Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Guide To 70mm: Part One

Ever since we first heard that PTA would be shooting “The Master” (at least partially) in 70mm, we’ve gotten a lot of questions on what exactly that means for the film. We spoke to filmmaker Craig Whitney (who spent some time on set of Terrence Malick's“The Tree Of Life,” portions of which were filmed in 70mm) to get all the answers you might need.

There have been films made in 70mm since the late 1890s. The Henley Regatta (the rowing race that was depicted in “The Social Network”) was filmed in 70mm around 1895. However, 70mm didn't come into widespread use until the 1950s when television began to compete with film for a share of the entertainment market. This was one of a number of strategies that producers tried to give moviegoers an experience that they couldn't possible hope to have in front of a television screen. Some of these strategies, like 3D or widescreen aspect ratio, are still with us today others, like “The Tingler” or Smell-O-Vision, were not as successful (although there was a very interesting Smell-O-Vision version of Terrence Malick's “The New World” released a few years ago).

Films in 70mm survived for about 10-15 years after the mid-fifties, but fell out of favor by the late sixties due to the prohibitive costs of filming in the format. Given that most films shot in 70mm were only projected a few times in the original format before being distributed in a 35mm reduction print, it didn't make a great deal of sense to waste that much money on the camera negative. Additionally, the 70mm format favored the kind of high production value films that Hollywood began making in the mid-fifties to combat the growing popularity of television. After the failure of big ticket films like “Hello, Dolly!” and “Star!” in the late sixties, and the success of New Hollywood films like “Easy Rider,” studios began to favor a strategy in which they funded a greater number of smaller budget pictures rather than the multimillion dollar spectacles of the preceding decade, which obviously precluded the use of 70mm. Some special effects films from the late 1970s used some 70mm sequences in order to minimize film grain in effects-heavy shots, but after the last 70mm productions were completed in 1970, the format was not used again until the 1990s, and has only been used a handful of times in the last 40 years.

Over the last several years, large format film stocks have become a little more commonplace, albeit in limited use. Christopher Nolan shot several scenes from “The Dark Knight” and an even greater portion of “The Dark Knight Rises” in the IMAX format, and several other recent or upcoming feature films are also shooting a portion of the movie in IMAX. However, the increasing use of the IMAX format has not brought about much of a renewed interest in 70mm. Terrence Malick shot a portion of “The New World” in 70mm, but the last feature film to be shot entirely in 70mm was Kenneth Branagh's “Hamlet” in 1996.

As in the 1960s, the primary reasons for this are economic. As with 3D, the IMAX format has been a very lucrative way to increase ticket sales for big budget, high spectacle pictures such as the rebooted Batman franchise. The IMAX format, rather than 70mm, has been used to take advantage of this trend in part because of the superior image quality of IMAX over 70mm, and in part because there are already hundreds of "true" IMAX projectors throughout the country that could be used to screen these films.

A note on IMAX vs. 70mm: It is technically true that both IMAX and the 70mm format used in the 1960s are shot on 70mm wide film; however, these are two very different formats, and I think the difference is worth emphasizing, because Anderson shot "The Master" on a very different film stock than what, for example, Christopher Nolan used on “The Dark Night Rises.” The IMAX format uses a 15 perforation vertical image, meaning that the image is recorded onto the film at a 90 degree tilt, so that the left side of the screen appears at the bottom of the film frame. This gives you two advantages: because of the layout of the image on the film stock, the audio signal that is printed onto the film takes does not take up as much film space as it does with a 70mm stock (which actually records a 65mm image, with the remaining 5mm used for audio). As a result, the size of your frame is significantly larger than it would be with either a 5 perf or 8 perf 70mm stock [source].

As we have seen from the film cells that Anderson released a few weeks ago from “The Master,” the film was shot in a 5 perf 70mm stock. While this is not going to give you the same visual quality as the IMAX format, I am sure that Anderson has no intention of showing the film on IMAX screens, so the additional resolution would mostly disappear when projected in 35mm or 4K digital projectors onto normal movie screens. Because of the way in which the image is recorded vertically onto the film, IMAX cameras are extremely bulky, so it's is oftentimes extremely impractical to employ them for more than a few isolated shots. I also have to think that Anderson was attracted to the nostalgic appeal of shooting in 70mm as well.

Read Part Two

Please check out more information on Craig's films "Harvest Home" and "The Garden And The Wilderness" on his site Better Archangel.

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