Classic Films in 70mm

Living in the big city one sadly tends to take certain landmarks and cultural institutions for granted. Take, for instance, the John Hancock Center and Willis (Sears) Tower, two architecturally significant Chicago skyline stalwarts whose burly frames attract visitors from across the globe:

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And while multitudes daily gawp up at, and down from, these iconic landmarks, The Conflicted Film Snob, who’s seen them maybe a million times in his four-plus decades, barely gives them a second glance. Because, for him, they’re simply part of the daily backdrop. Same goes for Chicago’s museums and zoos, world-class institutions so often visited by The Conflicted Film Snob’s children that he must now stoop to threats and/or bribery to get them to even consider a return trip.

Know what else is easy to take for granted? Movie theaters. And no, I’m not talking about the local multiplex, I’m talking about independents, those one- or two-screen neighborhood theaters that have managed to doggie-paddle their way through the swells generated by the continued improvement of multiplexes, which promise bigger screens, better sound, stadium seating, recliners, full menus, etc. Very few remain, most reside in larger cities. Chicago has a handful, chief among them the Davis Theater, Facets Cinémathèque, the Logan Theatre, the New 400 Theaters and probably the most famous of all, the Music Box Theater.

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They are all labors of love–I’d be pretty shocked to see any of their owners driving around town in Bugattis. Independent theaters are crucial, though–not only do some charge less for first-run movies, not only are most architecturally significant (the Davis opened in 1918, the Logan in 1915, the Music Box, with its ceiling full of twinkling stars and moving clouds, 1929), but some also specialize in more challenging/obscure programming and special presentations, offering film buffs the rare opportunity to view such fare on the big screen. 

One such special presentation, the 70mm Film Festival: The Ultimate Edition, currently is taking place at the Music Box. And so, in an effort NOT to take this unique cultural institution for granted, The Conflicted Film Snob pre-bought tickets to attend, with this family, three of the 15 feature-length films scheduled to run, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and David Lean’s Laurence of Arabia (1962):

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While I’d love to tell you about the experience, first how about I give those who don’t know 70mm from a hole in the wall a little background?

In very broad strokes, 70mm is a film format developed in the early 1950s that captures images onto and, ultimately, projects from, a much larger and wider film stock (70mm) than what’s traditionally used (35mm). The upside of a negative double the size? A significantly sharper picture, improved dynamic range (the whites look whiter, the blacks blacker), more vibrant colors and, finally, more immersive sound (a 70mm print offers enough space to include a complicated six-channel magnetic soundtrack).

[Conflicted Film Snob aside: For those interested in a more thorough explanation, please scroll down to the section entitled “70mm Historical/Technical Primer.”]

Sadly, despite its popularity in the 50s and 60s, the 70mm format has pretty much folded up tent. There are exceptions, of course. Ron Howard shot Far and Away (1992) in 70mm. And Kenneth Branagh shot his four-hour Hamlet (1996) in the same. And then, 16 years later, Paul Thomas Anderson made waves by filming a good deal of The Master in the format. Most recently, Quentin Tarantino shot The Hateful Eight in Ultra Panavision 70.

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Generally, though? For the great unwashed hoping to eyeball the glories of 70mm, it’s comes down to wishing that a) their local independent theater has the wherewithal to gather relatively rare 70mm prints and then package them into special presentations and/or film festivals and b) said local independent theater still has the equipment to project in 70mm (many theaters sold off or junked their projectors when the format started its fade).

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Lucky for The Conflicted Film Snob, the Music Box has granted both “a” and “b,” this coming on the heels of their wildly successful extended run of The Hateful Eight, for which they installed a much larger screen and upgraded the theater’s sound system. Add to that the fact that the Music Box’s projectionist is nationally regarded in terms of 70mm presentations, and suddenly, it’s large-format movie nirvana.

Vertigo

It’s important to remember that a film presentation is only as good as the state of the print. As opposed to digital projection, which, due to the visual information being binary, never degrades, an actual photochemical film print begins to exhibit wear and tear pretty much as soon as its first run through the projector. (Which is why, back in the day, it was always smart to see a movie the first couple days after its release.) Therefore, in the case of the Music Box’s 70mm film festival, one must go in understanding that, unless a brand new 70mm print has been struck (very, very expensive), these will be older prints and therefore exhibit some scratches and dirt, pops and hisses. Luckily, any imperfections in the Vertigo print (the beginnings of a reel or two were pretty banged up) paled in comparison to the beauty of the properly projected 70mm image. All in all the film looked terrific, with Hitchcock’s carefully composed color images–from Scottie’s (Jimmy Stewart) brown suit; to the velvety red walls at Ernie’s Restaurant; to the gauzy, eerie atmospherics of Carlotta Valdes’ gravesite; to the international orange majesty of the Golden Gate bridge–really popping from the screen.

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And then there’s this famous scene…

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…in which an unbalanced Scottie, fixated on recreating the woman he loved (but lost), watches Judy (Kim Novak), dressed and coiffed exactly as the late and much lamented Madeleine, step from the powder room and into the spectral green glow cast by a neon sign outside her apartment. Bernard Herrmann’s lushly romantic score swells. Scottie, whose expression has played out disbelief, fear, longing, sadness, love and lust, takes her in his arms and kisses her.

It’s little wonder that British film magazine Sight and Sound, in their most recent “50 Greatest Films” ranking, chose Vertigo as #1. This is filmmaking at its most sublime, made even more powerful by the size and quality of its projected image and sound. I don’t care how big your TV is, or how beautifully restored the Blu-ray, this 70mm experience is not replicable at home. 

2001: A Space Odyssey

Despite my positive experience with the Music Box’s Vertigo presentation, it should be noted that it’s probably not the ideal film in which to bask in the glories of 70mm. Why? Well, I can give you three reasons: 1) as mentioned above, Robert Burks’ cinematography can look a little gauzy at times, a creative decision directly from Hitchcock; 2) it wasn’t natively filmed in 70mm, rather it was filmed in a 35mm process called VistaVision and then blown up to the larger format; and, finally, 3)  even in its most pristine state–say, a brand spanking new print–Vertigo is damaged goods, its original camera negative the victim of decades of improper storage and general neglect. That the film looks as good as it does today is a testament to film restorers James C. Katz and Robert A. Harris, who spent over a year painstakingly correcting color on the faded negative and, in places where the negative was beyond repair, finding alternate sources from which to pull images. Despite these yeoman efforts, the fact remains that Vertigo will never look quite as good as it did back at its 1958 premiere.

2001, on the other hand? Its negative never suffered the same ignominy so it’s able to yield terrific quality 70mm prints, like the one displayed at the Music Box festival. It’s funny, what one notices while watching the “Dawn of Man” sequence that begins the film is how the increased 70mm resolution, combined with the large screen, makes Stuart Freeborn‘s ape suits, no doubt revolutionary at the time, look really fake, like something from that scene in Trading Places (1983) where Paul Gleason dons the gorilla suit. Still, though, that little piece of spittle that flies from the mouth of that man-ape banging on the bones with his newfound “weapon” has never looked sharper!

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When the film transitions to space, however, the 70mm magic really kicks in. There’s just something about Kubrick’s clean, cool visuals (lensed by Geoffrey Unsworth) that lend themselves to the format’s ultra-sharpness and fidelity. Colored and labeled buttons never legible on home video suddenly become readable. Cockpits and control rooms shown in the distance suddenly feature actual people moving around in them. The shrill of alarms now have the power to cause you to jump in your seat. In a nutshell, what’s always been an interesting experience on home video becomes a trippy and transporting in 70mm on the big screen.

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Lawrence of Arabia

What’s there to say that hasn’t already been said a million times? If there was ever a perfect film to highlight the glories of the 70mm format, David Lean’s epic is it. Shot by the incomparable Freddie Young, the film has epic scope, sweeping desert vistas, Peter O’Toole’s piercing blue eyes and a prothetic nose on Anthony Qualye that tests the limits of the wide-screen frame:

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Watching the visual glories of the terrific Music Box print–Lawrence blowing out the match abruptly cutting to the sun rising over the desert, the mirage-heavy introduction of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), the first sighting of Auda abu Tayi’s (Anthony Quinn) camp at Wadi Rum, the charge into Aqaba, etc., etc.–you can’t help but wonder a) how Lean and Young got the shot and b) will we ever see anything like it again without some digital trickery? Probably not. Which is yet another reason to seek out the film in 70mm. Yes, it’s long. But if my 13-year-old can make it through the entire three-hour, 47-minute running time then you can, too. So man up.

Listen, there are always going to be people who have no interest in attending movies in the theater. They hate the crowds, the parking, the sticky floors, the concession pricing. Or maybe it’s their inability to click pause to hit the head, grab another glass of wine, put the kids to bed, break the movie into four 30-minute portions to be viewed over successive nights, etc., etc. And that’s fine–go with God, I say. But for those who really care about film there’s something irreplaceable about the communal experience of viewing moving images projected onto a giant screen. And when those images are projected in 70mm? It’s a pure as cinema gets. Do yourself a favor, someday seek out a 70mm presentation of a classic in a theater. Not only will it be worth your time and effort, it’ll go a long way in keeping an independent theater’s doors open.

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70mm Historical/Technical Primer

As I touched on in my Aspect Ratio-rama post (February 2015) that maybe two of you read, the rise of the 70mm format came as one of the responses to television encroaching on movie-studio profits. In the late 40s and early 50s, instead of heading to their local cinemas, people were staying at home to watch the boob-tube:

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Financially threatened, the movie studios began looking for ways to get butts back in seats, the key being to offer an experience unique to the theater setting, something far and away more impactful than what could be had on a 9″ B/W television, which, incidentally, had pretty much the same aspect ratio (1.33:1 v. 1.37:1) as a movie screen. That’s right–back in the old days movies were almost square:

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The first carrot studios dangled before the general public was 3D, a craze that ran its course from 1952-54. Next up was something with more staying power: widescreen photography. Recall that movies of the era had a boxy 1.375:1 aspect ratio (translation: the picture was 1.37 times wider than it was tall), which meant that, although theaters could offer a bigger screen than one’s home television set, the amount of information on-screen at any given time was no different between the two similarly ratioed formats. That is, until the 1952 introduction of Cinerama, a complicated process involving three interlocked/criss-crossing 35mm cameras with a single rotating shutter to film the action and, ultimately, three projectors to stitch together the three resulting images onto a huge, curved screen with an aspect ratio of approximately 2.59:1, one far more horizontal than people had ever seen. Voila…a more immersive experience and, more importantly, something not replicable at home:

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Although Hollywood embraced the notion of wider images and bigger screens once they saw the financial potential, they weren’t interested in paying royalties to Cinerama to use its technologies, nor were they keen on the cost/technical hurdles involved with the complicated three-camera/three-projector process. And so, in the early 1950s, Michael Todd, one of the founders of Cinerama, left the company to develop a competing process, one just as visually and aurally impactful (Cinerama boasted multi-channel magnetic soundtrack, a first), yet simpler to film and project (thus more cost-effective). The result: Todd-AO, a widescreen format utilizing a much larger and wider 65mm negative (compared to 35mm), which, due to significantly increased real estate, translated into a brighter, sharper and more colorful image than ever before seen. In other words, the first 70mm process:

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[Conflicted Film Snob aside: as you can see from the previous paragraph, 70mm is a bit of a misnomer. The actual size of the negative on which the moving image is captured is 65mm, still a huge piece of film (as compared to standard 35mm) but decidedly not 70mm. So where, then, do the extra 5mm come from? A 65mm negative is printed on a 70mm piece of film for projection in the movie theater, the extra 5mm used to accommodate the magnetic soundtrack. So 70mm refers to the complete experience–the enhanced image AND 6-track surround sound.]

Soon Todd-AO had competition, chief among it Super Panavision 70, which, for all intents and purposes, was an identical process, right down its 2.20:1 aspect ratio and compatibility with Todd-AO equipment. Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia were shot in Super Panavision.

Sadly, despite its unrivaled (even today) image quality, as mentioned earlier in the post, since its heyday in the 50s and 60s the 70mm format has pretty much gone the way of the cuckoo. Why? Well, among other things:

  • Cameras needed to film in 70mm were/are expensive and cumbersome, ditto the projectors used to project the image 
  • In the 60s, less expensive widescreen techniques began to emerge (e.g., ones utilizing the more ubiquitous 35mm film stock, such as Panavision anamorphic)
  • The advent of digital sound (DTS, Dolby Digital) in the early 90s enabled soundtracks to present the aural dynamics of multi-channel sound without the extra real estate provided by a 70mm print

Think of its demise as similar to that of the Concorde supersonic jet-the very best technology phased out with nothing to replace it. Go figure.

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