‘Dunkirk’: How Christopher Nolan’s Visual Effects Team Pulled Off Realistic Dogfights and More Gritty Action

From its inception, “Dunkirk” was never meant to be a VFX-intensive World War II depiction of the legendary evacuation from Northern France. Rather, Christopher Nolan’s plan was to shoot almost everything with IMAX cameras, and seamlessly combine VFX elements to deliver the immersive, doc-like action.

And with Andrew Jackson (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), Nolan found the right visual effects production supervisor to oversee the project with Double Negative. On Saturday, at the Academy’s annual “bake-off,” Jackson will make the case why “Dunkirk” deserves a nomination. “Chris avoids full CG shots as much as possible and uses live-action elements as much as possible,” he said. “The mandate was to combine visual and special effects and make it look gritty.”

Diving into the aerial dogfights

After reviewing hours of archival footage and flying reference, Jackson worked closely with Nolan to develop choreography of aerial dogfights featuring Tom Hardy. Jackson then oversaw the previs. However, Nolan didn’t want to follow the previs too closely because he was afraid that the final result would contain unrealistic camera shots.

“So we stayed in that language of real aerial footage and used previs only as a guide,” Jackson said. “I distilled it down to a one-page drawing for each sequence, which I would take with me in the helicopter or the plane while we were shooting.”

Having done the previs and knowing what needed to be shot, Jackson then worked closely with the aerial unit and the SFX team (led by Scott Fisher) with miniature planes. They had three original Spitfires and one Messerschmitt along with a Yak plane dressed up with a Spitfire canopy. Fisher and his team built ...