The comeback of motion picture film will get its biggest boost yet with the Ultra Panavision 70 release of celluloid defender Quentin Tarantino’s post-Civil War Western "The Hateful Eight."
Shot on 65mm film with classic Panavision lenses in the widest aspect ratio of 2.76:1, this marks the first anamorphic 70mm theatrical release in nearly 50 years. The two-week roadshow engagement—they’re aiming for 100 theaters with the Cinerama Dome in contention for LA, of course—would be the best holiday gift for cinephiles.
"The Hateful Eight" also pits three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson ("Hugo," "The Aviator," "JFK") in a shoot-out with Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, who’s going for a third Oscar in a row for his own frozen wilderness adventure, "The Revenant," from "Birdman" director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. (Both films are racing to the editorial finish line for a Christmas Day release.)
Richardson proclaimed that Ultra Panavision 70 more than reinforces the notion that film can coexist with digital: it provides such unparalleled scope, resolution and beauty that everyone should be using it. "When we saw Sam Jackson in a closeup — or anyone — it just aided the skin. It’s remarkable. We never used diffusion, the only filters we ever did were outside. It was stunning."
Feeding off "Stagecoach," "The Desperate Hours" and "And Then There Were None," Tarantino’s ninth film throws eight travelers together a decade after the Civil War in Wyoming. But a bitter snowstorm prevents them from getting to Red Rock, where bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) intends to bring feral-like fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to justice. The ensemble also includes Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern.
According to Dern, Tarantino "has the greatest attention to detail on a set as any director who ever lived, his only rival would be Luchino Visconti. He creates an atmosphere for all of us not to do our greatest work necessarily, but to get better."
The last Ultra Panavision 70 release was "Khartoum" (1966), the biopic with Charlton Heston as British Gen. Charles Gordon. The list also includes "Ben-Hur," "Mutiny on the Bounty," "It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "The Fall of the Roman Empire," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and "The Battle of the Bulge."
In fact, Panavision took Tarantino into a screening room and surprised him with the chariot race from "Ben-Hur," starting with the sides at the normal width and then spread out to expose the full frame — and the film nerd was totally hooked on Ultra Panavision 70.
But this all began accidentally: "We went in thinking we were going to shoot standard format for 65mm and one day I was with Gregor Tavenner, my first camera assistant, and Dan Sasaki [Panavision VP of optical engineering] was showing us standard Panavision lenses for 65mm and while looking at them, I slipped behind the curtain and saw this shelf filled with odd-shaped lenses [triangular with prisms]. They were Ultra Panavision lenses," Richardson said.
Sasaki put the lenses up on the projector and Richardson was hooked. Even before testing the lenses, Panavision threw all its weight behind the project, and Kodak and the FotoKem lab were on board as well.
First came testing by Richardson in freezing temperatures while scouting locations in Telluride, Colorado that would benefit them visually, with great mountain vistas. Panavision had to reconfigure and apply new coatings to 19 lenses for focus-pulling. Panavision also made a 2,000-foot magazine for the film cameras to accommodate Tarantino’s penchant for long takes. The camera’s limit fell just under that length, yet this was still considerably longer than the normal 1,000-ft. magazine could handle.
The team brought a very analogue approach to shooting in Telluride (with few blizzards and rare overcast days) and onstage at LA’s Red Studios, where they lowered the temperature to 30 degrees. They screened dailies in 70mm, with no digital intermediate, and the film is being color-timed photochemically, the old-school way, by FotoKem.
Theaters will be retrofitted with anamorphic lenses for 70mm projectors. Yes, there will be a digital release from TWC on January 8, 2016, which will continue to show the film in 70mm as well.
With two cameras at his disposal, and Tarantino operating a couple of shots himself, Richardson had to get used to certain anomalies: slight color alterations when shooting actors’ faces after switching lenses — ranging from the triangular ones that provide a bronze look to more user-friendly cylindrical shapes — or odd flaring caused by light bouncing indirectly off the prism when shooting two characters in front of a fireplace.
"The most complex thing for me was that the set was primarily this one building where they arrive in this stagecoach," Richardson explained. "But if you shoot a medium shot with the lenses, anywhere you’re seeing two-thirds or more of the room, depending on where the character is, because it’s such a wide frame. You’re lighting the entire set and other characters are constantly in your frame. Quentin first looked at ‘Mad, Mad World’. Part of what happened in that film is that you had a medium shot with all the characters in the frame. It was an adjustment for all of us."
Indoors were lit warm and exteriors cool. Sasaki also altered the lenses for sharpness in closer shots (within three feet). "Quentin likes to shoot a lot of masters because his films are dialogue-driven. We worked with all primes. He accepted what 65mm allowed him. There are more characters in the frame — at least four in one shot — and he could see the quality of the image and quick adjustments could be made for makeup and hair [as a result of the 70mm dailies]. We all knew we had limitations and there would be breakdowns with the 65mm camera because they’re not used often, but overall there very few problems with the equipment," Richardson said.
Because of the film’s claustrophobic, lowly lit nature, however, the use of Ultra Panavision was actually counter-intuitive. But Tarantino wasn’t about to turn down this rare historical opportunity. In a clever game of hide-and-seek, he used the frame to deliberately show more or less when he wanted to obscure crucial character information.
"There’s a great deal of interior landscape available and the actors loved it. Also, I think they enjoyed the visual feast that was given to them in terms of their own faces," said Richardson, who admitted, though, that throwback photochemical color timing has been frightening.
"I’d become reliant on a digital intermediate for fixing things in post and you can let certain things go. For example, you realize that the backgrounds are blown out but you don’t want to take the time to put a hard gel up. You know you can rescue that with the window and tracking, or if your weather doesn’t quite match, it’s easier to work a look between sunny and overcast.
"In this particular case, there was no fixing: what you shoot is what you get. You’re not going in to fix a wall if you didn’t put enough light on it; if you’re overexposed on that side with sun, you’re gonna have sun. There’s nothing you can do. So Quentin worked very hard in collaboration in trying to make sure the weather conditions were what he wanted for sequences. And he helped me a great deal in that way. Ordinarily, he says to me, ‘If they’re looking at your work, they’re not listening to my words.’ He’s going to go for the best performance regardless of the condition of the light."
But not when it came to this gorgeous look. And this is just the beginning, as Gareth Edwards’ "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is also reportedly being shot with Ultra Panavision 70 lenses.