Film G33k: Digital Cinema and The Return of 70mm
Written By Jacob Chimilar
Everyone has seen the explosion of high quality media hitting the likes of YouTube and TV, stealing the thunder from Hollywood. It's a story they have heard before back when TV first started airing. With the advent of 4k and OLED TVs, going to the theatre is becoming less of an experience for those who have the means to create home theatres of their own. IMAX and other premium format experiences is what kept people coming back to cinemas but now even that has been taken away and replaced with all digital cameras and projectors which honestly sucked some of the life out of movies. Gone are those perfect blacks and grainy textures. No more Dark Knights beautifully projecting 70mm film from ceiling to floor. Granted the advantages of digital are great in their own way, low maintenance, shipping hard drives instead of film reels, clean presentations every time, but it feels impersonal and certainly inferior to the best film has to offer.
The cameras have also been lacking when compared to film. Less dynamic range, lower resolution, smaller colour gamut. It just doesn't cut it when it comes to the best image quality possible. I greatly bemoaned the prevalence of movies being shot digitally. Film is king and should be cherished for it's unparallelled image quality amongst big budget Hollywood filmmakers. However, thanks to digital cinema we have seen a resurgence of a format that has scarcely been seen since the 1960's. Regular film has sort of gone by the way side thanks to digital so the only way to really compete is to showcase the premium formats film offers. The Hateful Eight did it last year when it was shot and projected in limited theatres in Ultra Panavison 70mm. But that was a colossal undertaking that required a format to essentially be brought back from the dead. In the process though, Star Wars VIII was supposed to be shot on 65mm but didn't have a near by processing lab and Star Wars IX has been confirmed to be shooting in 65mm so in a way digital has helped 65mm become the film stock of choice for those looking to shoot it. Now with the invention of the Arri Alexa 65 we are getting a huge amount of movies being shot in 65mm. From Rogue One to Doctor Strange, Ben Affleck's Live by Night, The Revenant all within a year of each other, almost all of them being shot 100% in that format and each of them looking absolutely stunning compared to other digitally shot movies. That still has a lot to do with the director of photography but there is a noticeable difference simply because it is a completely different format.
It really is the one thing digital can do that film simply can't touch without overcoming huge obstacles. It is a massive undertaking doing films in 65mm, they are big, expensive machines that chew through so much high quality film and require a skilled operator to work the way they were intended. That is why films like Star Wars can afford to choose it. The only thing right now that still tops both Ultra Panavison and the Alexa 65 in terms of film size is IMAX. It is still the undisputed king of image quality with it's size being equal to that of 3 frames of Super 70mm/Alexa 65 stacked on top of each other and an approximate 12k resolution, 4 times that of the Alexa 65. But it is big, loud and heavy therefore dramatically decreasing its versatility compared to the alternatives.
IMAX aside, the Arri Alexa 65 creates a barrier of entry that is so much lower that a vast majority of filmmakers can make use of the 65mm format with ease. It allows them to create the images that while not quite as rich and textured as film, have a much grander feel to them compared to 35mm. With the addition of IMAX Laser projectors slowly rolling out to provide the deepest blacks and brightest whites possible, the two formats combined should make for a stunning picture that when seeing it on the big screen is going to be worth the price of admission again. 4k Blu ray can replicate the image just fine but I have a feeling that with that depth and scope of this emerging format it will make digital filmmaking feel just as majestic as film in it's own way and have the largest payoff by seeing it on the largest screens.
I am glad to see that digital has finally arrived with something that isn't just "easier that film" to shoot, it's easier and provides a way into a difficult, expensive and therefore rare, format. At this point, at least for movies with good budgets, the desire to go back to digital Super 35 should be almost non existent. Either shoot on film or digital 65, there is no in between. Maybe one day film will fade into the mist but at least it's greatest aspirations will be realized with the second coming of 65mm.