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.
‘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 in70mm.com, 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.”
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.”
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.”
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 http://www.in70mm.com/library/blow_up/year/1994/index.htm. “Inherent Vice” will be released on 70mm in select theaters beginning Friday, December 12th.
READ MORE: What We Learned About Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” at The New York Film Festival