When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm

A funny thing happened on the way to a fully-digital cinema. At least two major filmmakers are returning to a beautiful, large film format of yesteryear. But you may not be able to see either of these films as they were meant to be seen.

Pretty much everyone agrees that film is dying as a physical medium (but not, thankfully, as an art form). By the end of next year, if everything goes according to plan, no major studios will release movies on film. Movies will continue to be shot on film, but for how long is anybody's guess.

And yet two films will open next month that were more than merely shot on film. They were shot in the 70mm format, with a frame nearly three times the size of 35mm. The sad part is you may never get a chance to see either of them in their proper presentation.

(Let's get some terminology out of the way. The “70mm format” involves shooting the picture on 65mm film. Only the release prints are 70mm–the extra 5mm adding room for high-quality magnetic sound tracks. But advertisers preferred saying “70mm,” so that became the familiar name.)

How rare is 70mm production? The last film shot in 65mm was Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, released in 1996. To my knowledge, that was only the fourth feature shot that way since 1970.

But from the late 50's through the late 60s, 70mm was the format for big, prestigious, yet popular films. The still-loved hits include Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Patton. There were embarrassments too, of course, including The Greatest Story Ever Told and Dr. Doolittle.

The post-Easy Rider shift to low-budget, youth-oriented films ended the first 70mm period. The large format enjoyed a second wave of popularity from 1977 through 1993, but almost all of those films were shot in standard 35mm and blown up to fill the large frame. Only three features in this period were primarily shot in 65mm.

Ron Fricke's Baraka was one of those exceptions. So it's no surprise that his new film, Samsara, was also shot in the large format. Like Baraka, this wordless documentary promises to explore “the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience.” It will open in San Francisco on September 7.

Fricke's producer and chief collaborator, Mark Magidson, had plenty to say about the 65mm photography. “There is a beauty, immediacy, and level of detail within imagery captured in this venerable wide-screen format that is unique, and there is still no form of image capture that compares to 65mm negative.”

Paul Thomas Anderson, the creator of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, wrote and directed the other new 70mm product, The Master. A fiction film inspired by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, it's likely to be controversial in its content. The Master will open locally on September 21.

Last Tuesday, the Castro screened a 70mm print of The Master on short notice. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend.

And here's the really sad part: That may have been the only 70mm screening of either film in the Bay Area. As near as I can tell, most planned local bookings will be in plain-old 35mm. And if they are digital, they'll be conventional, 2K presentations.

Actually, there are no plans to even strike a 70mm print of Samsara, and the reason is provocative. According to Magidson, it's not the best format. “We have chosen to output SAMSARA to DCP for digital projection rather than creating 70mm film prints this time. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is we believe a digital output from the high res scan of our film negative yields the best possible viewing experience.” And the best digital presentation is 4K DCP.

Unfortunately, there are no plans to screen Samsara anywhere in the Bay Area in 4K, either. So whether you consider 70mm film or 4K DCP the best way to screen a picture shot in the 70mm format, you're out of luck. You'll have to accept a compromise.

Update: I'm delighted to inform my readers that the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland will be screening The Master in 70mm. My thanks to Brian Darr of Hell On Frisco Bay for making me aware of this.


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