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INTERSTELLAR, the 70mm Revolution, and Why You Should Be Excited

INTERSTELLAR, the 70mm Revolution, and Why You Should Be Excited

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.

Inter Max

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.


Images: Paramount Pictures



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  1. Alfred says:

    Not “blown slightly up” from 65 to 70mm, the extra 5mm is at the edges, outside the sprocket holes, not affecting the picture at all, this is a leftover from when the prints used to have magnetic soundtracks (now the extra space is used for a near-indestructible Datasat timecode). Learn some more stuff instead of pretending to know about it.

  2. hanshotfirst1138 says:

    Enjoy it while you can. This movie, I have a horrible fear, is celluloid’s last stand :(. IMAX are phasing out their 70mm projectors soon for the new laser system, and most of the cinems in my area which were supposed to get the 35mm prints didn’t. I was privileged to see it in 15/70mm IMAX. It was beautiful.

  3. momosgarage says:

    Umm…Not one word about 2001: A Space Odyssey in this article, which is the Gold Standard for the format.  Its also one the few 70mm movies still being shown in theaters, that have the proper projection equipment, on a somewhat predictable, regular basis.  Thanks for the revisionist history Kyle.

  4. kerm says:

    This post was just amateur rambling and didnt seem fact laden. Boooooooo!!!

  5. Kimo says:

    Personally I CANT STAND watching all these anamorphic movies on my flatscreen TV, and just LOVE it when a movie fills the entire screen just right. Anamorphic just seems like a waste of real estate, like someone took a beautiful 1.78:1 HD image and cropped it with those stupid, horrible black bars.  

  6. Axelsan says:

    Wasn’t Alien done on 70mm?  Seems like, back in the day, they had it posted in the papers’ movie section, IN 70MM.

  7. Dr. Mabuse says:

    65mm film is not “blown up slightly to 70mm for projection purposes.” 70mm print film allows 65mm for the image plus an extra 5mm for the soundtracks.

  8. JUS7IAN says:

    This is what I mean by Kyle these posts being just “Opinions of Kyle”.   A person that knows what their talking about would be far more specific in explaining the details of aspect ratios.  – “the scenes shot for IMAX literally fill up your widescreen television and then appear letterboxed again when it goes back down to 35mm.”  If that’s not an implication.  I came here because I want to know, I’m interested.  Could you be more specific?  Are you saying these IMAX scenes are 16:9 and the rest of the movie is 21:9?  Is that what you’re trying to say?  21:9 is 2.40 perfectly which is what my monitor is.   People have monitors and T.V.s of 16:10.  Is that what 1.44 is?  Put it in words people can understand.  The Dark Knight IMAX was 1.78 and made black bars on the sides then went back to black bars on top and bottom and most anamorphic is shot at 2.40.  Where are we here?

    • theshiveringsands says:

      How to spot the commenter with aspergers …

      • JUS7IAN says:

        Actually yeah, Douchebag.  Is the internet for just average people?  It wouldn’t be to my surprise that a website call Nerdist is judgmental and shuns people who are actually nerds.  It would be just like Chris Hardwick to jump on something and ride its coattails. (Nerds)  Then block or ignore everyone else that has a contrary opinion to his.  Cowardly*  Everytime you block, ignore or mute someone online that isn’t threatening in any way then you’re no better that a little kid in the back seat of a van crying to his parents because his brothers are picking on him.  “MOM!” Is what I hear every time.  I got blocked by Chris d’elia for saying he has a “Big-head” (ego).  I could careless is someone blocks or deletes or mute me but at the very least let me know that you’ve done it so I can stop sharing my valuable opinion and allow me to delete all my previous comments.  Fucking cowardly.  This website is the worst because I can’t delete any of my comments.  I’ve got death threats for someone taking my opinion way too seriously and I still didn’t block or mute them.  I did report them because if something happens to me, it could very well be that lunatic but I’m not a coward.  (You didn’t ask)  It’s just like famous people to think I give a fuck whether or not they exist.  Famous people are only important to other famous people.  They all use one another.  Comedians are the worst and only important to other comedies.  Nerdist is only pushing Quantity and not quality like this post above.  Half the people that work for Chris are just random friends of friends and none of them are experts at their work.  I expect too much I guess.

        • Magik says:

          Dude… Shut up. 

        • JUS7IAN says:

          Actually that’s the point, I won’t ever waste my valuable opinion here since the people that visit here and the people running this are prejudice.  The problem is that I want ALL my previous comments throughout the website to also be deleted.

  9. Robert says:

    Definitely seeing this in 70mm IMAX. Luckily, there’s one 3 minutes from me. 

  10. Chris says:

    Yes, but where does a kid  in Alabama go to see it in 70mm?