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The Film Stays in the Picture: A Guide to 70mm Film Projection

on September 14, 2018, 2:19pm

Photography by Calla Flanagan

In recent years, as film projection has been reduced to the margins of the industry thanks to the comparative cost-effectiveness (for studios, anyway) of digital photography and projection, it’s become a precious luxury for some moviegoers who believe that film-forward exhibition is the way in which some movies have to be seen.

A handful of prominent filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino) have led the charge on select modern productions being exhibited in the increasingly rare 70mm format, one which both enlarges the overall panoramic size of the image and enhances its clarity and color. However, an even more intriguing shift has begun in the last few years in certain independent theaters: 70mm repertory screenings.

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Classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and West Side Story have been re-popularized in the larger format thanks to their grand scale, and whether it’s simply aesthetics or something deeper, these screenings have connected enough with audiences that some studios have even started to offer blow-up prints of their modern productions. (For one example, Warner Bros. has circulated blow-ups of Wonder Woman and Kong: Skull Island in the past year.)

To get a closer look at the process behind exhibiting one of these increasingly rare prints, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago welcomed us up to their projection booth to get a closer glance at the delicate work which goes into taking these prints away from the days of teen projectionists carelessly mishandling them in mall multiplexes, and turning them into what the Music Box’s assistant programmer and technical director Julian Antos calls “museum pieces.”

This past week, Consequence of Sound spent a morning preparing for the theater’s upcoming 70mm Film Festival with Antos, to discuss what goes into mounting a print, taking care of it, and what’s helped them come back into such high demand in the first place.

Can you talk a little bit about how 70mm has been revived here in the last few years, and how you/the theater have worked to foster that revival?

The interest was revived by one film: The Master, in 2012. Prior to that, I don’t think the Music Box had run 70mm in a few years. So when they heard The Master was being released on 70mm, and a few prints were being made…there was a preview screening here, and they probably had a week’s worth of notice. These [projectors] ran 35mm all the time, but the 70mm parts were all mismatched and everything really needed to be tuned up.

So they spent a lot of time that week getting that show up and running, and it was so beautiful, and it’s one of the most beautiful things we’ve probably had on that screen. There’s been incredible audience demand for it ever since. So we’ve been putting a lot of work into these machines and training projectionists, and there’s been a shocking amount of interest in the format, especially since film has sort of faded from day-to-day multiplex use. Other cities always do really well with 70mm fests, too.

What do you personally think factors into the appeal of the 70mm revival?

It’s very beautiful. The images are really sharp. The color, especially…the color and brightness play off each other. The brightness is measured at the same level, but for 70mm, it’s more evenly spread across the frame. It’s really sort of an intense image.

In cases like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001, it’s just like being there. It’s very much cinematic and sort of like looking at a painting, but it’s also very tangible and real-feeling.

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What are some of your favorite 70mm prints that have run here so far?

West Side Story always looks really great, The Master especially because it’s on…print stock has really improved in a lot of ways over the years, so seeing The Master shot on modern film stock, a modern print, it’s really incredible. It’s kind of funny that as the industry transitioned to mostly digital filmmaking, the film stocks were better than they ever had been. What a shame.

It’s funny, the first couple 70mm fests before I was here, they didn’t show many blow-up prints. [Editor’s note: a blow-up print is an enlarged 70mm print of a film shot on 35mm or digital, created retroactively.] Maybe one or two. Once we started doing this year after year, we started running out of titles to bring in. So we started bringing in a lot of blow-up prints from the ‘80s. A lot of them look really stunning. The thinking is sort of “oh, it was shot on 35mm, what’s the point of showing a blow-up?” But I think it really brings out a lot of detail.

Especially during that era, there was a lot of places showing certain films on 35mm and 70mm, depending on their means.

Yeah, a lot of major cities would have at least a few 70mm screenings.

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Walk me through the process of running one of these films, from the time you get it in the mail to the time you mount and project it. How long does it normally take? What goes into it?

The prints usually come via DHL or FedEx. Most of them are stored in California. If we’re lucky, sometimes they come in these beautiful boxes. That’s how Fox sends their archival prints, they’re all double-packed. They’re heavy individually, but they’re manageable.

Most of them come in these terrible cans, that have been going across the country for decades. They weren’t well-designed in the first place. When you get a new print in these cans, one trip across the country and it’s already all dinged up. It’s a one-of-a-kind print, stored in this terrible can. Nobody’s come up with a better way to do it.

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This one’s already been inspected, we inspect them as soon as they arrive in just in case there’s any issues. We want to catch them as soon as possible. We usually do runthroughs if it’s a film we haven’t shown before, and that helps us catch any issues as well.

For newer prints that have a DTS soundtrack, which is if there’s a timecard on the print and it syncs up to a CD, those we always do a full runthrough [for] if we haven’t run them before, because there could be some issue with the timecard printing. We had Cleopatra, and half of the movie you had to set the sync offset a certain number of frames, and then after the intermission, you had to remember to reset it to a different number, and it just had “acoustic” written on the disc. But yeah, Cleopatra was maybe the best print we’ve ever shown.

When you get these prints, like The Thing this year for example, which have faded color, was that unavoidable?

The color fading is specific to Kodak stock between 1950 and 1982, it was Eastmancolor print stock. Kodak acknowledged this, but the thinking was that the release prints are not a permanent record. The negative stocks don’t have the same fading properties, but the print stocks until 1982 (except for Technicolor print stocks), they fade. In 1982, Kodak developed LPP print stocks, which I believe stands for Lowfade Positive Print, and the color remains intact. That was partly because Martin Scorsese was so upset that all of the prints of his films were fading, and he threw a big fit. (laughs)

The Thing is right at the cutoff, it was late in ’82 that Kodak changed the stock. We don’t like to show faded stuff, but in the case of The Thing, it played at a couple other venues and people really wanted to see it. It’ll still look really good, your eyes will just have to adjust to the color after a bit. It’ll sound great, and we’ve been upfront about it.

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Can you talk a bit about the magnetic sound process of 70mm, and how you set it up for different prints?

The way the mag sound works is that it’s actually bound with an adhesive onto the film. There are six tracks: surround, left, left center, center, right center, and right. But it’s just an adhesive coating, and if your projector’s not set up really well, it’ll start to flake off. It’s also really easy to de-magnetize it. We spend a lot of time going through all the metal parts in the projector with what’s called a degausser.

Sometimes, on an older mag print, you’ll hear a little click-click-click on one of the tracks, and that’s from a sprocket that was magnetized in one specific part, so every time the film runs over that sprocket, you can hear it.

The mag sound is really cool, but it’s very delicate, and they don’t make the prints anymore. You can only do 70mm with DTS sound now. They’re all pretty much irreplaceable, so it’s nice that the studios still lend them out.

What’re some of the key things that go into protecting a print like this?

For shipping and receiving and things like that, I’ve developed a number of methods for making sure that things don’t get lost. (laughs) The one good thing about these cans is that they’re very easy for FedEx to identify, so if one gets lost in shipment, you can just go and say “hey, i’m looking for a really ugly box.” Which I’ve done before.

For projection, for all film formats, we spend a lot of time very carefully inspecting all the prints, and going over every frame, and repairing anything that needs to be repaired. Typically, the studios do a really good job of making sure that everything is in projectable condition, and they usually won’t send a print out if there’s any serious issues. But yeah, inspection is really important.

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We always do scratch tests every time we set up for this festival, so we’ll run a loop of film through the projector like 200 times, and make sure we’re not adding anywhere, which is really easy to do for 70mm because the image area is so big, and [the film is] just sort of flopping around in there. You have to make sure the loop sizes in the projector are exactly right. We have these lamps, so when the film is coming up on the reel, we’ll sort of look and make sure nothing terrible is happening. But if you do everything right, it’s not hard to keep the prints in good shape. You just have to be very careful and conscientious.

For a long time, when film projection was common, people could be a little careless, and a lot of what you see on older prints in terms of wear and tear is just sort of…guys not cleaning the projector, it was a first-run movie and this part in the projector wasn’t working and the service technician couldn’t come out for a week to fix it, a lot of stuff like that. We’ve sort of transitioned to these things being museum pieces, and requiring a lot more care.

On the programming end, what makes you gravitate to a certain print? Obviously, some of it is just “things people want to see,” but what makes you want to run or re-run a certain film?

There’s not a lot to choose from. There are maybe 60 or 70 prints out there to show, so there’s stuff we cycle in and out every year. West Side Story we show every year, because people love that movie, I love that movie, and people come out for it. 2001, even though we’ve shown it a few dozen times this year, we’ve still added two more screenings and they’ll probably sell out. Which is great! It’d be nice if there was that amount of attention for Ryan’s Daughter or something like that. (laughs)

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If there’s a finite number of 70mm prints floating around in the ether, is there anything you’d really like to show that you haven’t yet?

I would really like to show Ryan’s Daughter. There’s one print of it, the sound isn’t on the print, it’s on what’s called an “unmarried track,” so it’s a separate 35mm film with six-track magnetic sound, and we’d have to bring in dubbers and other special equipment to sync it all up, and it’d be very expensive and it’ll probably never happen. I would like to see that, someday. I’ve not seen the movie, it’s supposed to have a lot of rainstorms and stuff like that. I’m sure it looks great. It plays in California every once in a while.

The 2018 70mm Film Festival at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre will run September 14-27. Tickets and passes are available now through the Music Box’s website.

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