If I’m deep-down honest with myself, the reason I love is the same reason I love most Stanley Kubrick films: because I love watching people and things move inevitably from Point A to Point B.
He’s done it with spaceships (), armies (), trenches (), Big Wheels (), leapfrogging (), and walking the streets of New York ().
Ars Senior Editor Lee Hutchinson once told me that, growing up, he was so fascinated with the docking sequence from that he would watch it over and over again on VHS.
Critics have spent decades and essays writing about ‘s meaning and influence. Today, I simply want to sell you on the idea of seeing this classic in the theater because it’s engrossing to watch Kubrick put bodies in motion—to see people reduced to wax figures, content to go about pre-programmed rituals, like cogs in giant machines built out of technology and culture. That is a selling point.
Conveniently for me, ‘s 50th anniversary is being celebrated by a new theatrical run—with new 70mm prints struck using elements copied from the original camera negative. There’s no digital remastering, effects, edits, or other George Lucas/Ridley Scott tomfoolery. The re-release was shepherded by filmmaker and 70mm enthusiast Christopher Nolan (of , , the Dark Knight trilogy).
The good news: not only did I get to see in all its 70mm glory at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, but I also had the good fortune to chat with David Sotelo, the projectionist at my screening. Like Alamo’s other Austin projectionists, he works at all six Alamo locations in the state capital. While studying media production at Florida State, he learned his trade while working at the university’s on-campus movie theater, which was one of the last first-run theaters in the state to still use 35mm. We talked movies, formats, and how what was once a summer job for pimply teenagers—film projectionist—is on the verge of becoming a dying art.
The less-good news: the Ritz is in the state capital of Austin, and I live three hours away in Houston.
Source material is everything
One of the downsides of film that led to the triumph of digital cinema is that, no matter how careful you are, you do with a film print will ever-so-slightly damage it. Every time you project a film, it gets a teensy-bit more scratched. Every time you make a new release print of a film, your source print gets damaged, too. Every time you think about a film, a version of it preserved in a vault somewhere decays just a little bit. A movie shot on HD and stored digitally with regular data migration, on the other hand, never loses its 1s and 0s.
“As time goes on, film stock starts to lose its color,” Sotelo says. “It kind of turns to a reddish hue and tint. The picture can still look great, but you’re losing color.”
I point this out, in part, because I was fortunate enough to watch a 70mm version of years ago—and amazing as it looked, I could still tell that it had been projected regularly for years or even decades. The new print, Sotelo assured me, was “less than a year old.” He was joined in this sentiment by the theater’s program manager, who assured the audience that the print had been shown “about 150 times.”
That’s partly why, whenever you see a movie on film, you’re actually watching a copy of a copy of a copy. I’m not going to get into the weeds about “interpositives,” “internegatives,” and “release prints,” if for no other reason than because I started to glaze over when my friend Film School Steve was doing his best to explain this to me. Let’s just say Nolan and his team turned up a 70mm preservation print of that had hardly ever been touched and used it as the starting point of the re-release. That’s the best I can do. (Sorry, Steve.)
“What’s so great about 70mm anyway?”
Before digital cinema projection took over in the last 10-15 years, the standard for filming, projection, and photography for the 20th century was 35mm. This was the size of negatives people my age and older grew up taking to Walgreens and Eckerd to get developed. “Full frame” DSLR cameras aim to create sensors that are roughly the size of 35mm film. Without getting too technical, 70mm achieves a richer, more spectacular image by being twice the size of 35mm. (I told you I wasn’t going to get too technical.)
This gigantic format has existed in some incarnation or another since the 1890s but came into its own with the big-screen epics of the 1950s and ’60s. The postwar rise in television and home air conditioning led to the Eisenhower-era equivalent of online commenters boasting that their home theater (i.e., an 18-inch black-and-white Radiation King with three channels) was just as good as the cinema without the lines and talking. So movie studios began experimenting with larger and wider formats, like 70mm, to keep audiences buying tickets.
The results include classics like (1959), (1962), (1964), (1967), (1970), and the seven-hour Soviet (1965). Due to the size and expense of the projectors, 70mm prints were only shown in limited markets, while 35mm prints of the same movies were distributed for wider release.
The expense led to 70mm falling out of favor in the 1970s, and the format’s use in the ’80s was mostly limited to expensive FX shots in big-budget spectacles that were otherwise 35mm. 70mm IMAX projectors began popping up in museums around the same time, but they would also give way to Digital IMAX in the new century.
And let’s not get into why the differences between traditional 70mm and 70mm IMAX make them virtually incompatible unless you have piles of money (OK briefly: IMAX runs films horizontally while traditional 70mm runs them vertically.)
The digital takeover of film projection was mirrored by a growing revival in 70mm. Filmmakers like Terrence Malick ( and ), Paul Thomas Anderson (), Quentin Tarantino (), and Kenneth Branagh () have shot modern features partially or entirely on 70mm.
But Nolan probably gets the lion’s share of the credit for the revival. Because of the success of the Dark Knight trilogy, which uses combinations of 35mm, 70mm, and 70mm IMAX, he had the clout to shoot his last two features (and ) entirely on 70mm and 70mm IMAX.
I asked Sotelo if he could give me a rough percentage of how much time he spends projecting each format.
“Primarily digital everywhere you go,” he said. “Thankfully, the Alamo does so much that we can keep 35 alive. That’s definitely the most prevalent film format that we can get, so we run it as much as we can. I’d say that… 15 to 20 to 25 [percent is 35mm]. 70[mm] is much more limited… I think every year they try to have one different 70mm print… We do run a lot of the same ones just to make sure people can see and at least once a year if possible.”
“Luckily with ,” Sotelo continued, “that kind of changed things, so now there’s a concerted effort to put 70mm projectors in as many theaters around the country. So I think it was 100 theaters that had projectors for . Since then, we’ve been luckier, with movies like , they are now equipped to play them. So hopefully the curve shifts a little bit back, and it becomes more common again.”