A few days away from the theatrical release of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s new movie, we can read a lot about IMA technology and 70mm film. In today’s age, where movie theaters are exclusively digital, why are some directors still so attached to film reels?
The IMAX format is the Holy Grail of cinema. For Christopher Nolan, this technology is the “ultimate reference” and enables the director to fully express his or her creativity to offer a breathtaking experience in ultra high definition on a gigantic screen. Christopher Nolan, like Quentin Tarantino, and J.J. Abrams, is all about film reel. While most of today’s cinematic production has gone fully digital, from shooting to projection, the man behind the Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar is a proud user of analog medium.
IMAX: more than just a 70mm film reel
Film reel has been dear to Christopher Nolan’s heart for quite a while. To obtain incredible picture quality, the director has used IMAX technology for years. Back in the early 60s, the Canadian company started working on a system that would allow very high-quality image capture and projection. The objective was to slightly increase definition in order to offer an exceptionally immersive cinema experience with film projected on giant screens. In order to reach this goal, IMAX uses specific 70mm film, cameras, projectors, and screens. Using specific gear for each step of the process guarantees a high-quality result with fantastic definition and outstanding colorimetry. It makes no doubt that this is one of the reasons why Nolan is so passionate about this support, although it is not the only one…
Is there a way around digital technology?
Just like Quentin Tarantino shot The Hateful Eight with 70mm Panavision cameras, the same models that were used by William Wyler to shoot Ben Hur (1959), Christopher Nolan is motivated by a desire to protect an endangered tradition. In 2008, after putting the finishing touches on The Dark Knight, Nolan invited other directors/friends to a diner/screening. During this event, he shared his concern about the industry’s shift toward a fully digital production process. More specifically, about the fact that this transition was forced upon directors for financial reasons more than artistic ones. And he’s not wrong about this.
After George Lucas completely finished shooting Star Wars Episode II, which was fully shot in digital, the director declared that he had collected up to 220 hours of rushes, which amounts to about €12,000 (hard drives and Linear Tape-Open), or close to nothing when compared to the millions of dollars that film taping would have cost. But in 2002, most movie theaters were still equipped with film projectors, which means that thousands of analog copies had to be made and distributed. The cost was inevitably high, and 6 billion dollars was necessary to make enough copies for the 4,000 movie theaters across the United States. Moreover, analog projection is expensive and the projectors’ lamps must be replaced regularly.. And this cost is for standard, 35mm film, as 70mm film would be even more expensive (close to €50,000 per copy for 70mm IMAX format).
When digital projection technologies started to catch on, movie theaters quickly invested in 2K digital projectors (2048 x 1080 pixels). Today, all multiplex cinemas and most independent cinemas use digital projection, which eliminates the cost of film reel and of its transportation. Movie theaters now rent hard drives, that is, unless movies are directly uploaded to a server. In order to avoid any confusion, note that the digital format used for movies projected in theaters is very different from Blu-ray or UHD Blu-ray discs. The compression used isn’t damaging and the color space is infinitely more extended.
While shooting The Dark Knight in 2008, Christopher Nolan enjoyed using film reel, notably for its irregular grain and for the exceptional definition of the 70mm IMAX format. Yet, it wasn’t possible to shoot the whole movie in IMAX at the time due to the signficant weight of 70mm film cameras which made it impossible to film some action scenes. This is why regular cameras were also used to shoot The Dark Knight. In the end, the movie offers an unparalleled visual experience, with exceptional moments (such as the intro scene), more classic plans, and, most of all, an ever-changing image format which varies throughout the movie from 2.2 to about 1.8:1 depending on the scene.
From 70mm IMAX to Digital IMAX
Nine years later, Dunkirk is about to be released in Digital IMAX format. The Canadian company struck a deal with Arri, one of most prolific manufacturers of digital cameras. The Revenant was shot using an Arri Alexa 65 before being mastered in 4K HDR format, thus resulting in the breathtaking image we all know. This camera, featuring a 6.5K captor (for images close to 6500 pixels), was adapted by IMAX and used to shoot a large part of Dunkirk. Nevertheless, there are still scenes shot with a 70mm IMAX camera, although the film is digitized during the post-production process since almost all films are screened using a digital copy nowadays.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been shot 100% in IMAX format. Some scenes were shot using actual film, while others were shot using UHD digital capture. The result will be screened using two 4K digital laser projectors in IMAX certified theaters.
Is it possible to watch an IMAX film in a traditional theater?
A dozen Digital IMAX theaters already exist in France, and 5 more should be opening in 2018. In addition to Dunkirk, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Black Panther, and Spider Man: Homecoming will all be screened in IMAX. Non-IMAX multiplex theaters will receive 2K digital copies, which means the image will be less precise, but still excellent.
Is Ultra High Definition possible without IMAX?
Of course. An increasing number of movies made without IMAX technology are shot in Ultra High Definition (4K and over) and -an important point- frequently mastered in 4K. The famous 6.5K Arri Alexa 65 -on which the new IMAX digital camera is based- is used by many studios. Doctor Strange, Okja (on Netflix), Ghost in The Shell (2017), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sully, Wonder Woman, Passengers, Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Mummy (2017), War for the Planet of the Apes… and the list goes on.
As we previously mentioned, most movie theaters are still equipped with 2K digital projectors. Starting late 2017, Pathé (France) will be opening Dolby Cinema certified theaters featuring 4K HDR projectors and Dolby Atmos installations. Until then, enjoy movies at home in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format with a 4K TV or a 4K video projector.This post is also available in: French