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Dunkirk and the rebirth of 70mm film

Dunkirk and the rebirth of 70m...
Is Dunkirk signaling the renaissance of 70mm film or is it just a fascinating anomaly?
Is Dunkirk signaling the renaissance of 70mm film or is it just a fascinating anomaly?
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A great rundown of the differences in film formats for Dunkirk
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A great rundown of the differences in film formats for Dunkirk
The giant bulky IMAX cameras were tricky to maneuver on set
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The giant bulky IMAX cameras were tricky to maneuver on set
Nolan's fascination with 70mm IMAX film has grown over the last decade
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Nolan's fascination with 70mm IMAX film has grown over the last decade
The majority of Dunkirk was shot on this large film format
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The majority of Dunkirk was shot on this large film format
Is Dunkirk signaling the renaissance of 70mm film or is it just a fascinating anomaly?
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Is Dunkirk signaling the renaissance of 70mm film or is it just a fascinating anomaly?
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Christopher Nolan's war epic Dunkirk is currently rolling out the widest 70mm release of any film in 25 years. With digital cameras and projectors dominating the film industry Nolan is one of several celluloid purists working in Hollywood today. With Dunkirk he has doubled down on his devotion to celluloid, shooting most of the film not only on film but on large-format IMAX film stock. The resulting feature is being screened in a variety formats around the world, but Nolan has suggested the ideal way to watch his opus is in IMAX theaters on 15/70 IMAX film.

In a world filled with high-definition 8K cameras and LED cinema screens, this bold investment in an obsolete format is exciting but does it work? Is Nolan fetishizing an outdated medium or delivering up a modern spectacle in a new way?

Nolan's fascination with 70mm IMAX film has grown over the last decade
Nolan's fascination with 70mm IMAX film has grown over the last decade

The 70mm story

70mm film has existed since the birth of cinema in the late 19th century. In 1909 Thomas Edison's preferred 35mm gauge film became the agreed international standard, allowing for a uniform nature to production and distribution, but the spectacle of the extra detail a larger format offered still lived on.

In the 1950s 70mm film underwent a resurgence. With theaters beginning to take an attendance hit from the new medium of television, several innovative 70mm formats were developed to deliver audiences wider aspect ratios and better pictures. Films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music and 2001: A Space Odyssey were shot and exhibited to audiences in this large and epic format.

The format slowly fell out of favor over the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The film stock was expensive, the cameras were big and bulky to work with, and the prints were expensive to make and transport.

Apart from the occasional visual spectacle film like Baraka (1992) or Samsara (2011), the format was generally ignored. As the digital roll out of the early 20th century slowly pushed all forms of celluloid film to the fringes of the industry, 70mm had finally become a historical relic, replaced by digital production and projection, a medium that was cheaper and more consistent than unreliable film stock.

The majority of Dunkirk was shot on this large film format
The majority of Dunkirk was shot on this large film format

A rebirth in nostalgia

In 2012 Paul Thomas Anderson rekindled interest in 70mm by shooting his film The Master in the format. The film ultimately received a limited release on 70mm, and while it was a magnificently impressive undertaking it remained resolutely a niche novelty.

Quentin Tarantino then blasted the form back into the zeitgeist in 2015 with his western The Hateful Eight. Filmed entirely on 70mm, Tarantino avoided digital processes throughout much of his post-production and even edited a special cut of the film called the roadshow version. Designed to be screened off 70mm film prints with an overture and intermission, Tarantino modeled The Hateful Eight on classic epic Hollywood experiences from the 1950s and 1960s like Ben-Hur.

In order to exhibit his iconoclastic creation, Tarantino and his distributors, The Weinstein Company, worked to retrofit around 100 cinemas worldwide with 70mm film projectors. The extraordinary effort was a box office hit, or at least it was in the theaters that were screening the 70mm roadshow version. It seemed audiences were responding to this event-style celluloid experience.

Before this 70mm revival tickled Hollywood's nostalgic nerves Christopher Nolan decided to play around with the format in a more modern way. In 2008 his blockbuster Batman sequel The Dark Knight, Nolan began his experiments with IMAX film. The Dark Knight contained four sequences shot with large IMAX cameras on the medium's giant 15/70 film.

IMAX 70mm film is referred to as 15/70 due to the 15 perforations that align with each frame of film. As a comparison, regular 70mm film covers five perforations meaning IMAX 15/70 is essentially 3 times larger than a regular 70mm frame.

Nolan's obsession with this format grew with each of his subsequent films. With the exception of Inception (filmed primary on 35mm stock for aesthetic reasons), Nolan's love affair with IMAX 15/70 film expanded from film to film before culminating in his latest work, Dunkirk.

The giant bulky IMAX cameras were tricky to maneuver on set
The giant bulky IMAX cameras were tricky to maneuver on set

The Dunkirk 15/70 experience

Dunkirk was shot entirely on large-format film with around 75 percent filmed with IMAX cameras, and the remaining shot on 65mm stock. Nolan learned from all his past experiences and in Dunkirk managed to get the unwieldy IMAX cameras into places they had never been before. The giant 52-pound camera was built into the cockpit of an actual Spitfire fight plane, dropped into the water and even hand-held at times, letting Nolan obtain some IMAX images never before recorded on this kind of film stock for a feature film.

Nolan's obsession with IMAX 15/70 film stands apart from the general 70mm purists. His intention isn't to rekindle the nostalgic memory of a lost medium, but rather he is interested in obtaining the highest possible picture quality possible and translating that to a most impactful theatrical experience.

In order to get that maximal experience intrepid viewers will probably have to do some trekking. The film is only screening on 15/70 film in 37 IMAX theaters around the world. A broader 70mm celluloid release is hitting another 100 theaters but that version, while still rich and detailed, omits the screen expansion that IMAX offers.

A great rundown of the differences in film formats for Dunkirk
A great rundown of the differences in film formats for Dunkirk

Twitter user Anton Volkov produced a handy guide to Dunkirk's various screening formats highlighting how much more of the image you will see when viewing the film in 15/70 IMAX.

The 1.43:1 aspect ratio of the IMAX film sucks the viewer into the experience in ways that the tighter digital or 70mm frame simply cannot match. The mammoth screen forces you to look up as German fighter planes barrel down on the Dunkirk beach and the relentless Hans Zimmer score pounds your eardrums through the IMAX sound system.

Nolan has been quoted as calling this IMAX 15/70 experience, "like virtual reality without the goggles" and it's hard to argue with him. After viewing the film in that form it is impossible to deny the immersive quality of the experience.

The 15/70 IMAX version of Dunkirk undeniably offers up one of the most visceral cinematic experiences ever produced.

Is this the future of cinema or has Nolan simply produced an anomaly?

Despite the success of Dunkirk as an experiment it is hard to see the cost of producing this experience being offered to many other filmmakers. Nolan was thrown a blank check by a studio and spent a great deal of money convincing a lot of people to let him produce this passion project. The film ultimately cost upwards of US$150 million to make.

The result is a thrilling success to be sure. A one-of-a-kind experience that one can't imagine being replicated anytime soon. Dunkirk, seen on 15/70 IMAX film is a rare unicorn.

Catch it if you can as marvelous expensive analogue follies like this don't come round often.

7 comments
cody
Nothing about film is "obsolete" or "unreliable". This is poor writing insofar as you did nothing to back up these claims. You're perpetuating a false dichotomy. If you want to write a real article, perhaps you could examine (objectively) why some of the world's greatest filmmakers choose to capture their masterworks to photochemical film instead, when an "easy" and apparently "reliable" alternative exists. Perhaps it is the fact that analog film negatives and prints, properly stored, can last over 100 years with no physical degradation and with almost no upkeep required. A far cry from the cost of digital archiving. Nolan's work, the moment he exposes the film to light, is preserved for generations. Perhaps you could examine and even praise the 100 fold increase in difficulty, and required mastery of craft required to shoot a feature film in this format. Analog photography has been around for hundreds of years; digital is only a few decades old. Tell me again which one is more reliable.
Jimjam
How soon before digital can match it?
Tom Lee Mullins
I saw Dunkirk at the Sunbrealla IMAX in Reading MA. It was a 2 D movie in a 3 D movie. The seats vibrated during the movie. It was an awesome movie. It felt like you were there. I think it is interesting to see behind the scenes of the movie.
JimFox
Cody-- http://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/film.html I think your statement "last over 100 years with no physical degradation and with almost no upkeep required" is highly dubious. Many examples of 'lost' film reels exist where the images are at best almost illegible and at worst totally destroyed.
Quietrunner
I think there are some really good points, and longevity or not, 70MM filming is nearly gone. The article also shows the technical differences that the Imax 70MM frame size does for the film, which could be missed in the hype. My only complaint, and it isn't a technical one, is about The Hateful Eight. Yes, it was an amazing piece of celluloid from a technical aspect, and the cinematography was gorgeous. But dang, that was an evil movie. Purely bad. I'm pretty OK with most films, but Quentin, that was just gross.
christopher
Screen size and projection aspect ratio have nothing whatsoever to do with the stock, or lack thereof. Celluloid is garbage, low-frame-rate, poor-frame-alignment, grainy mess and the only reason it still exists is that good directors are pandered to by film financiers held ransom by their nostalgic senility. If you want to watch wobbly blurred crap, you can post-process that mess in after you've mastered production in any decent modern digital format, so the 0.0001% of nostalgic viewers who want to see that can go to their own special viewing, and the rest of us can enjoy the uncompromised story. Although come to think of it - the fact we're even talking about this is probably the point: social PR is king; so long as they do anything newsworthy, it increases audiences. More money is more important than good digital quality after all.
Nik
Ultimately cost rules! So, regardless of quality, the cheapest will win. Always!