On 70mm

 

I’ve seen four films in the format over the past 4 years. This includes Inherent Vice, which had a little-mentioned 70mm blowup print created and screened at the Arclight in Hollywood, and getting to see Interstellar on IMAX 70mm before that system got changed out for lasers.

 

In the Booth

I spent a year as a projectionist for a theater in Humboldt County, so I know the medium intimately. I’ve worked hands on by building & breaking down prints and taking care of the projectors themselves. It’s a lost art, and one that I fell in love with during my short time at the theater. I can remember picking through back issues at the Humboldt State library of I think it was Film Comment not so much for the reviews, but to see how long the print was physically[1]. I was always interested in seeing how many reels a picture was. [2]

Technically, it’s a difficult process to run celluloid through a projector. The prints are thousands of feet long and any small mistake can cause something to go horribly awry. I’ve been the cause of this. I dropped an Avatar print that had to be spliced back together and shown for another week.

Toward the end of my tenure, we got our first digital projector.[3] Instead of prints, we were being sent a hard drive and the entire build was done on a computer.

It’s a fickle medium with a lot of detractors. But it’s also the classic way to view a picture. One that’s being lost completely not just because of digital, but because of the dwindling amount of humans who know how to work the machines correctly. I think that was the one unforeseen aspect of Hateful 8’s road show: they forgot about human error. I don’t know to what lengths they went to find people across the country who could run a 70mm projector, but it seems unlikely that, say, someone in Minnesota has been trained on how to run the projector, let alone maintain the print. That’s why they’ve run into problems when trying to show the film. If 70mm is gonna live on, there’s gotta be a workforce devoted to the special training needed.

The Viewing Experience

At first, seeing a movie projected on film now can be a little weird. The image almost seems to vibrate to life as your eyes adjust to that millisecond of black between frames when the aperture rotates. But, once you adjust, the differences grow more and more minimal as the movie continues. What stands out the most are the scratches[4], which you almost search for at a certain point to make sure you aren’t watching a digital projection and being duped.

It’s about the size, really. The image expands so far out into your periphery that you can’t see much beyond it. This is used to great effect in the Hateful 8 where you have six characters in the frame creating a sort of human vista. Or in the Master’s long take of Freddie Quell walking down the pier with the Alethia in the background. Simple shots take on a new life when there’s so much background room to play with. You can practically tell completely different stories in the left and right third of the frame—something which Tarantino does in the Hateful 8.

The Future

It all depends on whether or not the people want it now that 100 theatres are equipped for the format.[5] Batman versus Superman, with sequences shot on both Panavision 65 and IMAX 70, looks like the next movie that’ll get this type of release. If the rumor holds up (and it probably will now that people have come out droves for the roadshow presentation), then we’ll probably also see this special run include souvenirs.

I’ll always love the printed film, but the swap to digital is wholly understandable. It’s easier, you need fewer employees, things won’t melt. I get it. But to just let analog die out would be an absolute shame. It’d close the chapter completely on an era in the film industry.

 

 

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[1] I think I’ve always had an obsession with the length of a film. As a kid, I always thought that the longer the movie the better the movie, so I always hoped that every movie I was excited for as a kid (cf. Godzilla 1998, the Matrix, the Mummy Returns, Deep Blue Sea, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Titanic, Independence Day, Men in Black, Batman Forever…I literally just look back at the Calendar Section of the LA Times in my memory because I used to look at the movie showtimes every morning to see when and where everything was playing because I thought it was interesting. I knew a movie was huge when it was showing every half hour, for example.)

 

[2] Like New Moon was 8 reels when it was only like 2 hours and 10 minutes long. Reel 5 was so short I missed the splice when I was putting the movie back in its canisters.

[3] It was Dolby Digital 3D, with glasses that used actual glass instead of flimsy plastic like Real-D. The first movie we showed was Up, and I can remember being blown away by the amount of depth and height given to some of the aerial sequences in the film.

[4] Like for example: where a piece of the film went through a roller wrong, or someone touched a piece of the film wrong or the heads and tails of the reels are in shambles because it was a used print to begin with.

[5] Ostensibly. I don’t know how many were temporary setups or projector rentals or who knows what.

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