Starting on Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles, followed by four other cities on January 12, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “Phantom Thread” will have special 70mm screenings in select theaters. It’s a rare treat anytime a print gets projected in 2017, while the special 70mm screenings of films like “Hateful 8” and “Dunkirk” have become must-see cinephile events that showcase the incredible detail that comes from working in larger format celluloid.
Anderson’s “The Master” was a perfect example. Since it was shot on 70mm, seeing the vividness of the image projected in 70mm heightened the power of the hallucinatory imagery as Joaquin Phoenix’s wayward soul falls under the spell of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s guru.
However, “Phantom Thread” is a different kind of movie — and its 70mm release will be instructive — even to Anderson’s lighting and camera crew – in terms of seeing what the film looks like in 70mm. Shot in 35mm, it was Anderson’s original intention to shoot the film so that he got a particularly fine grain image that he could easily blow up to 70mm. To get a “clean” or “grainless” image requires a great deal of light, something Anderson quickly realized would be impossible in his small, cramped and antique locations on “Phantom Thread.” Not only were large incandescent lights an impossibility, lighting the locations in general was enormous pain as the restrictions on the historical landmarks prevented him even from being able to control the light coming through the windows into Woodcock’s house (the main location).
More over, as IndieWire reported earlier this week, Anderson eventually reversed course and decided that he wanted the exact opposite – realizing that texture and grain would be what gave his film its unique period feel. The filmmaker, obsessed with making sure the film didn’t have the period polish and beauty of “The Crown,” spent months of prep doing tests figuring out how exactly he would “push” the film stock and pull more grain out of the image in the development process. The entire lighting design revolved around creating a more “dirty” image and often used filters and fill light to cut down the contrast and create less ornate, sculpted-looking photography.
It’s an effective combination that perfectly matches what Anderson was reaching for in “Phantom Thread,” but it’s unprecedent for an intimate drama of this type to be blown up to 70mm. The nearest parallel would be Ed Lachman and Todd Haynes’ personal print of “Carol” – shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm — something that was certainly common in the ’60s through the ’90s in independent film. To that end, it seems all but certain that the 70mm transfer and projection of “Phantom Thread” will heighten the images’ intentional imperfections, but will that also have an impact on Anderson’s intentions with his cinematography?
What’s notable here is the reason Anderson needed to push the stock, similar to what Lachman does when he shoots 35mm, and why today so many filmmakers are now reaching for 16mm: It’s because of how grainless Kodak 35mm stocks have become. In a digital age, the Kodak stock has gotten “too good” – too clean, too grainless – for filmmakers who specifically are reaching for the organic texture of film versus the video sharpness. For these filmmakers, 16mm is an great option to use on an intimate film like “Mother” or “Carol,” but it’s too small a format – lacking detail in wide shots – for a film with scope and landscape like “Mudbound,” which tested 16mm, but went in a different direction. While Anderson’s films have gotten increasingly intimate and smaller in scope, he is also filmmaker who craves detail and depth in his images, so 16mm would likely never be a viable option for him.
What’ll be interesting to see with “Phantom Thread,” is if 35mm blown up to 70mm mirrors to some degree the blow up from 16mm to 35mm, which creates this almost hyper-grain look. Will Anderson have that sharpness of detail, but also get an extra layer of “dirtiness” which is the foundation of the film’s period look? With PTA, two things are certain: He’s obsessed with the texture and quality of his images, and he loves to experiment to find new ways of getting there. The “Phantom Thread” release plan is yet another experiment, and anyone lucky enough to catch a 70mm screening will get to examine the results for themselves.