As Hollywood adopted the camera and projection, IMAX became, and remains, synonymous with big-budget action-adventure spectacle.

While Oppenheimer is a grand, epic vision with a heavy budget, and Nolan has engaged in spectacle-driven entertainment, the film exploits the advantages of IMAX uniquely. Rather than solely capturing picturesque vistas, Nolan sought to illustrate the emotional complexity of the story through the faces of his actors. The screen often widens when Cillian Murphy’s face is needed to portray the pathos of the character and narrative. Utilizing the 1:43:1 aspect ratio to express the agony, remorse, and contemplation of the characters is in tune with the purposefully histrionic and weighty stakes of the film. Nolan, who expertly blends highbrow artistic craft with populous sentiments, finds the perfect collision of exceptional technical prowess with Shakespearean drama.

RELATED: ‘Oppenheimer’ Review: Christopher Nolan Delivers His Most Colossal and Mature Film Yet

What Do ‘Oppenheimer’s Shifting Aspect Ratios Mean?

oppenheimer-cillian-murphy-poster-feature-1

Image via Universal

Christopher Nolan’s manipulation of the aspect ratios in his recent smash hit signifies that this historical biopic is not beholden to the history of World War II and the creation of the atomic bomb. As previously stated, the film is dominantly told through the eyes of Robert Oppenheimer. As a filmmaker heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick, Nolan’s films are active in their engineered precision, although, like his influence, it would be misleading to refer to him as purely a cold and calculated filmmaker. Oppenheimer, however, is a far cry from Nolan regarding its lack of rigidness in storytelling. The perspectives of Oppenheimer and Strauss are unreliable but deeply personal. Furthermore, legacy and grappling with infamy is a major subtext of Nolan’s film. The changing aspect ratios are emblematic of a looseness in the structure of the film and its characters.

The shifting of aspect ratios in Oppenheimer is an intuitive effect on an emotional and intellectual level. For one, it keeps the viewer focused, and the rush of being immersed in the full IMAX screen that towers over the theater floor is undeniable. From a cerebral perspective, since Nolan’s storytelling and characterization are so active and vulnerable, the true meaning behind the aspect ratios is ultimately ambiguous. It is the viewer’s prerogative to weave this effect into the greater fabric of the film. Compare this to Nolan’s explicit reading of black-and-white photography versus color in the film.

At a macro level, removed from debatable underlying thematic ideas of the effect, swapping back and forth between a 2:20:1 and 1:43:1 aspect ratio creates a visceral viewing experience–something that Christopher Nolan has thrived in across three decades. The director executed the daring tight-rope walk act of crafting a meditative and downbeat biopic entangled with American history that simultaneously satisfies the primal enjoyment of a great thriller. Oppenheimer keeps viewers on the edge of their seats during the searing Trinity Test at Los Alamos and the title character’s security clearance hearing. By expanding and enclosing the frame of the theater screen in the course of these events, the intensity only compounds.

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