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John O'Callaghan 70mm Short Film Maker

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

Written by: John O'Callaghan. Edited by: Thomas Hauerslev 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 Urals.

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 freshman curriculum".

Further in 70mm reading:

Full cast/credit: "Dead Sea"
Full cast/credit: "Worriors of the Wasteland"

Internet link:

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 etc.

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 portfolio.

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 right.

"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 technological toilet?

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 or tape.
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