Lawrence of Arabia and the Third Coming of 70mm

I’ve seen two new blockbusters this summer, and both were projected from 70mm film. Fifty years ago, that wouldn’t have been surprising. Thirty years ago, that would have been normal. Ten years ago, it was unthinkable. Today, it’s back, five years after theatres were supposed to stop projecting physical film of any size.

From Edison’s early experiments until the industry went digital, 35mm film was the standard for shooting and projecting commercial cinema. Twice as wide, 70mm provides more room for a better picture and sound.

Lawrence of Arabia 70mm print

I have nothing against digital projection. To my eyes, DCP (Digital Cinema Package – the current digital standard for theatrical projection) usually looks better than all but the best 35mm prints. But a good 70mm print is something special.

As far as I know, four new films were released in 70mm over the last 12 months: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Kong: Skull Island, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk. The irony is that the first two were shot digitally. Wonder Woman was shot in a combination of digital and 35mm film. Only Dunkirk was shot in large formats – 65mm and the largest of all, IMAX.

Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX, conventional 70mm, and 35mm

And it’s not just new films. Two of the most-loved blockbusters of the 1960s, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia, are back in new 70mm prints.

I exchanged some email about the new Lawrence prints with Grover Crisp, Sony Picture’s Vice President of Asset Management (translation: VP in charge of old movies). Five years ago, Crisp oversaw an excellent digital restoration of the 1962 Oscar winner, and Sony released the movie on 4K DCP. The company also made a new 65mm negative for archival purposes – sort of an analog backup. Sony made the prints because there are “more theaters now equipped to handle the format with the release of Dunkirk and other titles.”

I also asked him if there’s any advantage to seeing it in 70mm as opposed to 4K DCP. He didn’t think “there is an advantage or disadvantage, just what preferences people may have. There is always going to be a bit of fall off in detail when going to print from any source, but I must say these new prints are rather stunning.”

Lawrence of Arabia

The Castro will screen a new 70mm print of Lawrence August 31 through September 4.

Lawrence of Arabia carved a place for itself in both the first and second waves of 70mm presentation. It premiered in 1962 – arguably the highpoint of 70mm’s first big wave, which started in 1955 with Oklahoma! Like many of the big roadshow films of the period, Lawrence was shot in 65mm (the extra 5 millimeters on the release prints were for exceptional audio). The large format all but disappeared in the early 70s, as a new generation of filmgoers turned away from big movies.

The second big wave of 70mm presentation started in 1977 when the original Star Wars (now renamed A New Hope) broke box office records. A 70mm presentation wasn’t as special as it was in the first wave. The seats weren’t reserved. There were no exclusive engagements. Films would open simultaneously in 35 and 70mm. With a handful of exceptions, these films were shot in 35mm and blown up to 70.

Image Credit: SFGATE.COM

And, at the height of this second wave, Robert A. Harris restored Lawrence of Arabia using the analogue technologies of the day. It was released like a new movie in the big 70mm houses generally reserved for the newest Indiana Jones or Star Trek flicks. And it reminded everyone about how special 70mm could be.

The wave ended around 1993, with the coming of 35mm digital audio. To a large degree, 70mm had become just a way to get better sound. Now you could get excellent sound (if not quite as good as 70mm’s) without wider film.

One could argue that the third wave started with The Master or Interstellar, but it really got going with The Hateful Eight. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino not only shot the film in the super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 65mm format, but he insisted that the 70mm prints would be longer than the 35mms. According to Variety, the 70mm version played in 100 venues, with many of them upgrading their projection.

The Hateful Eight

And now, Lawrence of Arabia is making the rounds in 70mm again. I very much doubt that the 70mm prints will look any better than the 4K DCP; they’ll probably look very slightly worse. They’ll almost certainly look better than the 70mm prints from Harris’ 1988 restoration, which were made from a third-generation dupe negative.

But it’s good to know we’ll be able to see Lawrence, in the cleaned-up digital restoration, on the format for which it was originally made.

UPDATE, SATURDAY,  SEPTEMBER 2: I saw the new 70mm print off Lawrence at the Castro. It was beautiful and awesome. But it had its flaws-a few scratches and some visible flickering. I probably wouldn’t have noticed these if I hadn’t been in the second row.

I can’t really tell you how it compares with the 4K DCP. The first time I saw  Lawrence digitally, the Castro could not project 4K. What I saw was a quarter of the DCP’s resolution. The second time, the theater had 4K projection, but there was a difficult-to-determine problem. And besides, that was more than four years ago.

Either way, this is a great way to see Lawrence of Arabia. It remains at the Castro through Monday.