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70MM Come Back!!!

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Rick Mitchell. © 2006, by Rick Mitchell - Universe rights reserved Date: 12. May 2006
Modern High-Impact Showscan theatre

Though the less stellar than expected opening of “Mission Impossible III” seems to have thrown a bit of a shadow over the industry's excitement that more people are going to theaters in 2006 than in 2005, ex.hibitors, studio heads, and filmmakers continue to ignore the most obvious way to increase patronage in the face of other options to viewing films: taking a leaf from 50 years ago by promising audiences an entertainment experience they cannot possibly get in the home: a BIG BRIGHT IMAGE on the BIG WIDE SCREEN filling the front wall of a big auditorium. This is even more significant given the current trend toward shrinking video screens.

Actually, exhibition seems to have a head start on this, finally getting out of their shoebox multiplex mindset and moving toward large auditoriums with big screens. However, otherwise making the theatrical experience more home like seems counterproductive and while the jury is still out on digital projection, the industry could be exploiting existing technology like 70mm. Not by blowing up 35mm anamorphic or spherical films for sound, as was done in the Eighties, but, for the properly selected films, original 65mm photography that would yield razor sharp images on those large screens with a depth and clarity that will take digital years to achieve, if then. But to be really effective, the films have to be shot so that they will look great on such large screens.

In a recent L.A. Times Sunday Calendar article on the decline in attendance, Peter Bogdanovich mentioned encountering a young film student who was not impressed by John Fords “The Grapes Of Wrath” until he had had a chance to see it on the big screen, for which Ford and Gregg Toland had designed it. While we boomers who grew up during the 1955-70 roadshow era were consciously impressed by the spectacular nature of films like “How The West Was Won” and “Lawrence Of Arabia”, subconsciously we were also impressed by the depth and clarity of the images from large negatives viewed on large screens, which is why younger people find such films so underwhelming, especially viewed by "letterboxed" video on a laptop.

Through the Seventies, most artists making regular 35mm films for theatrical release envisioned their works as ultimately being seen on the screens of legendary palaces like the Radio City Music Hall and the Chinese and had them staged and composed accordingly. As a result, even Monogram and PRC "Bs" from the Forties look better on the giant screen of the Egyptian when revived there than many contemporary "A" features. (For the record, in the Forties the Chinese did run double bills with the second feature often a Republic, Monogram, or PRC "B".)
More in 70mm reading:

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New 70mm print of "Cleopatra"

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France Nuyen at the 6 May 2006 screening of "South Pacific". Image by Paul Rayton

Unfortunately, over the last quarter century the production end of the business has developed a "small screen" mindset, what with the increased use of video assists in production as well as post going almost entirely to video-based editing systems. Where in the past directors, cinematographers, and producers of even "C" pictures saw dailies, as well as progressive cuts, in screening rooms, today, even on expensive "A" productions shot on film, the directors and cinematographers often see dailies only on video monitors and don't see anything projected onto a screen until they see the answer print!
Tragically there really are no contemporary films suitable for testing pro-large dramatic screen filmmaking (as Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC once commented, trying to do such a film in Imax is a joke), but we who live in Hollywood regularly get a chance to get some idea of what such presentations are like thanks to the Dome's annual Cinerama presentations and the frequent revival of 65/70mm films from the past by the American Cinematheque, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is running a new 70mm print of "Cleopatra" on May 15, 2006.

The American Cinematheque´s most recent 70mm Festival offered an interesting opportunity to contrast different approaches to filmmaking for large wide screens with rare screenings of 70mm prints of the second and third Todd-AO productions, "Around The World In Eighty Days" (1956) and “South Pacific” (1958).

Like “Oklahoma!” (1955), “South Pacific” was produced by a conglomeration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Todd-AO Corporation, and a specially formed roadshow distribution company called Magna Theaters, using the production facilities of 20th Century-Fox, which would later absorb Magna and take over its contract with Todd-AO. Though he'd initiated and arranged financing for the development of Todd-AO, Michael Todd was not allowed involvement with the Magna, and this becomes immediately obvious when you compare the Magna productions to Todd's personal “Around The World”.
Matte paintings for "Ben Hur" in 65mm

Todd had initially been involved with Cinerama and, among other things, was unhappy with Fred Waller's inability to eliminate the visible joins between the panels. He set out to develop a "Cinerama Out Of One Hole", which Dr. Brian O´Brian of American Optical determined could be achieved by using a 65mm format from 1930, essentially the same one used for “The Bat Whispers” with wide angle lenses, the image projected onto a deeply curved screen. The shortest lens for this system, which had an 128mm field-of-view, had fish-eye type distortions which also created a faux Cinerama-like 3-D effect and was originally intended to be the key element in the process, yet neither the Magna executives nor “Oklahoma!” director Fred Zinnemann liked the distortions. The lens would only be used for a handful of shots in “Oklahoma!” and apparently had been abandoned by the time of “South Pacific”. (The process' filming speed was also reduced from 30 fps to 24 fps to eliminate the necessity of shooting an additional version for 35mm general release.) As a result, most of “Oklahoma!” and all of “South Pacific” are shot primarily like 35mm CinemaScope pictures of the time, though with more full and medium shots than would be used today.
While the new print of “South Pacific” is gorgeous for the most part, suggesting that either the negative is in great shape or photochemical restoration has reached new highs, all in all another accolade for Schawn Belston of Fox, I personally have to admit that I can't understand the popularity of this film at the time of its release. It's a rather strange subject for a musical, episodic with little setup, and its tone is all over the place. (This may be due to the fact that this was the 150 minute general release version; a faded 70mm print of the original roadshow version was shown following the restored print but I couldn't stay for it.) The sound, converted to DTS´ 6 track digital format, was terrific, beautifully capturing every note of Alfred Newman's adaptation and conducting of the score. It was so good that the singing voice doubles for Rossano Brazzi and John Kerr were all too obvious. “South Pacific” appears to be the first Fifties 65mm film to make extensive use of matte paintings, by Emil Kosa, Jr., and miniatures, some incorporated via split screens, most of which hold up surprisingly well. (L.B. Abbott, ASC supervised the effects work.) As for the infamous color filters, well Leon Shamroy, ASC does make up for them in his exquisite close-ups of then 17 year old France Nuyen, who introduced the Egyptian screening. (Again, for the record, all three Todd-AO features had their premiere Los Angeles engagements at the Egyptian.)
Click image to see enlargement

”South Pacific”
looked great, but was still not as impressive on the giant Egyptian screen as the fading 1968 print of “Around The World” shown the previous night. Controlled by Todd, the film was clearly designed to really exploit the 65/70mm format in a way that only a handful of later films like “Lawrence Of Arabia”, the race scenes in “Grand Prix”, and Robert Wise's three in the format would.

”Around The World” is clearly influenced by “This Is Cinerama” and possibly “Cinerama Holiday”, not only in its scenic POV shots, but in the dramatic scenes as held. Though Todd supposedly was not to happy with some of the more "folksy" stuff Merian C. Cooper and Lowell Thomas added to the second half of “TIC”, Todd did respond to its effect on audiences and took the proper light-hearted approach to the "book" portions of his film, with a lot of help from humorist S.J. Perelman, who was responsible for much of its "veddy British" satire. Overall the film is actually very intelligently written and played with the right touch so that it doesn¹t come off as campy. As for the cameos, aside from the Jose Greco dance troupe number, only the Marlene Dietrich/ George Raft/ Frank Sinatra bits in the San Francisco sequence seem to have been specifically concocted for them; the other cameos come naturally out of the plot and therefore do not annoy contemporary audiences who may not be familiar with the particular actors.
I suppose Todd can be credited overall for the film's visual look and editing, with most scenes played in medium or wider shots, most of which are photographed with shorter focal length lenses which allow you to see a tremendous amount of detail in the sets and locations, enhancing the feeling of being in the picture far more than is possible with long lenses. In fact, the few tight close-ups, such as in the Hong Kong sequence where Robert Newton has Cantinflas´ drink spiked, and the first appearance of the steward played by Peter Lorre really stand out really stand out thanks to their contrast to the wider views in the rest of the film. This is something that really works best in big screen presentations and can also be experienced with 35mm anamorphic productions from the Fifties and Sixties that emphasized the use of shorter lenses, but large negative origination adds a visual dynamic range that 35mm cannot match (and forget Super 35).
Unfortunately, too many of today's filmmakers are more concerned with the video than the theatrical release. Granted, the former yields the greater financial return, but the success in that market is founded on the film's success in the latter. Since older films have proven to be as successful in home video as more recent video friendly projects, there is no reason to assume that tailoring a film for theatrical presentation will hurt its chances in video if it¹s really successful in theaters.
However a new film taking this approach will probably have to come from a source outside the mainstream industry, as Cinerama and Todd-AO did, but with the right subject matter, it could be a sleeper and actually doesn¹t need to cost $100,000,000+. But its subject matter needs to be something that stimulates a desire in at least the contemporary 15-30 year old demographic to want to see it in a theater, not a repeat of the mistake that doomed the attempted 65mm revival of the Nineties with “Far And Away” (1992) and “Hamlet” (1997).
These films were influenced by the publicity for Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz´ restoration of “Lawrence Of Arabia”, considered the ultimate "cerebral epic". What was ignored was that in the intervening years, such material had increasingly become associated with the fare like "Masterpiece Theater" and those Robert Halmi Hallmark specials. To reacquaint contemporary audiences with the higher image quality of 65mm, it needed to be used on films like “Speed”, “Independence Day”, “Twister”, or “Titanic”. Though a surfeit of badly done films of this type has reduced their audience appeal in recent years, a reasonably fresh project done with respect to the audience, designed for the BIG screen, and shot in 65mm does have a great chance for success.
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Updated 21-01-24