John O'Callaghan 70mm Short Film Maker
This article first appeared in
The 70mm Newsletter
John O'Callaghan. Edited by:
Issue 48 - March 1997
John O'Callaghan was born in 1965 in Chicago,
but has lived in Mission Viejo (Orange County, California, USA) since 1972.
He began making films at age 14 in 8mm and video. As Director of Photography
he moved on to 16mm and later photographed a 35mm film for Honeywell
Corporation. He was a projectionist in a Newport Beach, California (70mm-)
theatre where he ran many 70mm prints. His fondest childhood memory was
David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" which he saw at age 5. As a
writer/director he has made two short films in 65mm. His first was made in
1989 and the second was finished in November 1992. He is presently working
in one of the largest cinema complexes in the world, The recently opened
30-screen AMC Ontario Mills in Ontario, California, USA.
I started telling stories sometime after gaining the power of speech. My
folks would always follow one of my stories with the phrase "...He
could be exaggerating!". When I was five or six I saw "Doctor
Zhivago", and it had quite a pronounced effect on me. It seemed
nearly real. And it was an odd experience to sit in a darkened room full of
seats and stare at that giant white sheet and have it make me think and feel
certain things. I remember during the Intermission I could not wait for the
movie to start again -- to get back into that train journey through the
I began making films in Super 8 Kodachrome when I was in 8th grade (circa
1980). It started with the usual clay animation, but in a few years I was
foraying into horror with my classmates. Soon thereafter, an affordable (and
portable) Betamax VCR and camera became available and I switched to that.
Quite unhappy with the sterile video texture, I knew I would be returning to
film soon. In my senior year of High School I started to work with college
students and photographed many 16mm projects. Upon graduation I wanted to
attend USC film school but the expense was more than my parents were willing
to absorb. I spoke with a representative of USC thinking in terms of perhaps
getting a scholarship, but that quickly turned into a bust with the
representative quipping "..with your experience, you are beyond our
Further in 70mm reading:
Full cast/credit: "Dead Sea"
Full cast/credit: "Worriors of the Wasteland"
Los Angeles Times
70mm and "Warriors of the Wasteland"
So, onwards I went. In search of experience and finances I became a Union
projectionist. During this period I ran dozens of 70mm prints (all blow-ups
from Flat and Scope 35mm of course). I worked on a few 35mm shorts, mostly
Public Service Announcements (PSAs) while writing furiously on several ideas
brewing in my mind. This is where
"Warriors of the Wasteland" had its genesis. Nuclear
armageddon was a bothersome concern for most people during the tense WEST
vs. EAST period of the eighties that Reagan presided over (or personified,
if you like). Although the nightmare on most folks minds was death, that is
not what drove my imagination. It was: Surviving the nuclear war. So I
started to weave a fabric of survivors and aggressors, mutants and
militants, the resilient and the decaying, all seen through the eyes of Kyle
- a twenty year old who tries to find a reason and purpose in his life, a
man wandering in self-exile over a landscape of leaden skies, junkyards and
burned vegetation. Somewhere in the back of my mind I imagined "Warriors
of the Wasteland" projected on the curved Cinerama screens of old
times, in blazing 70mm. And we all smiled and said "some day".
While I was prepping "Warriors of the Wasteland", I had a
chance to see the long awaited "Lawrence of Arabia". As I
sat in that screening room on the Burbank lot, watching those incredible
Super Panavision 70 images, the whole idea of filmmaking was radically
altered in my mind. Afterwards, sitting in an all-night deli, I knew one
thing for sure "Warriors of the Wasteland" would be
photographed in 65mm. The next day I started writing letters to Todd-AO/Cinespace,
Showscan/Cinema products, Panavision. No response. Nothing. The whole thing
became more and more discouraging. My production team started to doubt my
resolve and I heard comments like "You cannot just shoot in 70mm",
"Only certain people are allowed access to 70 equipment",
"What makes you think you are qualified?!" and so on.
Well one thing you do not want to do with me is throw down a film making
gauntlet. I picked up the phone and arranged a visit to Panavision. When I
got there, I specifically requested to see the 65mm camera department.
Quizzical looks followed, but I was persistent and minutes later I was in
the back-corner of the Mitchell camera department where all the 65mm gear
was kept. And back there with all those racks of large format equipment was
a fine gentleman named Don Earl.
I am sure at a first glance Don thought I was a few cans short of a six-pack
but very quickly he understood my plans and dedicated vision to the Super
Panavision 70 format. From then on I had found a staunch ally in my wide-format pursuit. He spent endless hours showing me everything about machines
and lenses. After that "Warriors of the Wasteland" came together
quickly. My production designer, Paul Herndon, designed and constructed
several wonderful sets out of junk he found (and I mean junk, literally). He
assembled these sets on a remote ranch location in the Santa Ana mountains
of Southern California.
While this was going on I immersed myself in all things 70mm. I carried
Freddie Young's book "The Work of the Motion Picture Cameraman"
everywhere I went. I studied every letterboxed laserdisc of 70mm pictures I
could find ("2001:a space odyssey", "Patton",
"Agony and The Ecstasy") and watched "Lawrence of
Arabia" two dozen times.
Finalizing things at Panavision, we decided to use the 65mm HHR (Hand Held
Reflex). It had everything we needed: light weight, durability on a dusty
location and reflex viewing. We took with us 28mm, 55mm, 75mm, 150mm and
500mm prime lenses. I shot on Eastman 5247 (the only 65mm camera negative
available at the time) and set up DeLuxe as my laboratory. Shooting took
place over two weekends in May and June 1989, five days in all for a five
minute short. Like any movie, we had our share of problems. While unloading
a generator, it got away from the guy unloading it and rolled downhill and
nearly wound up in the ranch owners pool. While doing a night scene in a
junkyard mock-up, the fog rolled in and obscured the light for an hour or
so, not allowing us sufficient time to complete our shots before sunrise
Once I had "Warriors of the Wasteland" in the can, I began
editing, but it is important to remember this is done on a reduction print
in Scope 35mm. So we only had a slight taste of what it would look like in
70mm. Upon completion of the work print I sent it to Brian Ralph for
negative cutting and soon thereafter began 70mm answer printing with color
timer David Orr (who color timed the restored "Spartacus").
I must say seeing my film in 70mm the first time was mind-numbing. The image
was so smooth and sharp in appearance yet held such depth and vibrance.
Afterwards I had to step back: Here was "Warriors of the
Wasteland", my dream, my ideas, my images clicking away in Super
Panavision 70. The cast and crew felt similarly. Paul Herndon commented
after his first viewing, "...it is a real movie up there on the screen.
It looks so good I cannot belive I worked on it!". I think we all had a
"wake me up, I must be dreaming" sensation. "Worriors of
the Wasteland" was more of a "sample" or
"teaser" reel, but it did recieve a great deal of praise. I had
representatives of the LA Times, Warner-Hollywood, Amblin and Island
Pictures to see the film. We took the film around to Panavision next. In
particular the folks at Panavision marveled at how sharp the images were,
considering these were the 65mm cameras and lenses that dated back to the
days of "Lawrence of Arabia". I remember doing a test run
to check illumination and sound when a figure entered the theatre down near
the screen. It was Don Earl. He stood there transfixed, staring at the image
not ten feet from the screen. When it was over he commented to me, shaking
his head, "I did not know those lenses were that good".
Then the coverage in LA Times followed, some production companies took a
look and the ASC snubbed us, and so my 5-minute 70mm short went into my
On To "Dead Sea"
A few discouraging years later, I left the projectionist Union and became a
theatre manager, and a new story nagged its way to the surface. This was
contemporary, social. What happens to old neighborhood buddies (rich kids,
mind you) when they grow beyond their college years and begin to become men
with distinct likes and dislikes, when they are forced to realize they have
grown apart...A nice beginning, maybe?
Then a fellow I worked with at a movie theatre took me for a trip out to the
desert for some dirt biking to a place called the Salton Sea. We stayed in
his grandma's house - an experience in itself! Wandering around this strange
little town, called Salton Sea Beach, I began to soak in its peculiar
atmosphere and character(s!). Suddenly my little idea had found a frame.
Vacation gone wrong. Illegals trying to find their way into America. Our
heroes are fighting with each other when they come across two amoral
rednecks who hunt human game and test their will to survive in many sadistic
ways. I had to cram all that into a twenty five minute film I started
calling, "Dead Sea". I said,
"Sounds like fun, eh? Think I will do it in 70mm!".
Except this would be a 180 degree different shoot from "Warriors of
the Wasteland". Whereas "Warriors of the Wasteland"
was a science fiction scenario, requiring special sets, costumes, weapons,
etc. it also relied heavily on stylized techniques, crane shots, complex
dolly movements, lighting and filtration trickery.
"Dead Sea" needed nothing of that. This would be 70mm on
an unusual scale - "Quick and dirty, get in and get out" became
our motto. "Dead Sea" required only 1 set and no elaborate
costumes, just actors, dirt bikes, a rotten pickup, rifles and the vast
desert backdrop of the Salton Sea and the Anza Borrego State Park.
So "Dead Sea" again. I chose Eastman EXR 5247 again (there
was no EXR 5245 available at that time, what a shame) and the 500 speed EXR
5296. Along with the System 65 Panaflex we took Primo lenses 35mm, 75mm,
105mm, 400mm and a 2x converter which made the 400mm a 560mm lens! We shot
miles up roadless ravines, enduring 104 degree heat and no shade. I have got
to tell you, although the System 65 camera is a technological wonder and its
80 pond weight is miniscule compared to its elder brethren, it is still an
anvil to haul around shooting chase scenes. But we finished in ten days, a
day and a half ahead of schedule.
We cut "Dead Sea" on tape (which was a bad idea, not at
all the inexpensive way to edit it is made out to be) and submitted and EDI
(Edit listing) to Brian Ralph for cutting and assembly. This time we A&B
roll printed, which gave us fades and dissolves and color timer Bill Pine ("Lawrence
of Arabia"s timer) did a wonderful job. We completed our Dolby SR
mix at Warner Hollywood. I had made a friend of Sound Engineer Brian Kane
during the print dubbing of "Warriors of the Wasteland",
and he offered all sound services free for us. We also got a wonderful
mixer, David Miranda, to sift through our effects to give us great
soundscape (yes, it is an active 6-track mix, sounds and dialogue are panned
to their appropriate part of the screen). In the interim between my 70mm
projects, Panavision had been busy too. They had a new pair of self-blimped
65mm cameras and lenses, the Panavision System 65. Don Earl was ready again
with great enthusiasm to help me out, full of wonderful stories from the "Far
and Away" shoot. It did not take him long, say five minutes, and I
became enamored of the new 65mm Panaflex and knew it would suit us just
"Dead Sea" had a very rousing reception at its premiere in
Sherman Oaks. We premiered for cast, crew and Hollywood professionals -
somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 people - on November 18, 1992. They
laughed in the right places were very silent in the grim sequences and
applauded raucously during the credits. It went over terrifically. The new
camera system had worked its derring-do. Ardent 70-philes said it was beyond
the usual "velvet sharpness", now I was hearing phrases like
"...it looks like someone opened a window". One of my actors told
me the dirt bikes looked so real he felt he could walk up to the screen, hop
on and ride away.
Now I wanted to get "Dead Sea" into the Academy Award
Short Film contest. Easier said than done. First you have to get your film
exhibited. After a year of dead-end phone conversations and unanswered
correspondence, the company I am employed with, AMC Theatres, ran my film at
their prestigious Century 14 Theatres in Century City, California for a
one-week run in November 1993.
My feelings about this are mixed. That crowd in Century City is tough -
ruthless. We had a matinee performance where the audience loved it and then
an evening show where we got hisses, boos and ugly comments in the dark. I
did not attend the last show (I was moving into a new house) but my crew fed
back that during that performance the crowd on one side hated it while the
opposite side loved it - so you just cannot tell. I attribute a lot of the
problem to the picture we were booked with, "The Remains of the
Day". The people who came to see a movie like that scarcely see
anything more violent than a slap across the cheek, let alone the heady
scenes of torture "Dead Sea" deals out to its' audience.
Controversy followed those people into the lobby. Well, people loved
Pecinpah, people hated him. So in the end, who is to say? - that is
Hollywood. After our theatrical run, we qualified for the Academy, but did
not manage to pick up a nomination. Perhaps "Dead Sea" is
too much a linear story, not so socially conscious as their selections have
been in recent years.
Postscript Hopefully not a Postmortem for 70mm
With the failure of "Far and Away", 70mm has once again
been relegated to the Special Effects closet. And even that, too, is
threatened with the orgy of Computer- generated opticals we are seeing these
days. But being in the exhibition business, I can tell you the real
(nauseating) story: Digital Sound. Now that SDDS, SRD and DTS are
everywhere, the prevailing opinion is that 70mm prints are no longer
necessary. With digital sound they feel the 70mm attraction - 6 discrete
magnetic tracks - are not needed. Does that not relegate us to the
Presently I am working on another short called "Sentinels of the
Twilight". I had originally wanted to do it in 65mm, but now that
nothing is released in 70mm in America, what movie could I possibly get it
exhibited with? Unfortunately, I need my film to be seen in film festivals
and 70mm is not presently a viable format for short films. "Sentinels
of the Twilight" is a study of how one man disengages from society
and runs away to a unknown encounter with self-discovery in the jagged peaks
of the San Gabriel Mountains. After a series of misadventures he gains a new
perspective on life. It is a fusion of live-action, time-lapse and time
exposure camera techniques that shows the nightmare of the freeways, the
beauty of 2500 year old ancient limber pine trees and the glittering dome of
the eternal night sky.
I now own a 35mm Arriflex IIC outfitted with Cooke lenses. I am currently
working the bugs out of a custom-designed timelapse/time exposure/stepper
motor camera drive platform, made with assistance of engineers at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory/NASA. I hope to have "Sentinels of the
Twilight" completed by spring/summer 1997. It is agonizing
reduction in my cinematic vision to shoot 1,85:1, but somewhere inside "Sentinels
of the Twilight", the film carries a 70mm intuition. Who knows,
maybe it will be successful enough for me to make a 70mm blow-up. Every time
I turn that little Arriflex on I remind myself that someday I intend to get
back to Super Panavision 70.
What kind of advice would you pass on to film makers with plans of shooting
in 65mm? 1: Do plenty of advance planning: Pick a laboratory, pick a camera
rental house, pick the emulsions you want to use, pick a post- production
sound facility and above all get firm "realistic" price
commitments out of these vendors. 2: Pick a cameraman with an eye for the
wide-screen, someone with knowledge of large-format lenses and (most
importantly) make sure they understand that shooting in 65mm is not the same
as shooting [in] 35mm. A "Film is film" attitude will spell
disaster while watching your first batch of dailies, as it was for me on "Worriers
of the Wasteland". 3: Watch the 70mm works of Freddie Young ("Lawrence
of Arabia" and "Ryan's Daughter"), Leon Shamroy ("The
Agony and the Ecstasy") and Stanley Kubrick - John Alcott -
Geoffrey Unsworth ("2001:A Space Odyssey"). If these films
fail to awe you, inspire you, teach you or challenge you to fill a huge
screen with 70mm images - go back to video!
Where can your 70mm films be seen today in 70mm? Are they available for
rent, on video or laserdisc? At the present time the two prints of "Warriors
of the Wasteland" and the only print of "Dead Sea"
are sealed in cans. However, if anyone should like to see them here in Los
Angeles, we could certainly run them up at DeLuxe laboratories or
Warner-Hollywood for a minimum cost since I am doing my new project "Sentinels
of the Twilight" there. Some day in the future I would hope my
"early" works might be an entertaining bunch to see on a laserdisc
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