June 06--With eye-popping colors, true contrasts and crystal-clear definition, 70 mm films have long been considered the gold standard for viewing movies.
"It's like the Jack Nicholson line: 'As good as it gets,' " said Tom Hayes, a veteran filmmaker and an assistant professor at the School of Film at Ohio University in Athens.
"There's no perceptible film grain in 70 mm," he said. "It's like if you look closely at a cartoon in the paper -- you see the dots -- versus a painting in a museum."
But for a variety of reasons, movies shot on 70 mm film are a rarity. Central Ohio film fans, however, can enjoy a sample of the medium with a 70 mm screening of The Master at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
The movie, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a restless World War II veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic cult leader, was the first feature film shot in 70 mm since Hamlet in 1996. The documentaries Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011) were also shot using the format.
It isn't new technology; 70 mm stock has been in existence since the 1890s.
The 1950s and '60s were the heyday of 70 mm films as Hollywood tried to differentiate its product from a small-screen threat -- television. Major films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Mutiny on the Bounty, North by Northwest, 2001: A Space Odyssey and West Side Story used the format.
So what's the big deal?
Cinema connoisseurs tend to prefer movies on film rather than DVDs, citing purer colors and sharper images. And because 70 mm frames are twice as wide as 35 mm frames, the images need to be enlarged less, reducing image softness."Seventy mm just gives you a more vibrant, richer image," said David Filipi, director of film/video for the Wexner Center. "It's able to produce a greater sense of natural depth and crispness. The best example I can think of is if you took a photo with a regular 35 mm camera and tried to blow it up to poster size, it gets grainier and grainier."
Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who sought a vintage look for the movie, found the format effective.
"We started shooting with a 65 mm Studio Camera, and everything we were seeing started to feel very right," Anderson is quoted as saying in the production notes. "It gives you a wonderful, strong image, but more than the resolution or anything like that, it simply seemed to suit this story and these characters. Things could feel antique without feeling precious or a re-enactment of a particular style. It's hard for me to describe it other than to say it felt right."
So why don't more filmmakers use 70 mm film?
It's costly and cumbersome, Hayes said.
"I can't imagine a single advantage (for the filmmaker)," he said. "It's sort of like going back to the dark ages, in terms of the weight of the equipment. When you're running 120-some feet a minute, you have to be changing film more.
"It's all about the aesthetics. There's no advantage in terms of the production process -- quite the contrary."
Few theaters have the specialized equipment to project 70 mm movies.
"Outside of major markets, it just wasn't viable," Hayes said. "Not more than 100 venues in the U.S. have the ability to present on 70 mm."
The Master isn't the usual type of big-budget, action-filled blockbuster that depended on top-notch visuals.
"That was a question to me when I heard it was being shot," Hayes said. "It's not like Lawrence (of Arabia) or Ben Hur. It's not a massive spectacle. It's an introspective sort of a film."
Still, the screening should attract true cinema fans, Filipi said.
"This appeals to the fim geeks out there," he said. "Paul Thomas Anderson was very public in saying he wanted people to see it in 70 mm."
Hayes plans to drive from Athens to Columbus to attend a screening.
"If you enjoy watching films on film," he said, "this is a remarkable experience."
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