The IMAX 70-millimeter format is usually associated with action. But Christopher Nolan says his biopic benefited from the tall image.
By Marc Tracy
On Friday morning, Vasili Birlidis and three friends will pile into a rented car in Gainesville, Fla., and drive 10 hours round-trip to see a movie that will be playing on thousands of screens across the country, including in their own town.
But this is not just any movie. And more important, they are not traveling for just any screen.
It’s “Oppenheimer,” the new biopic about the man who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, and Birlidis, 27, insists on seeing it at the Mall of Georgia outside Atlanta on opening day because that is the closest the movie is being shown in IMAX 70-millimeter.
Many movie aficionados consider that format the gold standard, and Christopher Nolan, the writer and director of “Oppenheimer,” made it to be seen that way. But the film is available in IMAX 70-millimeter at just 30 screens in the world, 19 of them in the United States. None of those sites are in Gainesville. Or Chicago, where Ayethaw Tun, 30, lives; he is driving to Indianapolis to see it. Or Rome, where Federico Larosa, 34, lives; he is flying to London.
If you see an IMAX theater option for “Oppenheimer,” odds are it is not 70-millimeter film but a digital projection. This format, in which “Oppenheimer” is available on more than 700 screens globally, has much to recommend it: high resolution, excellent sound. Like IMAX 70-millimeter, digital IMAX has a different aspect ratio than standard theaters, meaning you will get a taller image. Imagine watching E.T. and Elliott bicycling past the moon, but you also see the night sky above the moon and all the way to the ground.
To film buffs who are buffs, specifically, of film — of movies shot and projected with a physical, photochemical product — comparing IMAX 70-millimeter to IMAX digital, let alone standard digital, is like comparing lightning to the lightning bug.
“It’s how much of the image you’re missing if you see it on another screen,” said Birlidis, a former theater manager. “To be able to see the full film the way the director intended,” he added, “and see it on film, which is a dying breed, and at one of 30 theaters on the planet — that’s pretty special.”
Nolan acknowledged in an interview that the vast majority of moviegoers will not see “Oppenheimer” in what he considers the optimal way. “I am of the first or second generation of filmmakers for whom it was absolutely clear that the majority of people were going to see their work on television, after the fact,” he said. The first time he saw the 1982 film “Blade Runner,” one of his favorites, he added, was on a pirated VHS tape.
But Nolan, who brought to our interview two kinds of film stock and a flip book the IMAX company made for him to illustrate film’s superior visual detail over digital, is evangelical about the format. He explained that IMAX 70-millimeter negatives are roughly 10 times the size of those for 35-millimeter film, for decades the theatrical standard that digital projection aspired to supplant, resulting in a crisper, clearer image. He can cite several IMAX 70-millimeter destinations off-the-cuff. (The AMC Metreon in San Francisco is “a wonderfully huge screen.”) He knew Brooklyn has one of the roughly 100 theaters showing “Oppenheimer” in ordinary 70-millimeter film — an “absolutely beautiful” print, he said.
Despite the comparatively few theaters showing the most advanced formats, he argued, the effort to make it available at all was worth it to him as well as to audiences, who can expect to pay a premium (an evening ticket to see “Oppenheimer” in IMAX 70-millimeter film in Manhattan costs nearly $30). “It’s like getting a nice dinner rather than going to Jimmy John’s,” Julian Antos, the executive director of the Chicago Film Society, said, referring to the Midwestern sandwich chain.
“The event, epic size, quality of that trickles down to the excitement for the film in all other mediums, down to when somebody’s watching on their telephone,” Nolan said. “They have different expectations of what a film that has been distributed in that way is. And so it’s always been important beyond the sheer number of screens.”
IMAX has come to stand for an entire experience: IMAX certifies theaters for stadium-like seating, viewing angle and darkness. The film itself is projected onto a huge screen — the one at the AMC Lincoln Square in Manhattan is 97 feet by 76 feet — that dominates your peripheral vision.
Nolan’s are practically the only feature films these days that both use IMAX film cameras and are shown using IMAX projectors. (Several recent movies shot partly with IMAX cameras, including last year’s “Nope,” were not projected on IMAX 70-millimeter.) For “Oppenheimer,” theaters are trotting out most of the 48 working IMAX 70-millimeter projectors left in the world. These mammoth machines can drag an “Oppenheimer” copy — 53 reels that together weigh 600 pounds and hold footage that would run 11 miles — across their 15,000-watt lamps. The theaters call into service 60 projectionists with special training, some of them retired.
“Chris has a particular affinity — and he’s almost a unicorn in this regard — for IMAX film,” Rich Gelfond, IMAX’s chief executive, said. “Without Chris, certainly, there wouldn’t be as many as exist today.”
After his 2005 action movie “Batman Begins,” screened in digitally remastered IMAX, Nolan’s follow-up, “The Dark Knight” (2008), was the first Hollywood feature shot partly with IMAX cameras. He used them for the opening set-piece, a daring bank heist masterminded by Heath Ledger’s the Joker, and showed a reel to studio executives. “They were absolutely thrilled,” Nolan said. “Once you see it, you understand it kind of in your bones.”
Almost every Nolan movie since has used IMAX cameras. “Dunkirk” (2017) is roughly two-thirds IMAX, and, as in both his 2020 drama “Tenet” and now “Oppenheimer,” what is not IMAX was shot in traditional 70-millimeter. If you are seeing a Nolan film in IMAX, you might notice how the image toggles between filling up the whole screen and letterboxing to fill just the middle.
Unlike many Nolan movies, “Oppenheimer” is dominated not by action spectacle, but by tense conversations. Nolan said he and his cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, realized IMAX was “a wonderful format for faces” and even for the cramped committee room where a good deal of “Oppenheimer” takes place. “The screen disappears,” Nolan said. “So you’re in intimate space with the subjects.” (The filmmakers also helped develop the first black-and-white IMAX film expressly for certain scenes.)
Nolan argued that his passion for how his movies are made and displayed was justified by their influence over the viewer’s ultimate experience, even if the average filmgoer might not consciously register the difference.
“I have to believe I wouldn’t care about it as much if it didn’t have an emotional effect,” Nolan said. “There’s a favorite tactic of studio executives,” he added, “which is to say, Well, at the end of the day, isn’t it all about story? To which you say, Well, no, otherwise we would be distributing audiobooks or radio plays. In the last analysis, it is not all about story. It’s about the moving image, it’s about cinematic storytelling, and the greatest movies made could only be films.”
Marc Tracy is a reporter on the Culture desk. More about Marc Tracy
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