Dunkirk and the rebirth of 70mm film
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 Is Nolan fetishizing an outdated medium or delivering up a modern spectacle in a new way?
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.
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 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.
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.