The End of IMAX 70mm
by Benjamin Peeples
For the past six years, I've had a growing interest in large format filmmaking and projection. 70mm, VistaVision, and Cinerama all have a technical prowess to them that digital technologies are still a long way from equaling. IMAX in particular kicked off this interest. Sure, I’d seen some of the documentary films at museums, but it was seeing The Dark Knight (2008), the first narrative feature to utilize IMAX cameras, at the Lincoln Center IMAX theater that made it apparent just how much better of an image large format offered.
For those who don’t know, IMAX cameras run 70mm film horizontally, for an image that is 15 perforations across (regular 70mm is five perforations running vertically), with a 1.44:1 aspect ratio (IMAX blow-ups are letterboxed to fit the dimensions of the screen). The resulting image is enormous, full of depth and vivid color, and the screens are built to take advantage of the viewer's peripheral vision.
Now The Dark Knight is a 153-minute movie, and only 30 minutes of it was actually shot in the IMAX format (mostly the key action sequences and helicopter shots of the city), with the rest being a blow-up of 35mm anamorphic footage. Regardless, it was its own special kind of experience, and made me interested in seeing as much large format projection as I feasibly could, even if it was films that didn’t originate in large format.
Only four other films were partially shot in IMAX after The Dark Knight: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). I made sure to see each one in 70mm IMAX and they were indeed great viewing experiences.
Although it wasn’t shot with IMAX cameras, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity was being aggressively pushed as essential to see in IMAX 3D. Opening weekend (October 2013) I went and immediately was very confused by the way it was being projected. Instead of extending to the left and right of the screen, the projection was window-boxed for the entirety of the movie. I later found out that only two movies were getting IMAX prints for the rest of 2013: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. The Lincoln Center IMAX, one of the real flagship IMAX theaters, had installed a digital projector so they could play Gravity and a couple of other big end-of-year releases that no prints were being made for.
And that brings us to 2014. There is only one IMAX release getting an actual print as far as anyone knows: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, coming in November, and supposedly its going to be the very last narrative feature with an IMAX print.
Although filming narrative features partially in IMAX will have been a very short-lived endeavor should Interstellar truly be the last one, it is going to present a very unusual problem to future film preservation as to what elements will be preserved, and as to how one might project these films properly if the projectors are no longer in use.