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Super Panavision 70 On an Indian Reservation

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: Scott Marshall Issue 63 - December 2000

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut, USA looks in almost every way like a "spare no expense" facility. Nestled in largely unsettled New England woodlands, the museum is an architectural wonder with wide curved lines, astonishing vaulted windows, and a hair-raising observation tower. The historical exhibits inside are extensive and beautifully designed and maintained. It seems natural that their main film program would use one of the greatest methods of audiovisual storytelling...the 5 perforation 65mm and 70mm motion picture process.

This is one of two identical cinemas in which "The Witness is shown. Click to see a larger version. Picture supplied by Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.

The thirty-minute, 1998 film, "The Witness", was photographed in the process originally known as Todd-AO and later duplicated under trade names like Super Panavision 70, Sovscope 70, and MCS-70. Arriflex built the Arri 765 to photograph in this format. "The Witness" was filmed with two Arri 765's and the classic Panavision HSHR (Handheld Reflex). The Panavision camera won a Class II Academy Award in 1968 and was used in films like "Grand Prix" (1968). It is a wonder to find a movie made entirely in 5 perf 65mm and exhibited in 5 perf 70mm in an era where digital sound has all but obliterated the high-class 70mm film image. Inspired by the article in the March 2000 issue of "...in 70mm" by Rod Miller, I ventured into the wilderness of a modern American Indian Reservation to witness with my own eyes this rarity of modern times: a newly-photographed and properly projected 5 perf 70mm film.

The main attraction of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation is the Foxwoods Hotel and Casino complex. It is nestled in the Connecticut woodlands and, being the world's largest casino, stands as a towering reminder of its power to collect enormous wealth for this formerly aboriginal tribe. It is commendable that some of this wealth is being used to produce and maintain a "spare no expense" museum located a few miles from the casino to exhibit native culture and history.

The museum's architecture is stunning. The grounds are clean and impeccably manicured. The exhibits include dioramas that bring to life the era when Pequot ancestors first arrived in North America, reproducing the flora and fauna of its ice age. There is an extensive reconstructed Pequot village with every imaginable detail, fulfilling senses of sight, sound, and smell. Dramatically posed stuffed animals and wax figures of the aboriginal Pequot are portrayed at all ages and walks of life. Every aspect is intelligent, tasteful, educational, and authentic.

The most important moment in Pequot history was undoubtedly the attempt by the English and Dutch to exterminate them. One of the few who survived the genocide and witnessed the horror of the slaughter of his family and village was a teenaged Pequot teen named Wampishe, who is competently brought to life by actor Edward Spears. He is the title character of the film. Hiding away from the village during its annihilation, he is seen returning when safe to pay last respects at the bodies of his slain mother and little sister. Like most epic movies, "The Witness" smoothly shifts from large scale to personal drama, pulling the heartstrings like few other genres. It is a testament to the engrossing and emotionally provocative 5-perf 70mm film format that it was chosen to dramatize this event.

Further in 70mm reading:

Filming of "The Witness"

Cast and credits

Internet link:

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center

 

The movie runs continuously in two wide-screen theaters deep in the museum. Each seats 110 people. I was able to see the film once in each theater. What follows are my technical and artistic reviews of these two screenings. I was there incognito in order to view the screenings as they commonly ran for the public, rather than to announce my presence, and avoid any special effort that may have been invested in the particular screenings I attended.

For my first screening I sat about one fourth of the way back from the screen so that the picture nearly filled my entire front field of vision. A railing but no curtain protected the screen. It appeared curved about to the radius of projection and was either a toroidal or a spherical section shape, and not perforated. Sound came from three speakers above the screen, a huge sub-woofer below the screen, and a few moderate-sized surround speakers along the side walls. A Century projector could be seen through the porthole threaded with 70mm film from a platter.

Right on schedule the lights dimmed and the film began. The opening credits, sharp and steady, were green and blue against black - a very unusual color combination for credits, presumably representing Pequot tradition or part of a coordinated motif, since they resembled the color scheme at the Foxwoods Casino. The DTS sound (stored on a separate disk) was flawless. A thin, blurred, black film scratch the full height of the screen cut through the center of the frame for the entire duration of the film. There was no visible sign of the cross reflections that sometimes plague large, curved screens. The picture was quite sharp except for the top three or four feet of the screen, which was noticeably blurry. There were objectionable shutter streaks (descending comet tails on bright objects) during the credits and on subsequent superimposed subtitles (Pequot characters spoke in Pequot language). In the closing credits, a large film tear repaired with clear tape passed by. Because of these distractions and my closeness to the screen, I paid little attention to the story and reserved my aesthetic appreciation for a second screening.

After browsing the museum for a few hours, I returned to the second screening room for another viewing of "The Witness". Outside the theater, we heard customers complaining that the lights dimmed in the first theater but the projector had never started. They filed into my room. The film began and ran without a hitch. I sat near the back of the theater for a different vantage point. This time the entire screen was well focused and the print was free of scratches. This made it easier to pay attention to the artistic merits of the work.

This is an absolutely beautiful film. There are sunsets, landscapes, ships at sea, and reconstructed Pequot villages that resonate with authenticity and dazzle with color and detail perfect for the huge 70mm cinema. Generous panoramas fill the 2.20:1 aspect ratio screen. The acting is sharp and the dialogue is clear and well written. Music heightens emotions to good effect. Costumes and makeup are faultless. This is a first-rate production. The only complaint might be that 35mm techniques of cinematography and editing (close-ups and frequent intercutting) predominated. When 70mm is used to greatest effect, close-ups are less frequently needed. At the high resolution, the audience makes their own close-ups by focusing on the action or speaking actor or other detail that interests them. This enhances the sensation of watching reality instead of viewing a concocted drama at arm's length. In "The Witness", though, that "70mm feeling" is nevertheless manifest.

The story line of "The Witness" is, on the surface, the frequently-retold tragedy of European colonialism's pillage and rape of indigenous peoples. The worldwide legacy of this horror of human history cannot be underestimated. Whether in India, Australia, North, Central, South America, the South Pacific, Asia, the Mideast, or Africa, the pattern is endlessly repeated. Europeans with guns enslaved and stole the property of people without guns. But the Pequot's story, as told in "The Witness", expounds on the particular details of their struggle.

The Pequot War was ignited by a series of misunderstandings. To Europeans, the native tribes were all the same. When a non-Pequot tribe murdered a Dutchman, the Dutch would retaliate against any Indian tribe. When the Dutch retaliated against the Pequots, the Pequots would retaliate against any European. The result of this mutual confusion and reciprocal dehumanization led to the genocide of the Pequot people and culture, portrayed with heart ripping authenticity in the large format.

The Pequot loss was not just the consequence of their failure to acquire modern weaponry, but also the result of their inability to cooperate with their neighboring tribes...tribes who collaborated with the invading Europeans to annihilate their ancient foe. The failure to band tribes together to expurgate imperial invaders links "The Witness" with the most famous of 70mm epics, "Lawrence of Arabia". In that masterpiece of the giant screen, feuding tribes of the Middle East could not expel the invading Turks until Lawrence banded them together into a successful, though at times uncomfortable, coalition. Even though some Native American tribes were able to put ancient squabbles aside to fight the Europeans, collaboration was not widespread enough to let them keep their homeland. Uncomfortable divisions remain to this day between some Native American tribes. Arabia, likewise, remains divided.

This is a primeval leit motif of the human struggle. We collaborate in some efforts, and squabble through others. The large format struggle exemplifies this. While big screen enthusiasts engage in bitter debates about whether Todd-AO was better than Cinerama or Super Panavision or IMAX, 35mm, with its marginal resolution, annihilates 70mm and takes over the screens of the world. The feuding formats denied 70mm's chance of surviving against the more cost efficient and lower quality standard. Against the likely prevailing standard of digital cinema with even lower resolution, large formats have little chance of prevailing.

My recommendation is if you can visit Connecticut and the Foxwoods/Pequot complex, that you see "The Witness". It may be the last time a new 5-perf 70mm narrative film will ever be made.

December 19, 2000
 
 
 
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Updated 22-12-16