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‘Inherent Vice’ Will Screen in 70mm in Select Theaters. But is Bigger Always Better?

'Inherent Vice' Will Screen in 70mm in Select Theaters. But is Bigger Always Better?

“Bigger is better.” Or at least that’s how Thomas Hauerslev, chief editor of the passionately dedicated compendium website, responded when I asked him to describe the appeal of large-format filmmaking. “70mm has a very large negative area.  Nearly 3.5 times as much compared to 35mm film… 70mm film is much sharper, which gives a wonderful illusion of reality.”

READ MORE: Paul Thomas Anderson Explains Why 35mm Film Should Stay ‘Alive’ 

My first experience with 70mm was seeing David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles over a decade ago, and I can say without hyperbole that it was a glorious, life-changing experience. I had been going to the movies my whole life, but now it felt like I had finally seen a movie. And that played no small part in my pursuing a career as a projectionist.

Of course, “Lawrence of Arabia” was shot on 70mm (technically 65, as the extra five millimeters in width is accounted for by the space necessary to fit the soundtrack on the final print) and designed to be shown via the same medium. But what about movies that are shot on smaller formats, usually 35mm, and then blown up to 70 for exhibition? When I started hearing rumors that auteur filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s new comedic detective caper “Inherent Vice” would be going through this process, I couldn’t help but wonder why.  In my head it didn’t make sense, like copying a DVD to a Blu-ray. You aren’t going to gain any resolution; it’s not possible. So what is to be gained in transferring an existing, perfectly viable 35mm image to a larger, non-native format? And how did this tradition get its start?

Interestingly enough, the impetus was not a visual one, but aural. “The big advantage was offering 6-channel stereophonic sound,” said John Sittig, former head of projection for Pacific Theatres. “This is the very reason that 70mm blow-ups were made beginning in 1963 [with “The Cardinal”] and going into the 1990s [with the last regular first-run release being James Cameron’s “Titanic” in the winter of 1997]. Until the introduction of Dolby optical stereo Type A in 1974, most theatres played [35mm] film in monaural single channel sound.”

READ MORE: Indie Theaters Scramble to Screen “Interstellar” on 35mm and 70mm

As you might guess, it has always been easier and cheaper to shoot on 35, but blowing up to 70 for limited, roadshow-style releases did offer its advantages beyond the upgrade in audio format. Hauerslev said that 70mm also provided “much more light on the screen, vastly better colors, and improved sharpness,” in addition to “less visible scratches and dust because the film needs less magnification on the screen compared to 35mm film” and “a very steady image [that] fools the human brain to think this is a ‘window to the world’ and not a movie screen.”

So what put an end to 70mm blow-up prints as a go-to source of big-event moviegoing? According to Sittig, the same thing that brought about its initial popularity: sound. “‘Star Wars’ in 1977 really put Dolby stereo on the map, but it was the introduction of Dolby Digital [in 1992 with ‘Batman Returns’], DTS [‘Jurassic Park,’ 1993], and Sony SDDS [‘Last Action Hero,’ also 1993] with 5.1 stereo that put an end to 70mm blow-ups. Ron Howard photographed “Far and Away” in 70mm in the ’90s and there was an occasional limited 70mm blow-up like “Titanic,” but very infrequently. Even “Interstellar” [shot both on 35mm and the horizontal-running ultra-high-resolution 70mm IMAX format] is working with only ten 70mm prints. Today very few theatres are equipped with 70mm projectors and have even fewer qualified projectionists to run them.”

Paul Thomas Anderson is in a very small group of A-list filmmakers (including the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan) who are currently digging in their heels in the tug-of-war battle against the digital revolution in movie production and distribution. His 2012 drama “The Master” was shot and released on 70mm film in the midst of an era when it seems like most directors and studios are all too willing to embrace a new, more convenient technology, and immediately abandon what they perceive as the obsolete and cumbersome old.

But PTA (as he’s known to his fans) and his ilk also seem to get a visceral thrill out of going against the grain, even when it comes to utilizing the tools of filmmaking’s past. “The Master” was shot in a 1.85:1 (or “flat”) aspect ratio, which seems antithetical to the very idea of shooting on 70mm, the natural dimensions of which are a much wider 2.21:1. Anderson seemingly chose to shoot on a large format for the tremendous gain in resolution, but then opted to compose his frame by essentially cropping both sides of the image. This counterintuitive (and consequently, unique) practice is so rare that the only other example I could find was “Play Time,” a 1967 film by the acclaimed French director Jacques Tati, which was shot on 70 at an aspect ratio of 1.70:1.
Whatever his intent, Paul Thomas Anderson apparently remains dedicated to prolonging the death throes of one of the 20th century’s most popular and beloved forms of media.  And hopefully, with the coming release of “Inherent Vice” on 70mm, as with “Interstellar,” audiences will have an opportunity to reclaim and re-experience the feel of what Thomas Hauerslev refers to as “the Rolls Royce format of Cinema… it has to be seen to be understood.”
A thorough list of all 70mm blow-up prints from 1963 to the present is available at “Inherent Vice” will be released on 70mm in select theaters beginning Friday, December 12th.

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Jeff Nielson

I’m not sure that a still of a messy guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth is what most people would want to see on a huge 70MM screen. Were there no big outdoor scenes in the same movie?


Excellent article, but I’d like to make a few points, if I may.

The concept of blowing up 35mm movies to 70mm was not just about the sound. Back when roadshow films were popular in the ’60s, blowing up 35mm films was offered as cheaper alternative to shooting in 65mm. A director or producer could still decide to have a film released in select markets in the 70mm format, adding prestige to their film.

"The Cardinal," and "Dr. Zhivago," for example, were seen as roadshow films to be played in select luxury theaters in 70mm. By optically blowing up a film to 70mm, in many cases, a film could technically maintain its picture quality as shot by the cinematographer. The bigger and brighter 70mm picture usually offered a much better visual presentation than 35mm.

By the 1970s and the introduction of 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo on "Logan’s Run" and "A Star is Born," indeed sound was considered an important part of 70mm prints. "Star Wars" definitely put the concept of 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo on the map. But the idea of 70mm blow-ups added a sense of seeing these films as an event.

With better lenses, film stock and film processing during the 1970s and 1980s, 70mm blow-up prints could look exceptional. "Star Wars," "The Black Hole," "Terminator 2: Judgement Day," and "Titanic" all looked excellent, even from 35mm film stock. It should also be taken into account how the film was shot in the first place. A "healthy negative" results in better prints, regardless of format.

By the 2000s, some film originally shot in 65mm received revival 70mm prints. However, from my experience, those recent revivals don’t look very good. Both "Lawrence of Arabia" and "2001" look fantastic in 70mm. Oddly enough, the recent 70mm prints of these classics are extremely grainy and unrefined. 70mm demands excellent processing in the lab to bring out its superiority over 35mm and digital presentation.

I’m glad that filmmakers like Nolan, Tarantino, Abrams and PTA are still using film, and in some cases, using 65mm or 70mm prints for their films. Film still has life to it with its texture and warmth. It’s not much different than hearing analog vinyl records compared to digital sound. There is a difference in how we hear the music. Film is very similar. Our eyes and minds respond differently to film as opposed to digital cinema.

Digital cinema and film *can* coexist. This whole movement in recent years, from companies in the business of digital cinema stating that film is dead, is misguided. It’s like telling drivers that they can only drive electric cars from now on because fossil fuel is supposedly dead. Why not have a choice in how filmmakers shoot and show their films, and why not allow audiences choose how they see movies?

As "Interstellar," in IMAX and 70mm, has shown Hollywood, audiences will seek out superior presentation and the studio will still make a lot of money.

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