Why Christopher Nolan Shot ‘Dunkirk’ in 70mm IMAX Film

Nolan speaks out against Netflix and other at-home streaming services as his World War II hit ‘Dunkirk’ hits theaters in 70mm IMAX film.

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The Warner Bros. World War II epic drama Dunkirk blew away its competition (Girls' Trip and Valerian) at the box office last weekend, and for good reason. Directed by the legendary Christopher Nolan, the movie currently has a 91 percent score on review site Rotten Tomatoes. Dunkirk has something else going for it, too — it's playing in 70mm film. 

Until pretty recently, movies were typically shot on 35mm film before nearly all movie theaters moved to digital projection. 70mm is twice as big, giving viewers a wider and more full picture. Film is, of course, an older technology but it gives you a sharp and vivid image, writes CNN, arguing that viewers should try to see Dunkirk in 70mm. 

“You get a much bigger image, you get more detail, you get more light going through the film from the projector,” David Schwartz, chief curator of New York's Museum of the Moving Image, tells CNN. “You basically get a much brighter more vivid image.”

“This is something that nobody will ever be able to see in their living room. It’s the best argument that cinema has against the competition represented by improvement to home-video systems. I think the studios understand that.”

— Christopher Nolan, director, Dunkirk

While filming in 70mm is more expensive (it costs thousands to produce a 70mm print and up to $80,000 to equip a theater for 70mm projection), movie theaters are using it to entice viewers to come to the theater, as opposed to streaming the movie at home as competition from large TV displays, surround-sound systems and even cinema-quality movies available to stream online for cheap by Netflix.

Nolan, who has directed blockbuster hits like The Dark KnightInterstellar and Inception, says 70mm film could be the film industry's best defense against the at-home streaming trend. 

“This is something that nobody will ever be able to see in their living room,” says Nolan. “It’s the best argument that cinema has against the competition represented by improvement to home-video systems. I think the studios understand that.”

Nolan didn't hold back as he spoke out against Netflix for its approach to film. Netflix original movies are all shot and archived digitally in 4K, and premiere both online and in theaters at once, if they hit theaters at all.

“Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” says Nolan. “They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation.”

Nolan has been shooting on 70mm for a while, reports Vox. Technically, he shoots on 65mm and it’s projected in 70mm. The extra mms are used to record the sound. Dunkirk was shot in two formats, with different types of cameras: 65mm IMAX, and regular 65mm.

In order to present Dunkirk in this film format, Warner Bros. bought projectors from the Weinstein Company, which Quentin Tarantino used to project The Hateful Eight in 2015, for installation in theaters around the country. Dunkirk is getting the widest 70mm release in 25 years — 125 theaters in total (including non-IMAX 70mm screenings), which is bigger than either The Hateful Eight or Nolan’s last foray into 70mm, Interstellar.

Why 70mm Film Matters for Dunkirk

“It's a World War II movie, and it's a movie that really tries to put you right in the middle of this experience. It needs 70mm to really throw you into it,” says Schwartz. “It's possible that the average viewer can't exactly put their finger on what's different about it, but when you see it, it just makes you feel like you're in the world of the film. [Viewers will] have a better experience even if they don't know why.”

While 70mm screenings are limited, the buzz around the special screenings may also serve the purpose of getting viewers out of their homes and into the theater. It makes the movie feel more like an 'event,' which is important for an industry that needs to boost attendance.

The reason some people prefer film is not unlike why audiophiles seek out vinyl over CDs or MP3s; the “cleaned up” medium might have more clarity, but there’s something gritty and beautiful about the analog version, according to Vox. 

Many modern movie effects are geared toward digital projection, and there are a handful of computer-generated effects in Dunkirk that look just fine in digital. But if you’re watching it on 70mm, with its slight grittiness and “noise” on the print, the effects feel like they’re all actually happening, which adds to the feeling of immersion as you’re watching the movie. So an IMAX 70mm screening of Dunkirk combines the grit and richness of the 70mm film with the immersive storytelling effects of the huge screen and “authenticity” of the film grain.

Watch Nolan pitch Dunkirk as “virtual reality without goggles” and hear more about why film matters in the video below. 

Here's a list of theaters showing Dunkirk in 70mm film. 

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Chelsea Cafiero:

Chelsea Cafiero is Senior Web Editor of CE Pro. She also manages the corresponding websites of sister publications Commercial Integrator, Security Sales & Integration, Campus Safety and Electronic House. Chelsea has previously covered politics, local news and consumer electronics. She joined the CE Pro family in 2012.

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