Christopher Nolan is Setting a Big Stage for 70mm

War on an epic scale with Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk.’ This is thanks to 70mm film.
By  · Published on July 17th, 2017

War on an epic scale with Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk.’ This is thanks to 70mm film.

Christopher Nolan is getting ready to release his new opus upon the world in the form of Dunkirk. Dunkirk details the epic evacuation of soldiers during the early stages of World War II. Outside of the movie itself, Nolan has finally committed to shooting an IMAX 65mm film in full. A simple way to understand this is that IMAX cameras use a specific type of 70mm film, which is 65mm but shot horizontally offering a larger aspect ratio. He has previously attempted this with his earlier films such as The Dark Knight and Interstellar, but never to this extent, as he has with Dunkirk. The large scale of the format is having a resurgence thanks to Nolan and the efforts of Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Why should audiences be excited about this prospect and what has this done to secure the future of 70mm film?

In the 1950s, filmmakers were experimenting with a new format of film that would allow an unparalleled resolution to their pictures. Certainly a much more expensive endeavor, 70mm offered double the resolution of 35mm film. Thus it was usually reserved for epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ben-Hur. Now that cinemas are encouraging studios to shoot to digital there was even less of a chance of films being made in the 70mm format in the year 2017.

Enter Christopher Nolan. Nolan began gaining clout in the cinema world with success after success. None bigger than The Dark Knight that revolutionized the superhero genre and experimented with the large format images IMAX could provide. When he started working on the prologue of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan couldn’t keep quiet about the benefits of film, in this case, IMAX film, that would disappear if directors weren’t given the opportunity to use it. When talking with the DGA, Nolan said “I felt as if I didn’t say anything, and then we started to lose that option, it would be a shame. When I look at a digitally acquired and projected image, it looks inferior against an original negative anamorphic print or an IMAX one.” Nolan talks much more about his love for film in this BBC interview recorded in 2015.

There is a certain prestige that comes from a 70mm film. So when films like The Master, The Hateful Eight, and now Dunkirk use the format there is built in excitement to see a glorious image. Quentin Tarantino and The Weinstein Company went to great expense to make sure theaters were equipped to show The Hateful Eight in its proper format. That was previously the largest rollout for 70mm film in twenty years, but now Dunkirk will be set to eclipse that. Even better, Dunkirk‘s scope is much more suited to the large scale format. Dunkirk is the difference of an epic war film staged on massive battlegrounds with countless extras against what was essentially a stage play with The Hateful Eight. These are the number of different formats Dunkirk will be available in: 

Yes, the IMAX 70mm presentation will be in 18K. Most high-end television sets sold these days stop at 4K. This is a resolution that will exceed that by four times the amount, adding a clarity that is rarely seen in motion pictures. When speaking to, Nolan said, “This is something that nobody will ever be able to see in their living room. And it’s the best argument that cinema has against the competition represented by improvement to home video systems. I think the studios understand that.”

In order for the 70mm format to continue to thrive, more filmmakers have to push to use it in their upcoming films. Of course not every studio can afford to do this, but it looks like Disney is making great strides with two of their upcoming films being shot in 65mm (Star Wars IX and The Nutcracker And The Four Realms). Kenneth Branagh‘s Murder On The Orient Express was also shot using this format. Perhaps studios will realize that the fad that was 3D cinema is on its way out the door and theatergoers will be able to enjoy the promise of 70mm film.

Christopher Nolan has taken the great resources available to him and has done his best to keep film alive. In the case of Dunkirk, it has allowed him to shoot at an incredible resolution and provide his vision at the highest quality and resolution available. As more directors and studios are influenced by his efforts, perhaps the format will continue its resurgence. It is certainly something that cannot currently be achieved in the home theater. Perhaps that will be the biggest reason to produce more of these features. That will certainly give cinephiles a reason to rejoice as movies will continue to be shot on film.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.