Christopher Nolan Fights for 35mm, Understands 3-D and Tries to Educate Everyone Else

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Christopher Nolan on the set of The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan on the set of The Dark Knight Rises
Photo: Warner Bros.

Two stories regarding Christopher Nolan and his appreciation for film over digital and his decision to not use 3-D have recently cropped up.

To the first point there’s a fascinating and in-depth story at LA Weekly detailing a situation that occurred last year, just before Christmas, where Nolan invited several big dog Hollywood directors to Universal CityWalk’s IMAX theater under the impression they would be seeing the first six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises. That wasn’t the case.

Those in attendance included Edgar Wright, who relayed the information to LA Weekly‘s Gendy Alimurung, also saying he noticed Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Eli Roth, Duncan Jones and Stephen Daldry also in attendance. After everyone was seated Nolan revealed the reason they were there was not to see footage from a film, but to discuss the imminent death of 35mm film.

The article states:

Nolan pointed out that The Dark Knight Rises was made on celluloid. That he is committed to shooting on film, and wants to continue doing so. But, he warned, 35mm will be stamped out by the studios unless people — people like them — insist otherwise.

There is a war raging in Hollywood: a war between formats. In one corner, standing with Nolan, are defenders of 35mm film… In the other corner are backers of digital technology — a cheaper, faster, democratizing medium, a boon to both creator and distributor.

The danger comes from filmmakers not asserting their right to choose that format,” Nolan says. “If they stop exercising that choice, it will go away. I tell people, ‘Look, digital isn’t going away.'”

Then Alimurung adds some information I’m happy to see included as it will help further the box-office discussion on this site specifically:

Today, the driving force isn’t so much a single movie as it is the studios’ bottom line — they no longer want to pay to physically print and ship movies. It costs about $1,500 to print one copy of a movie on 35 mm film and ship it to theaters in its heavy metal canister. Multiply that by 4,000 copies — one for each movie on each screen in each multiplex around the country — and the numbers start to get ugly. By comparison, putting out a digital copy costs a mere $150.

The motto here I believe is Cheaper, faster, easier.

As an example, The Dark Knight opened on 4,366 theaters in 2008, presuming those were all 35mm and/or IMAX prints and using Alimurung’s figures, that would total $6,549,000 in first-run shipping. Digitally that number shrinks to $654,900. These are figures that are not often considered when people look at a film’s reported budget. Granted a film can be converted from 35mm to digital and I don’t know what percentage of prints that happens to nowadays, but I like having this information available.

As for the 35mm vs. digital discussion, this year, for the first time in history, celluloid ceases to be the world’s prevailing movie-projector technology and in a few years it will be all but wiped out.

Digital is gaining such popularity that Alimurung’s piece also includes this note, which Fox sent to distributors last November:

“The date is fast approaching when 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight will adopt the digital format as the only format in which it will theatrically distribute its films… We strongly advise those exhibitors that have not yet done so to take immediate steps to convert their theaters to digital projection systems.”

Your first response may be to say, “So what?” but when you consider it isn’t only major theater chains showing movies you may begin to reconsider. Smaller houses will either have to begin converting to digital or suffer the consequences and conversion costs can run anywhere from $70,000 to $150,000 per screen and while studios are helping by paying theater owners a “virtual-print fee” for each new release shown digitally, it might not be enough.

So what will happen to art houses, which Alimurung notes most operate on a yearly budget of $500,000? Answer is, they’ll go out of business.

The article has plenty more to offer over the course of six informative pages and I recommend you click here to give it a read.

As for Nolan’s thoughts on 3-D, well, we all know he isn’t converting The Dark Knight Rises to the gimmicky format, but he did use IMAX cameras to once again film sequences which will be presented on the expansive IMAX screens to great effect.

Recently he spoke with DGA Quarterly and gives comments I 100% fully endorse. The best of which follows after he was asked, “Speaking of technical changes, was there any pressure to do The Dark Knight Rises in 3-D?

“Warner Bros. would have been very happy, but I said to the guys there that I wanted it to be stylistically consistent with the first two films and we were really going to push the IMAX thing to create a very high-quality image. I find stereoscopic imaging too small scale and intimate in its effect. 3-D is a misnomer. Films are 3-D. The whole point of photography is that it’s three-dimensional. The thing with stereoscopic imaging is it gives each audience member an individual perspective. It’s well suited to video games and other immersive technologies, but if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace. I prefer the big canvas, looking up at an enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life. When you treat that stereoscopically, and we’ve tried a lot of tests, you shrink the size so the image becomes a much smaller window in front of you. So the effect of it, and the relationship of the image to the audience, has to be very carefully considered. And I feel that in the initial wave to embrace it, that wasn’t considered in the slightest.”

The key to this, for me, is the line, “3-D is a misnomer,” because it is. Films presented in such a way that they are blurry unless you put on special glasses do not create a 3-D effect in the way the studios and filmmakers pushing the format want you to believe. I remember the commercials for Saw 3D in which they showed the carnage running rampant over the audience, problem is, that doesn’t happen.

Instead of a 3-D image coming out at an audience in retreats backward into the screen creating a small box in front of the audience, and one you are entirely aware of. The screen appears smaller because the edges of the screen box the film in, making for what appears to be a smaller image and certainly not “immersive” as the press releases and trailers would like you to believe.

For something to be immersive the edges must disappear. I’ve often said the best 3-D experience I’ve ever had was the IMAX presentation of Hubble 3-D. The 6 1/2-story high screen combined with 3-D technology created what essentially felt like an extension to the theater. I felt as if I was inside the film as it was too high for me to notice the top or bottom of the screen all at once and wide enough that my attention was largely focused on the center of the screen. At one point, as the astronauts were getting dressed for their mission, it seemed as if I was in the room with them. Their floor was my floor as it seemed to extend straight from the theater. That is immersive.

Until 3-D films can duplicate this on a mass level, there is no competing with the image IMAX presents or even a standard big screen 35mm presentation. Oh, and it would help if the films were a little better, but I know that last part can’t really be helped.

You can read the full DGA Quarterly interview with Nolan here.

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Weekend: Nov. 21, 2019, Nov. 24, 2019

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