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The Rebirth Of 70mm: The IMAX Interview

6 min read
May you live in interesting times, is widely known as an “old Chinese curse” (even though it isn’t), and it certainly holds true right now. A worldwide global pandemic that has changed the world as we know it certainly fits the bill as “interesting”, and boy, don’t we all wish things were a bit more ordinary right now

May you live in interesting times, is widely known as an “old Chinese curse” (even though it isn’t), and it certainly holds true right now. A worldwide global pandemic that has changed the world as we know it certainly fits the bill as “interesting”, and boy, don’t we all wish things were a bit more ordinary right now.

Most forms of activity have been badly hit by Coronovirus and that’s certainly been true for the film industry and specifically cinemas, which have all been shut down across the globe.

Much has been made of the seismic changes that this may have on the industry not only in the short-term but also into the future. Many film companies have used the situation to release movies straight to digital streaming services, and some fear they may choose to remove the previously sacrosanct theatrical windows and go for simultaneous release from now on, which could endanger profitability.

The answer, as it always has been, is to give people an experience in the cinema that you can’t get elsewhere.

Cinema all about spectacle and nothing fits the bill more than IMAX, which is a brand built on delivering large scale pictures and sound that you can’t get in the home, even with the ever-increasing quality and affordability of high-quality home cinema equipment.

It’s fitting then that Christopher Nolan’s next work: “Tenet” is hoping to be released on 17 July as the first big-ticket offering to get people back into cinemas.

No single director is more closely associated with IMAX as Christopher Nolan, who, in an age of cooker cutter digital filmmaking, is well known for his preference for only shooting on film, and, whenever possible, on large-scale print formats such as 65mm and 15/70 as used by IMAX film cameras.

It seems like a good opportunity then to run this interview I conducted earlier this year with Bruce Markoe, Senior Vice President and the Head of Post Production at IMAX. In the interview, we cover the rebirth of film, and specifically 70mm, as the ultimate experiences, and the role of IMAX’s upscaling technology, DMR, in making that a reality. The interview was quite extensive, so I’ll be splitting it into three parts. Enjoy!

Hi Bruce, please tell me about your role at IMAX?

I’m Senior Vice president at IMAX and the Head of Post Production for DMR and Operations. I also have a lot of active involvement with our camera team and camera group and I do a lot of the front-end camera work. I oversee things with filmmakers as well.

That must be exciting. So, tell me more about the sort of challenges that you need to overcome to get everything working the way it needs to be?

Well, I’d say the number one biggest challenge for us is time. That’s because unfortunately most major movies today are literally finished two to three weeks before they’re in a theater. I don’t know if you knew that or not, but not every movie, but a lot of them, especially the big ones, which are the ones we tend to do, will have a lot of visual effects and they complete them very, very close to when they’re coming out.

So that means that there’s just a lot of work that needs to be done, not just by us, but by all the labs and the filmmakers to get these films finished and into the theater. [What’s even more challenging is that] at IMAX we have a unique version of the movie. Some people think we’re just showing the same version of the movie that’s in the screen next door, but we’re not, we’re completely making a new master of the movie that’s being optimized for our theaters and our projection and sound technologies. It’s an extra step that we do at the end of the process, but, in essence, when they finish the movie, they give it to us and then we start our version of the movie. So, we’re almost the last ones to get things done. And [ironically] sometimes we’re the first ones to show it because they want to premiere it in IMAX.

So, yes, time is always a very critical factor for us. It’s a challenge to get all the different attributes for music and sound and postproduction and visual effects. It’s amazing how good the movies look considering how kind of rushed they are!

Part of this is because we’ve really worked with the filmmakers to optimize our version of the movie as best we can. So, the nice thing about the movies that are filmed in IMAX is we’re involved much more from the beginning of the process, and we get a better version of the movie because they’ve really been working to make a [true] IMAX movie from the start.

On some movies, we just do our DMR process [which Bruce will talk about later] and there’s a lot of work that we do on every movie released but some movies are elevated more because they’re filmed on IMAX cameras.

We seem to be having a resurgence in the popularity of 70mm IMAX. Why do you think that is?

I agree. I think there has been a resurgence, much like vinyl. I think that part of that is because there’s a group of very vocal filmmakers – high-profile, super-talented filmmakers like Chris Nolan and Tarantino, and others out there like Damien Chazelle [First Man] and Greta Gerwig [Little Women] that are now advocates of shooting on film. While they may not release on film, they really like capturing on film.

As a matter of fact, I think Kodak just recently announced recently, that they sold more large format film last year than in their entire history, which is pretty astounding. Certainly, we had more people shooting in IMAX film last year, than we ever had in our history. So, while those are not all going to be exhibited on film, some will be, in the theaters that are still capable of that.

Capturing in large format film, whether it’s IMAX or even 65-millimeter five perforation has seen a huge resurgence in the last few years. I think that what’s cool, is that a lot of these filmmakers are very vocal about it. They talk about it; they talk about their love of it and why they like it. And I think there are a lot of people who listen to that, they hear that and then they seek it out. And now in today’s age of communication, it’s something to talk about. So, I think it’s kind of spread, kind of like the vinyl thing.

Yes, there are still plenty of people who prefer digital, and it is better in many respects than film. But film has unique attributes, which you can only get by shooting with it.

But do you think 70mm provides objectively better performance in anything that digital is capable of?

I think it’s subjective, it’s something of an opinion. I don’t know if there’s any right or wrong answer but there is just something about it. I think that it handles blacks, highlights, contrast, color, in a different way. Of course, film grain plays a large part of it, which you can’t get in digital.

However, many movies that are shot with digital cameras add artificial grain to give it a film-like look; there are a lot of people shooting digitally to make it look like it was shot on film. Shooting digitally has many advantages in terms of its flexibility and wider dynamic range and it’s easier to really refine certain things about it. It really boils down to personal preference.

It’s interesting, that it has gotten a lot more interest in the last couple of years, which is good. I know that Kodak has sold much more film than it ever had in the last year, I know that we at IMAX definitely broke our record last year for the amount of IMAX film that was shot; that I can tell you for sure.

Check back later this week to read Part 2 of my interview with Bruce!

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