Jack Knowles investigates cinema in 70mm film and its recent renaissance.
I first encountered 70mm in the IFI (Irish Film Institute) for a special screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s classic The Master. When I bought tickets for the film I noticed they said “In 70mm” on them but I thought nothing of it. Then I saw the film.
It was pure cinema.
I was amazed. Not just by the film (you should definitely watch it), but by how beautiful it looked. This was due to many elements but the key ingredient for me was the 70mm film it was shot on. Most memorable for me is a shot of the sea in the film and how it looked stunning. The shot had a highly detailed deep blue with the almost noisy static look that gives off vibrations and makes the film seems alive. It was pure cinema.
Some of the greatest and most beloved films have been shot on 70mm. 2001: a Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Sound of Music to name just a few. The 70mm adds an epic element to these films and makes them into a visual feast. With 70mm film, filmmakers can go bigger, utilizing the extra room in the frame. Without it, we wouldn’t have some of the most stunning long, drawn out, landscape shots from Lawrence of Arabia.
70mm also gives viewers incredibly crisp, highly detailed images that have brighter colours. This is why the ocean scene in The Master is so crisp and detailed and wouldn’t be the same if shot on anything else. Combining these two major advantages of the wider frame and more detailed imagery gives a rare cinematic spectacle.
So, what exactly is 70mm film? It’s a film format used to shoot video or photography. Film, or celluloid film, is that rolled up cylinder of pictures you see in an old camera that’s usually referred to as a roll. It captures the image by being exposed to light.
Before the digital age, all movies were shot on film cameras. The standard size of the film stock would be 35mm, representative of its width, so 70mm is double this. When filmmakers use this bigger size, the film is shot on 65mm with 5mm for magnetic strips of sound and then the size is blown up to 70mm for projection.
The aspect ratio is also different with 70mm. The aspect ratio of an image is the relationship between width and height. Commonly expressed in two or three numbers. The TV standard is 16.9. The standard for cinema is 2.35:1 whereas 70mm is 2.20:1 which gives it a widescreen look.
In 1928 Fox developed a 70mm format called Grandeur. Film theatres refused to install the necessary projectors as they were still equipping their theatres for sound. Fox had dropped Grandeur by the 1930s. Next, there was Cinerama in 1952. This was a system that employed three 35mm projectors simultaneously to project a film. This was projected onto a larger deep cut, curved screen.
Producer Mike Todd saw faults with this, especially the need for three projectors. Todd teamed up with American Optical Company and asked for a single projector. The first film that utilized the 70mm was Oklahoma!, and it was a hit.
Later came Panavision with their Super Panavision 70 and Ultra Panavision 70 cameras. However, due to the high cost and expensive projecting system needed for 70mm, it never truly caught on and it declined in the 1970s.
However, in recent years there has been a sort of revival of 70mm film. Films like the Master, the Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino and more recently Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Dunkirk. These directors swear by 70mm and believe it is the best way to capture film. These directors have actually been in touch with each other to support the effort in keeping this format alive and how best to use it.
These Directors swear by 70mm and feel it is the best way to capture film.
Selected scenes in Star Wars: the Force Awakens were also shot in 70mm. The fact that 70mm Disney films and Dunkirk are such huge critical and box office successes may pave the way for more films of this format.
Unfortunately, we’re only likely to see this in bigger productions as working with 70mm is more expensive. As well as costing more to use 70mm, the film stock itself is costly to transport and maintain. However, we have seen an increase in movies that weren’t shot on 70mm but are blown up to be shown in the format on the big screen.
Sadly, Ireland only has one operational 70mm projector. Its home is at the IFI in Temple Bar. It recently screened Dunkirk in 70mm and many said it was the best cinematic experience of the year. It was also a massive success for the cinema.
While 70mm may never come back fully it seems likely it will stay around for awhile. True film connoisseurs appreciate the mastery of 70mm films and all film-lovers enjoy the superior experience. It’s cinema in its truest form and an experience not to be missed.