While tech forums argue about the actual digital analog to 70mm film – 8k is the most popular answer – aficionados of the format know that there is no real digital analog for analog. Whatever advantages in sharpness, color, and ease of manipulation a digital image can offer, there remains something almost magical about motion picture film, its ability to capture light and shadow and the interplay between in a way that simply eludes digital entirely – the inescapable feeling that someone has not merely recorded an image, but captured the essence of life itself.
How else to account for the resilience of 35mm film, even in the digital era?
And further still, how to account for the near-extinction of 70mm at a time when the demand for image quality has never been more acute?
Admittedly, 70mm has been on a slow yet steady comeback for a number of years thanks largely to the IMAX format and its savvy segue from specialty films to mainstream feature films. Its adoption by filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, whose Dunkirk was shot almost entirely in 70mm IMAX, has helped popularize the latest incarnation of the format. Increasingly, it is filling a void that 3D has struggled to fill.
It will nevertheless take a massive technological investment to give present-day audiences anything close to what those of the 50s and 60s were able to enjoy on a weekly basis for the very simple reason that most screens no longer have the capability to project it – digitally or otherwise.
That’s what makes a true 70mm projection series like the American Cinematheque’s such a rare and precious occasion – a cinephile’s grail.
Captured on 65mm negative, with an added 5mm for a magnetic audio stripe when projected, 70mm exploded in a variety of formats in the 1950s as the movies moved aggressively toward widescreen and color in an effort to offer a level of spectacle that the nascent (and free) format of in-home television could not. VistaVision, Cinerama, Todd-AO, and Super Panavision 70 all vied to establish themselves as marquee brands in the public consciousness. Though the format had existed previously and filmmakers had dabbled with it as early as the 1890s, the 1950s and 1960s saw a flowering of the epic format that took 70mm – and the movies – to heights previously unimaginable. Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and My Fair Lady treated filmgoers like they had never been treated before.
Following the release of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter in 1970, however, 65mm as a capture format went into hibernation – not emerging again until 1992’s Ron Howard/Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman western Far and Away. Improvements in 35mm imagery and audio combined with the cumbersome nature of 65mm cameras resulted in a noteworthy sea change – films shot on 35mm and blown up to 70mm for release. The process was nonetheless still costly, and 70mm releases – even in blowups – were rare throughout the ensuing decade, with only twelve such films distributed between 1971 and the releases of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 – the only two 70mm releases that year.
With the dawning of the blockbuster Spielberg/Lucas era, 70mm blowups, well, blew up. In 1978, five films received the 70mm treatment – the most since Ryan’s Daughter in 1970 – with the number swelling to eight in 1979, twelve in 1980, and a whopping seventeen by 1982.
Throughout the 80s, if there was a blockbuster, it was in 70mm: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Batman, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Last Action Hero, Tron, Aliens, The Dark Crystal, Top Gun, and countless more. It was 70mm’s second golden era, and its last great stand in the face of the digital wave.
Many of these films and more will screen at the Aero this month, in all their original and pristine glory, giving viewers a rare chance to experience the grandeur and visual breadth of 70mm as well as its rich and varied uses for telling a wide spectrum of stories. From the ethnographic, globetrotting majesty of Ron Fricke’s Baraka to Disney’s landmark techno-adventure Tron, it’s a journey that will take audiences to the farthest-flung reaches of the globe and into the deepest, digital recesses of computer-generated imagination. Steven Spielberg is thrice represented with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Always, and Hook – radically different visual interpretations of popular Spielberg themes – while Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II, and the mesmerizing Jim Henson and Frank Oz fantasy The Dark Crystal voyage far and wide through time, space and alternate realities, dazzlingly recreated and captured as only 70mm can.
Which brings us to the comeback summer of 2017, when Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (this series’ closing night film) was given a series of 80s style 70mm limited engagements – and audiences responded. Since Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace nudged most blockbusters toward digital in 1999, 70mm releases of any kind seemed to have gone the way of the rotary phone. In fact, only three films since Far and Away in 1992 were actually shot entirely or substantially in 65mm: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2015, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012. Thanks to this year’s double-dose of Wonder Woman and Dunkirk (plus Kenneth Branagh's remake of Murder on the Orient Express, coming in November), all that promises to change yet again as the format enjoys its biggest shot in the arm in a generation – only this time, it may be back for good.
Tickets for this series are available on Fandango.
Wade Major is a regular critic for KPCC's weekly FilmWeek program as well as co-host and producer of the popular DigiGods podcast. A former Senior Film Critic at BoxofficeMagazine, Wade has also contributed audio commentaries to such films as Takashi Miike's "Gozu," the cult classic "Master of the Flying Guillotine," Andre Techiné's "The Brontë Sisters," Costa-Gavras' "Amen” and James Ivory’s Oscar-winning “Howards End.” He holds a degree in Film and Television from UCLA.