70mm? IMAX? DCP? How Format Affected Our Theatrical Experiences With Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’

70mm? IMAX? DCP? How Format Affected Our Theatrical Experiences With Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar'
70mm? IMAX? DCP? How Format Affected Our Theatrical Experiences With Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar'

A little under 90 years ago, conversations were probably had by the editors of The Playlist Gazette & Cinematograph Pamphlet (then a thrupenny half-sheet available from your local grime-faced newsboy) about which of us was gonna travel all the way to the Big City to see that moving picture “The Jazz Singer” with synchronized sound, and which of us would stay in the sticks and watch the silent, cue-card version. Similar conversations have been going on this week, as suddenly we’ve all become format and exhibition experts while choosing how we wish to consume our RDA of Christopher Nolan, in the form of his latest grandly ambitious epic, “Interstellar” (our controversial review is here).

The comparison of shooting on film with the advent of sound is pretty daft on the surface, but in this case, it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem: unlike those new-fangled sync-sound jockeys of 1927, Nolan is certainly embracing old-school technology by using film in a digital age. But by shooting in such a grandiose format as IMAX, he is also encouraging us into IMAX theaters, which are essentially the most cutting edge, most futuristic version, if you will, of large-scale projection and exhibition currently available. It’s a mix of old and new that marks out “Interstellar” —it may be set in the future, but the Earth Nolan envisages feels old and exhausted; he may be talking about currently impossible intergalactic space travel and technology that exists as but a glint in the eye of even the most future-facing of our theoretical physicists, but Nolan’s real story is based around something as utterly ancient and primal as a parent’s love for a child.

But the choice that faces us right now is a lot more complex than “which movie palace is wired for sound, yo?” There are in fact six theatrical formats in which you can see “Interstellar” (a number which will increase exponentially once there is a DVD version and a director’s cut and a TV edit and panned-and-scanned pirate copy for exclusive use of the South American long-distance in-bus entertainment industry). Theatrically, in probably roughly descending order of “how much Christopher Nolan would approve,” the film is available in 70mm IMAX, 70mm film, Digital (standard) IMAX, 35mm film, 4k Digital and 2k Digital, and since its inception (!) has foregrounded the debate over format. Widely regarded as either a shot in the arm for the dwindling film lobby or a last gasp as soon as Nolan, one of the most successful and respected auteurs at work in the blockbuster world today, announced his intention to shoot on film, and not mere 35mm but significant chunks in 70mm IMAX, format became half the discussion around “Interstellar.”

And so we decided to take a closer look at that debate, asking a selection of our contributors and few friends of the blog to contribute their experiences of “Interstellar,” not, as we usually do, from a thematic standpoint, but from a more technical, exhibition-related point of view. We saw it across a variety of formats (though no one yet has watched it in 4k or 2k digi projection) and had a variety of issues with both sound and picture quality, echoing many reports that came from pre-release screenings. Ultimately, we’re wondering whether Nolan’s adherence as such helps or harms the cause of preserving film as a viable format, and furthermore if it helps or hinders one’s enjoyment of the movie. Here’s what a few of us thought.

Drew Taylor (70mm IMAX)
I have now seen “Interstellar” twice: the first was at the big pre-junket screening at the TCL Chinese Theatre (the former Mann’s Chinese Theatre) in Hollywood, and again at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in New York (which, it should be noted, is the second largest IMAX screen in the world, after Sydney). Both were presented in lavish 70mm IMAX format, and both were hindered by slight, if noticeable, problems. The first problem, articulated by a friend who accompanied me to the New York screening, was with skin tones in the first hour. Oftentimes, Matthew McConaughey‘s skin would take on a rusty orange tone, and scenes would too frequently be cloaked in shadow to the point of not being able to discern what precisely was going on (this could have been an aesthetic choice; it’s unclear if those sequences become more “natural” looking with digital projections or in 35mm). And the sound was muffled a couple of times; there are still lines that I can’t make out. Although considering the movie is primarily an experience defined by both the jaw-dropping visuals and the equally grand Hans Zimmer score (those organs!), I didn’t feel like I was exactly missing out on anything.

More troublesome than any of the perceived technical irregularities, though, is Nolan’s use of IMAX. When he shot “The Dark Knight,” there were whole chunks of the movie that were presented in IMAX. Whenever there was a sequence that crested the man-made heights of Gotham, then that would be in IMAX. Ditto the centerpiece chase sequence that climaxed with the “truck flip,” which quickly became one of the glories of the IMAX format (soon to be eclipsed by the Dubai sequence in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” but hey, it had a good run). Those were whole sections of movies, captured with the technology and projected flawlessly. In “Interstellar” (and even more glaringly in “The Dark Knight Rises“), there was a lot of cutting back-and-forth between IMAX and 35mm, which makes for an awkward viewing experience on the big screen. In a way, that affected the experience more than the muffled sound or possibly discolored scenes. Maybe next time Nolan will just cut out the middleman and shoot the whole thing in IMAX. Now that would be glorious.

Erik McClanahan (Digital IMAX)
I loved the film —it’s easily the director’s most affecting, emotional work yet: I’ve never cried at a Nolan film until “Interstellar.” I will admit to some pretty glaring technical issues regarding my experience at a “Lie-MAX” theater: the sound mix was fucked. As great as it was to see it and hear it LOUD, a good amount of dialogue was drowned out by Zimmer’s rumbling score. Also, the image quality wasn’t crisp. With my experience as a projectionist (I’ve worked with film and digital for more than four years now), I believe it was a simple fix. Either the ‘Z’ screen (used for 3d movies) was still in front of this projector (making the picture a little on the dark side and giving it a fuzzy, semi-distorted appearance) or the projector bulbs were older —both issues that could’ve been easily taken care of. This is a common problem at multiplexes, where there aren’t really any projectionists on staff who even know basic maintenance and troubleshooting for easy fixes. But that’s a rant for another time.

Either way, the power of the film, the way it immersed me in its world and Nolan’s vision, was so strong and in the end overcame any issues I had with its presentation. I’ve heard others say that DCP presentation are mixed poorly compared to the 35mm and 70mm “true IMAX” screenings, and I can’t wait to see “Interstellar” in those formats before its theatrical run is over. Film, if nothing else, is still incomparable for rendering true blacks on screen. As great as DCP is (and getting better), it can’t quite yet achieve the proper facsimile. Film is still the go-to format for really dark movies that rely on darkness as a visual style. Michael Mann can praise digital camera’s ability to shoot with low-light in darkness, but that’s a different effect he’s going for. For a movie set in space, film is still the way to go to immerse the viewer in a more tactile, truly dark visual experience. 

Oktay Ege Kozak (Digital IMAX)

Erik McClanahan and I were at the same Portland screening, and I unfortunately have to agree with pretty much everything he wrote. I highly doubt that the actual sound mix of “Interstellar” has these issues, but there was definitely something that got lost in translation during the initial press screenings, a hiccup that I hope will not be repeated during the theatrical run. I have to be honest and confess that I did not initially notice any visual problems, perhaps since I’m not a projectionist. But reading Erik’s criticism about the way “Interstellar” was projected makes a lot of sense in hindsight.

As far as the audio is concerned, there were more than a handful of occasions where the score and/or sfx completely drowned out the dialogue. It didn’t feel like I missed enough to ruin my experience, but it was definitely noticeable. However, I was able to look at the bright side and realize that during subsequent viewings, any inaudible dialogue will probably sound clearer, since I was certain from pretty much minute one that I was watching something special, a complex and beautiful modern masterpiece that I was surely going to visit again. However, for the general public who usually see movies only once, it will be a major problem if the sound problems persist during the theatrical run.

Kevin Jagernauth (70mm IMAX)

Not to humblebrag, but I had the unique pleasure of seeing Nolan’s “Interstellar” in a press-only screening in the excellent, real-deal IMAX theater inside the Cineplex Banque Scotia in Montreal. I have seen both IMAX and non-IMAX films in that cinema without any complaints, in addition to Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” and I had the same problem-free experience with “Interstellar.” But that’s not to say it was a flawless viewing.

But first, I’d like to address both the sound and vision issues some have been experiencing, and perhaps suggest part of it is due to an aesthetic choice made by Nolan. The film’s yellow/brown grime, which is particularly dark in the interior farmhouse scenes, seem to logically follow what a world covered in dust might look like. Whether it was too dark might be subjective, though if Nolan was already dialing down the brightness a bit only to have a theater projectionist not utilizing the optimum settings, I could see where a problem could arise. As for the sound mix, I heard everything fine, and figured the bombastic moments of sound design and score, and the smash cuts to silence in space, were very obvious directorial choices. But again, if any of that careful mix isn’t played back at the specific requirements from the booth, it’s clear there might be problems.

The bigger conversation is probably about whether or not something on 70mm is a more “pure” cinematic experience than something off a hard drive. It’s difficult to say. But prints deteriorate quickly, and so I wondered about the very noticeable bit of dirt or print damage floating down McConaughey’s forehead in one particular close up, and how that might worsen on subsequent screenings with the public who don’t have the advantage of sitting with press in a “pristine” viewing. And there were other moments where debris and other elements were noticeable on screen. Was it egregious? No. But certainly no one seeing a DCP in a regular theater would see it.

But it’s a small price to pay for the IMAX footage which is undeniably impressive and pretty much the must-see reason to buy a ticket to “Interstellar,” even if you don’t wholly love the movie. Nolan promised a spectacle and delivered one, without a doubt. That said, will I really have missed anything if I had just seen “Interstellar” in a regular theater? I wonder. At the end of the day, I’m in the camp that great storytelling always trumps technical achievements, so I’ll be waiting to see “Interstellar” again, most likely at home, and seeing how I feel about the movie after watching it on my boring, standard television.

Charlie Schmidlin (70mm IMAX)

I attended a 70mm IMAX showing at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, where an usher came out beforehand and explained that Nolan quality-checked the picture and sound quality in the very same theatre. Cue the impressed audience “ooh,” but that turned to confusion once the lights dimmed and an Earth-bound first act of underlit action, out-of-focus shots, and an undercurrent of bass that drowned out dialogue began to unfold. There was definitely operator error —Mackenzie Foy‘s incredible performance provoked some misty-eyed blurriness in the first forty minutes— but this time around Nolan’s presentation has become just as layered as his narrative, for better and worse.

Nicholas Laskin (35mm)
I saw a 35mm print of “Interstellar” —a decision that made all the difference in the world. Nolan, who has never been one to emote openly, gives the film a kick of old-fashioned sentimentality in its later passages but I found it primarily a visceral audio-visual experience, one that plays like good music. Nolan’s collaborations with longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister were technically precise but often cold. In spite of his usual chilly affectations, this was decidedly not the case with “Interstellar”: Working for the first time with “Her” cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan gives even the scenes set in outer space a palpable, ineffably real feeling while the film’s early, earthbound passages transport the audience to the simpler bygone era of our collective moviegoing past. The film also boasts superlative sound design, from the glacial silence of space to the rousing, yet subdued notes of Zimmer’s typically excellent score. The theatre where I saw the film boasted both an excellent picture quality and the sound design was some of the best I’ve ever experienced in a theatre —I can’t wait to see this thing in IMAX! 

In 35mm, the dirt and dust that has caked Nolan’s future version of our world practically floats off the screen: you want to reach out and grab it. There’s a gorgeous grain to these early, mud-caked scenes of Americana and images of normal, everyday people going about their lives possessed as much awe as a later shot of a tidal wave the size of a mountain. This was also the first time I believed that Nolan —a filmmaker who has frequently been accused of spatial incoherence, particularly in staging fight scenes— was able to ground his peerless sense of scale in human drama; I found the sum of the experience to be akin to a vintage Spielberg flick (Spielberg was obviously attached to direct the film at one point). “Interstellar” is proudly, almost defiantly sincere and old-school, making film the ideal format in which to see it: even when we’re on the farthest reaches of some distant planet, you never feel as though you’re simply watching actors in front of a green screen. Digital can feel distant: gorgeous, but remote. “Interstellar,” especially during its many set pieces, has a you-are-there immediacy that I found to be a direct result of Nolan’s choice to project the film in a time-tested, tried-and-true format.

I don’t believe “Interstellar” is a game-changing masterpiece. I found the plot-twist involving Michael Caine’s character that occurs two-thirds of the way disnigenuous, and Anne Hathaway is still acting with a capital A. However, these are narrative concerns (in Caine’s case, it starts with the screenplay) and probably would remain if I saw the film in digital. Like other recent movies that have been shot on film (“Inherent Vice,” which I recently caught at AFI Fest, also comes to mind) “Interstellar” is a trip back to a simpler time: to dust off an old cliché, parts of it almost make you feel like a kid again. I really dug Nolan’s grand, goofy and moving space opera, and I would encourage as many people as possible to see it projected in either 35mm or 70mm. 

Cain Rodriguez (70mm IMAX & 35mm)

I’ve previously seen Nolans films on the big screen in a mix of 35mm, IMAX (both 70mm & digital), and DCP prints in a variety of different theaters. For “Interstellar,” I went to the Cinemark 17 in Dallas, one of only three IMAX theaters in Texas equipped to project in the true 70mm IMAX, to see the film for the first time. The print was very clean —my last experience with 70mm IMAX was “The Dark Knight Rises” at AMC Universal Citywalk Stadium 19 in LA, where a stray hair or two ended up on the print on opening day— I may have noticed some slight jitter in the image during the first couple of reels, but it was either stabilized as the film went on or I just grew accustomed to it.

At first blush, the sound in the theatre didn’t seem too loud but the subwoofers were in full force by the time the liftoff occurred. I know some people have had trouble hearing Coop’s exchange with TARS, but I was able to fully understand what they were saying. My only issue with understanding dialogue came with Romilly’s bout of motion sickness, but that may be more to do with David Gyasi‘s line delivery than the mix. 70mm IMAX was really worth it to see “Interstellar” with the all-encompassing screen threatening to swallow me whole and the low-rumble of the sound system rumbling my bones. In IMAX, Zimmer’s score alone is a damn near religious experience with his church organs filling the air during the climax, which is where I had some trouble with the clarity of the dialogue but it didn’t trip up my understanding of the plot or my tracking of the characters’ emotional paths.

Also, from my vantage point —fourth row from the front, a few seats to the left of center— the switching between the 2.40:1 and 1.43:1 aspect ratios didn’t bother me since the scope footage filled my horizontal line-of-sight completely and it was easy to forget about the empty spaces above and below the frame. The only problem, if you could call it that, was that it was very easy to get lost in the frame and get dizzy, which I did a bit during the wormhole sequence and during the landing on the water planet.

I was also able to catch a 35mm showing at the Historic Texas Theatre with a friend where I had a little more trouble hearing the dialogue but I think it had more to do with my seating —a few rows from the back— than anything inherently wrong with the print’s soundtrack or mixing. The last 35mm print I saw was for the digitally shot “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but the print of “Interstellar” was strikingly gorgeous —deep dark blacks and pure unclipped whites— and it was easier to just soak in the pure craft of the film. Though was a bit of dirt every once in a while, but it was also one of the cleanest 35mm prints I’ve seen. That being said, I did miss the giant frame of IMAX.

If you’re going to watch “Interstellar,” don’t settle for anything less than IMAX —70mm or digital, whichever one you have access to— because it’s likely the last time you’ll have the opportunity to see Nolan’s vision so unfiltered on the big screen.

Jordan Hoffman (70mm IMAX)

I saw “Interstellar” at a press screening in IMAX 70mm at New York’s Lincoln Square Theater, one of New York’s only two true IMAX theaters (the other one is within the American Museum of Natural History; the other so-called IMAX theaters are pusillanimous “Lie-MAX” screens that are the living embodiment of P.T. Barnum’s maxim. Consumers: know your shit before you choose your theater). I sat dead center and toward the back —perhaps the third or fourth-to-last row. It looked great and it sounded great. I’ve heard that others had trouble making out some of the dialogue, but I had no trouble.

Indeed, I experienced a breathtaking moment with regard to the sound. It was during one of the “silent” sequences. Say what you will about Nolan, but he got the memo that movies with shots in the vacuum of space should have no audio at all. But there was audio. Not from the audience —they were on their best behavior. But I heard something behind me— a quiet but discernible rattle. Dear God, could it be? Yes. The murmuring clackita-clackita-clackita I heard was —gasp!— a film projector. As an erudite snob, I’m used to hearing this at Anthology Film Archives or Museum of the Moving Image, but in, like, a regular theater? With a normal movie for everyday squares?!? It warmed my heart a bit in the cold black void between the stars.

Chris Rosen (70mm IMAX & 35mm)

So I saw it twice: 70mm IMAX at Lincoln Square and 35mm at BAM. I didn’t have trouble with the sound in either venue myself, thought the bass was certainly more pronounced in IMAX (the mix was much more balanced in 35mm). Visually, I think I preferred 35mm to 70mm. It felt appropriately big in 35mm, but not too big. The IMAX was such a spectacle that it sometimes took me out of the viewing experience.

Rodrigo Perez (35mm)

I saw “Interstellar” once in 35mm because the 70mm screening was at an inconvenient time and by then I heard so many reported issues in 70mm I was a bit relieved anyway. But I had some problems nonetheless. The sound mix was murky and I missed key parts of dialogue, but maybe that was just the final mix itself and not any sound issues within the theater. Visually, “Interstellar” was a little bit dark early on which gave it kind of tactile, textured quality. Sometimes it was a bit much, and other were granted a nostalgic feel. I had a hard time with what was artistic intent and what was troubled projection, but you’d think inside Paramount’s own screening room for critics all issues would have been resolved beforehand —or again, maybe this was the way the picture was meant to be seen. I just don’t know. The second half was much stronger visually, no problems, and of course some of those interstellar sequences look breathtaking. But sonically, although appropriately immense, with the roar of spaceships and fuel-charged takeoffs, some dialogue was hard to hear. Overall, I’d give the theatrical experience a B+ which is slightly higher than I’d give the movie itself.

Oliver Lyttelton (35mm)

Having been away for most of the UK press screenings, I caught up with “Interstellar” in glorious 35mm on Saturday night at the Barbican in London. Even as a devotee of the format, it felt like something of a culture shock to be watching a new release projected on actual film these days —it only struck me afterwards at how rare that experience has become. But flecks of dust and even cigarette burns felt like being home, and the warmth of film went a long way in helping to build on the earthy Americana of the early scenes of the picture, and the tactility of the model work that makes up so much of the effects.

Like many others, though, I didn’t have as happy an experience with the sound: Zimmer’s synth-“Phantom Of The Opera” score (that’s not necessarily meant badly) often overwhelmed the dialogue, and if it wasn’t that, it was the seat-shaking sound effects. Given the wealth of other complaints (and those around “The Dark Knight Rises” before this), one has to imagine that this was a deliberate choice by Nolan, who was said in a recent New York Times profile to want volume more than anything from the movie. While it’s fair to say that most of us got the gist of it, I wonder if Nolan perhaps lost the wood for the trees a bit, forgetting than an audience wouldn’t have the same backwards knowledge of the script and the science that he did. As far as the film itself goes, I’m still thinking it over nearly 48 hours later: I found my first viewing both exhilarating and disappointing, but I’m looking forward to a second take to crystallize my thoughts (ideally on IMAX next time around).

Jessica Kiang (Digital IMAX)

Due to the scarcity of IMAX 70mm theaters internationally, I saw “Interstellar” in standard (read: digitally projected) IMAX which on the good side means no potentially jarring aspect ratio changes. But obviously, this is not as Nolan ideally intended and who knows which of my issues were as a result of digital projection and which were to do with watching film projected at a size that, certainly for the 35mm sections, was noticeably grainier and softer than we’ve come to expect from the pin-sharp digital IMAX projection of digitally shot images. Because as much as I liked “Interstellar” (and I really liked it), there were issues that removed me, even just momentarily, from the film.

Pictures: I found the fuzziness of film both a boon and a drawback. In the earthbound scenes, it added a warmth of glowy nostalgia to the near-future dustbowl aesthetic, but I also noticed an occasional murkiness and some suddenly bronzey skin tones. And there were times when looking at a close-up, or macro close-up, which utilized a very shallow depth of field (as with the lines of falling dust, for example, or a few extreme close-up reaction shots), the image felt confusing, almost nonsensical at that size. On an IMAX screen, you’re looking at a few minute motes of dust that are, like, ten feet apart, so it’s hard to actually know what you’re seeing and where you should be looking. It kind of ejected me from the movie because as much as I love the quality of film, these little reminders were like “hey, format!” splinters in the storytelling.

Sound: I thought the mix was pretty great, and assumed the bombastic organ music drowning things out was a deliberate directorial choice, though I could be wrong. A lot of that came from my goodwill toward the film anyway and perhaps a realization early on that no one line of dialogue was ever going to make such grand ambitions totally coherent —you were either going to go along with the wonky science and logic lapses or you weren’t, and no amount of “you knew the deal with relativity when you came in” type speechifying was going to change that. In fact, I kinda wish the sound mix had drowned that line out too. But overall, let me just reiterate: I really enjoyed “Interstellar,” having had my emperor’s clothes moments with Nolan in the past, and I do feel like format, no matter which one, will not be the maker or breaker of the deal for anyone.

Do let us know what you guys thought of your screenings —was film the right choice? Did it impair or enhance your experience? Is Nolan right to make an issue of how the film is exhibited or does he run the risk of making it feel like a raw deal if due to simple geography or economic constraints, you  cannot get to a 70mm IMAX screen? Let us know in the comments.

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