Thoughts on IMAX, 65mm, 35mm and HD image making

This first began when I saw the IMAX film “The Fires of Kuwait” in the theater. I was really impressed by the super fine grain quality and sharpness of the image in this documentary film. It was heads above any other format for nature or documentary filmmaking. Since seeing that film the world of fiction films has adopted the use of IMAX more recently in what I gather as an affront to HD and stay at home viewing. After all you can only really experience the grandeur of IMAX in an IMAX theater. And along with this has come a return to the use of 65mm film origination for some prominent recent films including “The Master”.

When I first viewed “The Dark Knight Rises” at an IMAX theater I was actually disturbed by the clarity of the IMAX originated portion of the film and relieved by the 35mm portions. There was a familiar textural quality to the 35mm that was missing in the IMAX sections. In fact the IMAX looked and felt to me like it had been originated on HD. As we have seen in recent years (or months) HD camera systems have come a long way in their ability to preserve the extreme highlights and shadow detail. The latitude has improved greatly and is rapidly approaching that of motion picture stock. And precisely for that reason I find it to be conceptually wrong to film on IMAX or 65mm with today’s motion picture emulsions. That is an important point in my argument.

When films like “Lawrence of Arabia” were made in 65mm the film stocks of the day were grainier than today’s are. The 70mm projections looked comparable to current 35mm prints. The commercial reasons for producing larger and specialty formats were to distinguish the theatrical experience from that of TV. Cinerama, Cinemascope, etc. were all ploys to combat the in-home TV experience. The films originated on 65mm still had the texture and familiarity of motion picture film stock only crisper and could be projected bigger and still retain that quality. The business reasons aren’t much different today with 3D and large format productions. But today there is a big difference and that is the advent of  HD motion picture capture and projection. With HD the image, even on the giant screen, is virtually grainless and pin sharp. Now with larger sensors becoming the norm, as evidenced by the Red Epic 5K and the Sony F65 8K, filmmakers can work with shallow depth of field as well. So as the HD sensors (soon to be Ultra HD 16K) become more like film in their ability to capture expanded latitude the differences on the big screen begin to disappear. IMAX and 65mm film start to look like HD and vice-versa.

Some months ago I saw a screening of “The Master” in 65mm. It was too clean and soulless for me. It had no trace of the film element that I yearned for. Visually and emotionally. If they had produced it on vintage film stock, say ’54, it might have rung true. But as it was I felt like I was watching a movie made on HD.

I had a similar though more disturbing experience watching “The Hobbit” in 3D at 48 fps. That was even more upsetting as I felt like I was watching a live event in a theme park and not a film in a fantasy world full of mystery and enchantment.

I guess I really appreciate the experience of watching a fiction movie in a theater and feel that it is not reality, but another world that I am entering with my mind and emotions. If I want to experience a theme park ride or see a nature event movie then HD, 65mm or IMAX origination would be great. When I see a beautiful film like “Anna Karenina” I appreciate that it was made on 35mm film and looked and felt like it.

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