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Vulture Explains: What’s All the Fuss About The Master and 70mm?

Over the past several weeks, while impressing (and befuddling) critics at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has also been schlepped across the country by the director himself to a series of surprise, last-minute screenings. The teaser trailers advertising those screenings (see here, here, and here) have each used, as one of their major selling points, the phrase “Presented in 70MM.” 

That's a dog whistle for film buffs, who regularly inveigh against the impending switchover from celluloid to digital. After it opens today in New York and Los Angeles, the movie will expand next weekend and show in that format at a handful of theaters across the country. (And in 35mm at the rest.) And while it’s clear that the 70mm designation is something special, that it’s … better somehow, the average moviegoer doesn’t really understand what it actually means. As a friend said while leaving a screening the other night, "What exactly is different? I thought it would be bigger or something."

Well, the physical film itself is bigger. Most Hollywood movies (those not shot on digital cameras, which we'll discuss in a moment) are made on celluloid whose frames are 35 millimeters wide including the perforations — about an inch and a half — and 18.6 millimeters tall. Since today's standard movie screen is a much wider-proportioned rectangle than that frame, some cameras are equipped with deliberately distorted lenses (the technical term is "anamorphic") that scrunch the image down crosswise onto the film. If you hold a strip of one of these movies up and peer at it, everything looks tall and thin and Gumbyish. Even on films shot without this treatment, the prints made for theatrical distribution are often scrunched down in the same way.* Then, when the movie is projected, the image goes through a matching lens that stretches it out again.

By contrast, when a movie is shot on 70 millimeter film (or really 65 millimeter, because a sliver of the edge is used for the soundtrack), the frames are the same height as the 35mm ones, but nearly twice as wide. The image is shot and projected through ordinary lenses. Because the frame is also much bigger, it is being blown up less in the process of projecting it on the screen, and thus you see more detail, more color, more life. One recurring shot in The Master is of the wake of a giant ocean vessel — the water is turbulent and, in the bigger format, remarkably blue and crisp. The primary difference with 70mm is a significantly better image.

You may also be likelier to have a good projectionist who uses well-kept equipment, since 70mm releases tend to be screened at theaters that are closer to temples of cinema than sticky mall twelveplexes. If, for example, the operator cleans the dust out of the projector's film gate regularly, the film won't get scratched up on the first weekend. It also costs a lot more, simply because film that's twice as wide requires twice as much silver halide in the emulsion — and with silver at around $34 an ounce, that is not inconsiderable. Film prices are on the rise, and 70mm, always reserved for somewhat extravagant film releases like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, grows a little rarer every year. A 70mm print costs thousands of dollars more than a 35mm print does.

There are halfway measures out there. Some 35mm negatives are used to make 70mm prints for release. The reverse is extremely common, too: Most films shot in 70mm are also printed in 35mm for theaters that can't handle the big format. (This is how most viewers will experience The Master.) Neither has the visual punch of a film that's shot in 70mm and projected correctly, though. Especially in a large theater, where the image is thrown all the way across a big space, it's as significant as the difference between a big TV and a screening room. 

That distinction is about to get even hazier. Starting next year, 20th Century Fox will cease distributing celluloid prints of its movies. The other major studios will soon follow thereafter. And although a digital print has its obvious benefits (copies are nearly free; distribution can be shuffled and optimized without getting FedEx involved; nobody has to worry about a print getting lost in shipment), your standard digital project doesn't produce the fine grain and glow of a 70mm print. The last major film to get a large-format release, before this week, was Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996. The Master could, conceivably, be one of the very last. See it big, if you can.

* This passage has been corrected to distinguish between films that are shot with anamorphic lenses and subsequent prints that are made thus.

Photo: The Weinstein Company