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Tyler Purcell

Interstellar and the future of film projection

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I must confess, I'm a madman for celluloid, clearly born 50 years too late. The few years I had hands-on experience with film in Super 8, 16mm and 35mm were brief and mostly documentary/industrial projects, rather then narratives. The near-death of film stock production this year, scared the living piss out of me. Broke and barely able to afford my own equipment, I felt so helpless and upset I was forced to shoot digitally in this modern world. When I heard that Christopher Nolan was going to be shooting substantial chunks of Interstellar on 70mm IMAX and projecting on 70mm, my ears perked up. Living in Los Angeles has a few benefits and one of them is having a 70mm theater only a few miles away from my house. The 8 month wait between the announcement and ticket sales, was arduous. However, tonight I finally got to watch the movie at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and wanted to discuss some of the filmmaking elements which make this movie so interesting.

 

Being the first one into the cinema, I quietly stood there facing the projection booth, being a complete nerd watching the projectionist feed the 70mm film from the supply spool out of sight through the projector. Not like I haven't seen this many times before at IMAX theaters, but to see standard 70mm vertical projection today is very rare and is mostly "classic" films. For those who haven't been to the Cinerama dome, it's a great theater for film, but it sucks for digital because they never invested in a curved lens for the projector to match the screen. So the image distortion is off the hook and very annoying to anyone who knows anything about technology. The trailers were digital up to a certain point, then the screen went black. I turned around and by golly gee, the film projector was running. PT Anderson's new movie (his last film was shot with Panavision 70mm) had a trailer included with Interstellar on 70mm! All of a sudden, all the technical issues with the lens went away and I knew we were in for an amazing screening.

 

The film starts off in 35mm anamorphic and drops right into IMAX material. Shocking as that cut is technically, the phenomenal sound system and "It goes to 11, so set it to 11" loudness, blows the audience right out of the theater within the first few seconds. I wouldn't be surprised if car alarms on Sunset were going off during this movie from how much rumble was produced, to me… that's one of my favorite things to experience. As the film settles in, it was abundantly clear anamorphic 35mm was the wrong choice as a substitute shooting format to complement the IMAX material. Not only was it grainy, but critical focus was lacking in many scenes. At first, it seemed like the projection, but the moment the movie switched to scenes shot in IMAX (very blatant) all the focus issues disappeared. This disturbed me greatly being a filmmaker and watching this fantastic story unfold, but being distracted by poor focus. Funny part is, medium's and wide's were fine, it was only the very close stuff that had a problem, mostly under-lit stuff with the aperture wide open. The funny part is, because it was a film print, the 35mm Anamorphic stuff simply looked like we were watching a 35mm print. The moment it switched to IMAX material, the true quality of 70mm shined through and boy was it amazing to see. The detail was quite good on the 70mm print, far better then I expected actually. Some of the digitally created shots were glass, could have been 4k digital projected and you wouldn't have noticed the difference. Even with the slight registration issues on the projector and the very noticeable flicker (not seen on digital projection) the image was bright and crisp during the IMAX material.

 

Watching the film, it's very clear some of the 35mm anamorphic stuff could have gone though a photochemical finish and optical blow up. There weren't any deep/rich blacks, it was very muddy compared to the IMAX material which clearly went through DI because all of a sudden the rich blacks showed up out of nowhere. Plus, mostly all of the IMAX originated material had special effects of one kind or another, I can't imagine very much of it being 1:1 without any clean up work. Some of the effects were astounding, clearly lots of model work was used and composited onto shot background plates. The compositing was excellent, except for a few minor issues which were quick and clearly stuff they didn't have time to make better. Being a fan of the movie Gravity for it's technical ingenuity, Interstellar in my view is more realistic looking. Partly because they never resorted to using fake fire balls or shots which were completely created in a computer using multiple composites.

 

Part of Interstellar's soul comes from the music and powerful mix. I was absolutely blown away by the complexity and presence of the music and mix. Hans Zimmer's score was off the hook, absolutely by far the best thing he's ever produced and in the credits, it seems he had a lot of help making it. Modern 70mm uses DTS 24bit 7.1 surround sound and the days of magnetic stripes on 70mm are long over due to the chemical agent needed to bond them to the film being illegal. One small fault which I blame the theater on, was the lack of center channel. It was quieter then all the other speakers. Needless to say, if it was intentional, it was clever because it made voices harder to hear during loud scenes, making it more realistic. However, I do think it was the theater because as loud goes, it didn't have much dynamic range when it was loud, making me believe they simply peaked out their system.

 

Over-all I really enjoyed the film. Without ruining anything, it's a combination of Gravity and Contact mixed together. It's pretty heavy on the science, with a heartfelt story that pushes the plot forward to a very interesting and clever resolution. As a Nolan fan, this is by far his best over-all movie because it's the most accessible, with the most interesting story. It also makes the audience think, like Momento or Inception, rather then simply watch eye candy. Every bit of dialog or action, moves the plot forward, there is no time to waste in this movie and in my eyes, that's how proper movies should be made.

 

So the big question is… see it on film or not? Well, if you can see it on 70mm, horizontal (IMAX) or vertical, I'd go for it. We may never get another opportunity and next time I see it, I'll be headed over to the Chinese theater to see an IMAX print, just to get a sense of what else I may have missed on the vertical 70mm presentation. There is no question in my mind, everyone who enjoys cinema and likes science fiction, should watch this movie. It's a cinematic journey that not only moves the heart, but also makes you really think about a subject not many of us have ever thought about.

 

 

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In my eyes, this 70mm presentation of Interstellar is exactly what this industry needs to get moving along. It's something special and it's something very unique, which is what the old days of road show films was all about! Anyone can watch a digital screening of this movie at home or at the cinema. We've spent so much money promoting digital projection, we've lost sight of quality, we lost sight of uniqueness. What Nolan has done is bring back some of what the industry is lacking and hopefully his box office will be enough to do the same thing with his next film. In my view, the cost to produce big films like Interstellar on 70mm entirely, using vertical Panavision and skipping the IMAX phase, is far less then producing the entire film in 4k 3D. Basically do what PT Anderson did on "The Master" and be done with it. Strike a few vertical and horizontal 70mm prints, allow the smaller theaters which can show those prints to "premiere" the films in a roadshow format (for this week only) before all the other cineplexes. Make movies an event once more, rather then something you see on a rainy day or when your bored sitting on your couch at home in your underwear. My experience tonight with Interstellar in the Cinerama Dome, was exactly what cinema should be like. Outside of the rude and uneducated friday night audience, it was a fantastic experience that I will put on my wall of experiences as something very special and hope to one day do again.

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The 35 mm material suffering compared to 70 mm is totally normal, you're blowing up 35 mm to a crazy resolution, i remember seeing TDKR in IMAX digital, and even then, you could see a clear difference btw the 35 mm material & the IMAX sequences (aside from the aspect ratio), hell, I saw Interstellar in regular 2K digital (I believe) & even there, with everything cropped to 2:35, you see instantly the gain in clarity with the IMAX footage, I do love the feel of the first act though, so much texture & warmth, beautiful grain, Hoyte Van Hoytema really brought something here that I feel Pfister wouldn't have.

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Just to clear up something I'm a little confused about - what is the difference between the 65mm shots in this film, versus the 65mm shots that were used in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (and other films) if you watched those films in Imax? I saw both at the Imax but can't remember if they were film or digital projection - is the difference here that those films were ONLY projected digitally where as this is projected on 70mm film (at certain screens.)?

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I think the important thing to talk about regarding this release, is the market manipulation. I think it was an awesome move to release a few days early on film. Efforts like that may just buy film enough time for filmmakers to continue to perfect their craft. Which I believe is the part your talking about. Which is what I love about film. It is a craft. Similar to stills... choosing to make photo prints with an optical printer vs a ink jet. Choosing to do platinum printing vs gelatin silver. These are all choices that require effort passion and learning. I recently (past 5yrs) have been learning video. It is difficult as well. It is a choice. I would hate that we loose the choice of film. Maybe the future is fewer theaters offering film. But, more celebrated releases. Early releases. Better cared for projection equipment and prints. Maybe then it will reclaim its position as a high form of the filmmaking art. Not just a technology in question of obsolesce.

Edited by steve waschka

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So you're saying that the film projection looks better than the digital?

 

I know this theater pretty well and have seen many 4k presentations originated on 4k and this thing blew me out of the water with it's sharpness and texture. The IMAX stuff looked flat-out amazing, almost as if it was from an entirely different movie because as someone else mentioned, the 35mm stuff is purposely shot to be grainy and dark. So once you see the IMAX stuff, it looks absolutely flat-out amazing. I'd love to see this movie in IMAX just to get a feel for the full negative scenes. I have a decent home theater projector and excellent sound system, so I'll wait for the HD video release before seeing it digitally.

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Choosing to do platinum printing vs gelatin silver.

Interesting that platinum papers were commercially available and at the time perceived as a viable contender for the 'standard'.

 

tn_Platona_small%20(1).JPG

 

But yes, printing Pt/Pd is a level of commitment above silver gelatins nowadays - (let alone inkjet) - and just to mix things up there was some chat about a platinum inkjet a whiles back :blink:

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William Eggleston did amazing work with the color dye print process. My favorite was "glass on airplane" from the Los Alamos collection. What's this process' status?:

 

"In 1994, Eastman Kodak stopped making all materials for this process. The dyes used in the process are very spectrally pure compared to normal coupler-induced photographic dyes, with the exception of the Kodak cyan. The dyes have excellent light and dark fastness. The dye transfer process possesses a larger color gamut and tonal scale than any other process, including inkjet. Another important characteristic of dye transfer is that it allows the practitioner the highest degree of photographic control compared to any other photochemical color print process." wiki

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I just came back from seeing this film and i must say i hated it. I saw it on a 2k screening and i couldnt believe how bad the film looked at times. Too much grain at times, other times i saw the film being blurry and also too warm at times. The beginning of the film when the main character has a nightmare and the daughter says something, that scene looked horrible. Does anyone know why the film looked so bad?

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I took my family down to Seattle today just to see Interstellar on a true IMAX 15perf 70mm at the Pacific Science Center (as opposed to either of the two IMAX screens in Vancouver which are both digital) and I have to say the Imax originated footage was incredible.

 

I will add a caveat. I agree with Tyler above about the lack of rich blacks in some of the 35mm anamorphic material. That could have been handled better, especially as a showcase for what film can achieve in this increasingly digital realm. We're all used to seeing new digital cameras able to shoot in "available light" at night, but film just isn't designed to work in the dark. I felt the night scene on the porch of the house between Matthew McConaughey and John Lithgow was particularly underwhelming and the focus was a little soft because of the low light levels.

 

If I'm not mistaken I read in an interview somewhere that Nolan and Pfister don't do DI's for color grading purposes, only as a necessity to shots that add a visual effect. I feel that is a little too extreme as film can benefit from a good DI just as much as digital can. I'm also not necessarily against digital projection either like Tarantino is, as long as it can project all of the quality that the original shooting format holds. Currently, no 2K projection of Interstellar is showing you anything near what an IMAX 15perf 70mm projection is in terms of quality.

 

In my opinion, IMAX film shouldn't be retired until we're at at least 16K projection.

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16K would be overkill for IMAX projection. 15-perf 65mm is 3X the width of 35mm, so if 2K and 4K projection are comparable to 35mm print projection, then 6K to 12K would be good enough for IMAX. Or if you look at it from the standpoint that 35mm film seems to resolve about 3K worth of detail, hence why it needs to be scanned at 4K to 6K, then an IMAX negative should resolve around 9K or detail and need to be scanned at 12K at least. But for the purposes of digital projection, this means that 9K projection would probably show you ever detail on the negative and be out-resolving IMAX print projection.

 

So perhaps 8K would be a good target for a digital IMAX projection system if they are using the old IMAX screen size standard.

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Sounds like the 70mm version is the one to see if you can:

 

The 35mm anamorphic sequences have been blown up to fill the IMAX screen side-to-side using a 6k digital DMR process, the highest resolution processing ever used in a feature film presentation. The finished picture switches between the 2.40:1 and 1.43:1 aspect ratios at key dramatic moments in the film. This is combined with a specially made IMAX uncompressed sound mix for the most immersive presentation of the film.

The digital IMAX presentation has been created from 6 and 8k scans of the original film elements, graded specifically for the high contrast IMAX dual-projection system. When presented on digital IMAX, the sequences shot on IMAX will fill the IMAX screens from top to bottom and switch from 2.40:1 to an aspect ratio of up to 1.9:1. It will also carry the uncompressed IMAX sound mix of the film.

When presented on regular 70mm film, the IMAX sequences have been optically reduced to 70mm 5 perf film to produce a grain-free, ultra-high resolution image, cropped top and bottom to fill the wide screen. The 35mm anamorphic sections have been blown up optically. Both processes are photochemical, preserving the original analog color of the imagery and combined in a 2.2:1 widescreen presentation. The sound is carried on a separate Datasat disc to produce state-of-the-art 6-track digital sound.

 

The 35mm anamorphic prints have been made photochemically, preserving all the rich analog color and high resolution of the original 35mm anamorphic photography. This is combined with new 4k negatives produced from 8k scans of the IMAX original negatives, cropped top and bottom to create a seamless 2.40:1 scope image. The sound is coded on the prints in Dolby SRD for a 6-track digital playback experience in most theatres.

 

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I'm going to see it this week and i'm more excited about witnessing the visual appeal than the story itself. What i find interesting about all the hype is the public"s false perception and ignorance over film, digital, formats, ect... Theaters that had recently invested in switching to digital projection threw a fit because of Nolan's choice to show it first on a limited number of 70mm film projectors. They accused him of moving backwards by preferring a 70mm print over 2K D-cinema.

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I'm going to see it this week and i'm more excited about witnessing the visual appeal than the story itself. What i find interesting about all the hype is the public"s false perception and ignorance over film, digital, formats, ect... Theaters that had recently invested in switching to digital projection threw a fit because of Nolan's choice to show it first on a limited number of 70mm film projectors. They accused him of moving backwards by preferring a 70mm print over 2K D-cinema.

 

I guess the 2K digital cinema stuff doesn't suffer from scratches and grain and gate weave etc. Some people don't like all that stuff. It's ironic as personally I used to like to go and watch stuff at the cinema so I could see the grain on the big screen. I'd even watch stuff I wasn't that into if it was cheap just to see the film print and have that experience.

 

These days I wonder why I should go and see something in a half empty cinema instead of just watching it at home on a big screen or a video projector. Variations on digital projection don't seem that big to me. Even 4K in the cinema has so far left me feeling "so what?" but I may have been unlucky this far. So yes why go to the theatre anymore? There is 3D I suppose......

 

Freya

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I saw a 70mm projection of the master back a few years ago and it was really stunning. It is a different thing then seeing 35mm for sure. With that said 35mm is the norm ...its what we are now used to and it says a baseline expectation.

 

I think the question is besides just looking at the technical aspects of "wow this is sharper...wow" is it helping the story telling. Most people I talked to about the master 70mm screening said the first 10min was very "WOW" but after that they settled into the story telling and the larger print didn't matter so much to them.

 

Now I'm not saying I advocate lower resolution ....the 2k DI standard sucks .....and I think its inevitable in the next 5-10 years we start seeing some 8K + cameras and projection systems in theaters. But I dont really like 70mm as a selling point especially when its intercut inside a film....I just don't get that 70mm for select scenes thing. Maybe if it was an artistic choice for like the ending scene or something or a couple really pivitol moments.

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Most people I talked to about the master 70mm screening said the first 10min was very "WOW" but after that they settled into the story telling and the larger print didn't matter so much to them.

Unless something is shot or presented really poorly this is how its supposed to be. Many will tell you if you noticed how I shot a scene... I failed.

 

 

 

These days I wonder why I should go and see something in a half empty cinema instead of just watching it at home on a big screen or a video projector. Variations on digital projection don't seem that big to me. Even 4K in the cinema has so far left me feeling "so what?" but I may have been unlucky this far. So yes why go to the theatre anymore?

 

I have a 14ft diag screen and a Pioneer Kuro which projects an image I can sit 10ft away from [or less]. There is little reason for me to go to a theater for a digital experience. I recently went to a theater in a large city while away on business. It was a megaplex style theater and we had to sit halfway or so back. The screen looked tiny. I dont care what resolution it was.

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I saw it on a 2k screening and i couldnt believe how bad the film looked at times. Too much grain at times, other times i saw the film being blurry and also too warm at times. The beginning of the film when the main character has a nightmare and the daughter says something, that scene looked horrible. Does anyone know why the film looked so bad?

 

The Anamorphic stuff looks really bad. They didn't even bother lighting, they opened up the lens and yelled action. I'm under the belief, if you have to use 500 ASA stock (I assume they used Vision 3 500ASA) for critical dialog scenes, you've for sure under lit too much. Roving camera, master wides, heck even medium shots or quick dialog bits, fine. But when every single emotional moment has an actor out of focus and dark, it gets tedious. Besides, the IMAX stuff looks so different, it's almost like too movies.

 

Nolan should have taken a cue from PT Anderson and shot THE ENTIRE MOVIE in 5 perf 70mm. It would have required them to light more and as a consequence, it would have looked a lot better.

 

Speaking about "The Master" what a stroke of genius that film was and the cinematography was nothing but outstanding. All the things that hurt Interstellar, aren't a problem at all with "The Master" and it's unfortunate Nolan continued to push is IMAX craze so much. Honestly, flipping between 2.35:1 and 1.9:1 on the IMAX prints, gets tiring for the audience. It takes them out of the film and I know many people who could care less. In my view, any technicality which takes the film away from the story is bad and out of focus, grainy dialog scenes are just that. Nolan really needs to re-work his process for the next film because if he keeps down this path, it won't matter if he shoots film or not, people will simply not watch his movies because of these issues. A beautiful 2.20:1 aspect 5 perf 70mm negative, optically blown up onto 15 perf IMAX and projected in 2.20:1 works perfect. So what it doesn't fill the screen, it's still larger then life!

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Long-time forum member Gregory Irwin was the focus puller that you seem so intent on disparaging. My first thought is that you should try doing the job if you think it is so easy. It's a little too easy to sit on the sidelines and point out the flaws in a very ambitious production without knowing fully what the challenges were.

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Not yet, hopefully this week in either IMAX or regular 70mm.

 

I certainly don't expect Hoyte Van Hoytema to match the style of Wally Pfister, judging from his other credits like "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", "Her", or "The Fighter". They all either have a texture from the use of smoke, or film grain, or older lenses shot wide-open so I'm expecting similar techniques here.

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Looking forward to your thoughts on the film. The scenes that I'm referring to as having really bad focus were non moving shots where the camera seemed like it was on a tripod. I'm just so baffled as to how the film ended up looking the way it did sometimes.

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First of all, on a film shoot, the operator is the only person who can tell everyone else if the take was good, and if the shot was operated remotely with a video tap image, then no one knows for sure that the take was sharp until dailies. Second, even when you do another take to get the focus right, the editor still may choose the earlier take for performance reasons. In Walter Murch's book on editing, he lists the priorities of what take to use and technical considerations like focus are down the list, like #5 or something, behind performance, story, screen direction, etc.

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I was thinking the same thing Doug, about the editor taking an out of focus take due to performance. However, there is so much out of focus, it's more likely an incompetent operator. I suggest seeing the film at The Dome because I think the experience was pretty good, outside of the curved screen and the focus issues with the edges, which kinda sucks.

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