Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is surely going to be one of the biggest films of the year. It’s also literally one of the BIGGEST films of the year as he has yet again, as he’s done with his last several films, shot portions of it for the IMAX format of 70mm projection. But, with film itself being as scarce and expensive as it is, and more and more filmmakers making the switch to digital video photography, it seems a strange choice for such an innovative filmmaker. Well, not really actually. Though it may be more costly, for a filmmaker like Nolan, whose films routinely have huge budgets and do huge business, the cost is all right there on the screen.
The 70mm format is a very old one, dating back to the late-1890s and has been around ever since. Though most films were shot and projected on 35mm, there were still some epics, like South Pacific, Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music which were still shot and initially projected in the larger film stock, but later downgraded to 35 for subsequent screenings. You might still see a 70mm print of one of these huge color epics, but they are certainly more of a novelty outside of Los Angeles.
In actuality, the movie is shot on 65mm film stock and then blown up slightly to 70mm, or two frames of 35mm, for projection purposes, and has been that way for quite a long time. The upshot of this larger film stock is a much higher resolution and deeper colors than on regular 35mm. A much cleaner, crisper picture, as well as a fuller, un-letterboxed image is maintained with the bigger format. Anamorphic widescreen, the most epic of 35mm aspect ratios, is 2.35:1, but IMAX is 1.44:1. This is why IMAX, a form of 65mm filming and 70mm projection, in its true form is projected on such large screens. The screen is larger because the picture is larger but no less crystal clear; in fact moreso.
You can tell the difference in movies that aren’t shot entirely in IMAX. For example, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises which had 28 minutes and 60 minutes of footage, respectively shot in IMAX. You probably didn’t notice it too much in the theater, but definitely you will have on Blu-ray: the scenes shot for IMAX literally fill up your widescreen television and then appear letterboxed again when it goes back down to 35mm. Inception, interestingly, was shot partially in 65mm but not on IMAX film cameras, mostly due to ease of movement since IMAX cameras are frigging enormous.
In a time when 3D filmmaking seems to be, or at least attempted to be, the direction for huge action blockbusters and spectacle, filmmakers such as Nolan have doubled down on IMAX, insisting that the quality and engulfing nature of the image is enough and doesn’t need the added gimmickry of stereoscopy. Last year’s enormous hit Gravity employed 3D to almost universal acclaim, but Nolan has decided to stick with his 70mm for his own space adventure film. Which one will prove to be more effective? It’s sort of apples and oranges, really. Digital photography has proven to now look quite good and our eyes have gotten used to it not flickering quite the same way as film. However, there is still a richness and depth and texture to film photography that no amount of filtering can quite mimic digitally.
Nolan does seem to be more interested in playing with the medium of movies and not transitioning to movies that look like real life. There’s something, to my mind, much more dynamic and cinematic, to use a very overused word, about 70mm and though it’s much more difficult and cumbersome to have on set, the results are often much more impressive. If Interstellar succeeds the way the trailers make me think it will, it will hopefully allow big idea filmmakers to experiment more with this old but not dated method of making movies, and for people who like big and bold images, it’s a very exciting thing indeed.