There’s something exceptional about Interstellar that everyone should experience — it is a movie-making “alignment of stars” akin to the perfect storm in music that lead to Woodstock. It’s a film so extravagant in nature, it was projected in 70mm, a format equal to the scale of its fantastic story, and shot on IMAX 65mm.
Shooting in 65mm IMAX and then transferring it over to a bigger 70mm print and projecting in the highest quality possible is something that almost no filmmaker gets to do in their career and something that every film-goer should see. The image quality is best in class providing rich colours, deep tones and lots of detail. And it’s not going to be around much longer.
I don’t like beating the drum, but film is dying. There’s a handful of movies every year shot on film compared to the swath now shot on RED, Alexa, or Sony digital cameras. That handful becomes smaller each year, though it persists because of a few stalwart filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Tarantino, J.J. Abrams and the infamous Spielberg.
For those who don’t think about picture capture methods when going to the theatre, here’s a little background. Film is a creative option to use when executing your narrative. Most directors avoid it for a variety of reasons, the most common of which is flexibility. Using digital is significantly easier — you get endless takes and the ability to playback the exact footage you just shoot instantly.
In other words, you’re not guessing what the footage will look because it needs to be sent out to a lab to get processed. It also costs significantly less to use a RED camera, the industry’s go-to digital workhorse wielded by the likes of Peter Jackson and Steven Soderberg, than it does to get the IMAX camera, buy film, and pay for the processing.
The mass amount of digital cameras available compared to the handful of IMAX there are make renting costs minimal. Recording on digital goes to reusable hard drives as opposed to film where a roll of it can’t be reused the next day. Taking all that into account, bumping the film size up to 65mm raises costs even more, while forcing the equipment to be bigger, more cumbersome, and difficult to use.
The odds are stacked against it and most directors opt for the more casual method of recording picture. This doesn’t mean directors who shoot digital are necessarily lazy — there are several directors who choose to shoot digital because it actually lends to their filmmaking style. Steven Soderberg’s well-made, inexpensive flicks are a demonstration for the next generation of filmmakers.
Glorious, glorious film
So why even use film over digital? Keanu Reeves (of all people) made a fantastic documentary called Side by Side that covers the bases pretty well. As far as the nitty gritty details go, film offers more image fidelity (or quality) by a huge margin.
Digital has made lots of headway in terms of dynamic range (the ability to capture a wide breadth of exposures) and overall high sensitivity to light. When comparing colour reproduction, 35mm out-shows its digital competitor easily. Colour registers on film more accurately with an even greater range in tones.
Film looks a lot better because its more capable of capturing light, plain and simple. Unfortunately, the costs and complications outrank the benefits for most filmmakers today.
Nolan’s starry ode to 65mm
Before Interstellar, the most recent use of 65mm film in narrative was for a specific few VFX shots in Transformers, Hunger Games, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. With visual effects, IMAX is used to capture high-res footage to provide a backdrop for high-res computer-generated images. The VFX and footage were sent back at 5.6k, the highest possible resolution, for Interstellar. Then the original footage and VFX footage are put onto the 70mm print for release.
Before Interstellar and Transformers, the last narrative to use IMAX was Nolan’s previous film, The Dark Knight Rises, where a large chunk of the story utilized the massive film medium — especially the famous prologue.
Whatever Nolan didn’t shoot in 65mm he did in 35mm because of practicality and costs. IMAX cameras are too loud to record sound directly next to them so it limits when they’re able to be used so scenes would cut to and from formats pretty obviously. But if anyone saw The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX and then also in Super 35mm, there is a distinct difference between the power Batman finally appearing on screen has when he fills the full 65mm frame.
Meanwhile, 70mm IMAX projection is nothing short of a spectacle. And that’s exactly what Interstellar is. You could go to a 70mm, 35mm or digital projection theatre, but it’s not recreating the format it was captured nearly as well — a 70mm picture is three times smaller than its IMAX counterpart.
The medium is as much a part of the film as the actors, directors, and the rest of the cast and crew. And because Chris Nolan uses IMAX footage to make the movie, if you don’t see it in that format you’re not really seeing the complete movie. For Interstellar, anything short of the 70mm projector is a compromise on the actual film.
A compromise to come
Even the Chief Quality Officer of IMAX, David Keighley, feels that this film is the pinnacle of his career in image quality and theatre experience for IMAX 65mm film. But he acknowledges that there needs to be a solution to making the same quality as 65mm film in a digital format.
That goal is ambitious to say the least. Even the best digital cameras right now barely come close to Super 35mm, David’s goal is to make a digital capture medium capable of convincing Christopher Nolan himself to potentially use digital. To get to that point, there’s a lot of work ahead.
Get it before it’s gone
Studios wont be able to foot the bill for narratives to use IMAX for much longer. Christopher Nolan is one of the only filmmakers around using the massive format for narrative story aside from VFX. Even IMAX is looking at ways to make the transition. But whether you’re for or against keeping film alive, as someone who enjoys movies it’s impossible to ignore the experience that Interstellar brings to the theatre. A story, larger than life, is brought to the screen in 70mm IMAX and was shot with the highest resolution motion images possible.
Films like this only come out every three years at best. It’s safe to assume there are only a few films left to be made like this before they’re gone forever and replaced with full digital. Make sure to see it before you never can.