The 70mm Experience of THE HATEFUL EIGHT

A new Quentin Tarantino film is always a cause for celebration. His latest effort, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, arrives in theaters this Christmas. Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the movie is about a group of bounty hunters stranded in a blizzard. The cast is a powerhouse: Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, and Samuel L. Jackson are just some of the stars. So yes, there is much to be excited about here. But when Tarantino announced that THE HATEFUL EIGHT would be shot in 70mm and also released that way at select theaters, hardcore cinephiles went bonkers. Average moviegoers, on the other hand, were left wondering what the fuss was all about. If you’re not familiar with the format or its advantages, we’ve got a crash course in 70mm for you.

Before the current era of digital projection, movies were usually exhibited in one of two ways. The standard was via 35mm film. This refers to the fact that the celluloid itself was about 35 millimeters wide. Use of this film resulted in a crisp, clear picture. 70mm film, as you may have guessed, has frames that are even larger in size, both in terms of height and width. (The in-camera film stock used is actually 65mm, but is printed on 70mm strips for projection.) The vastly larger image area allows for a higher-resolution picture that is brighter and more atmospheric than a 35mm print. You can see little details in the frame that you might not notice otherwise, while lighting effects take on an especially strong ambiance. Think of 35mm as DVD and 70mm as Blu-Ray, if you will. Both are wonderful to look at, but one is even better than the other.

Film of the 70mm variety additionally provides movies with an opportunity to be projected in super-widescreen aspect ratios. A normal “flat” ratio (i.e. one the shape of an HDTV) is about 1.85:1. A “scope” ratio is wider, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. This ratio is used frequently in modern action/adventure movies like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE DARK KNIGHT, or movies that, for one reason or another, benefit from packing a lot of imagery into the frame. The N.W.A. biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, for example, is a recent drama that effectively uses the scope ratio to enhance scenes where many characters are onscreen at the same time, as well as to capture the energy of the group’s concert performances. With 70mm, the aspect ratio can be stretched even further, going as wide as 2.76:1. The result is an image that literally overtakes the audience, practically putting you right inside the movie with an enveloping, crystal-clear picture.

The visual qualities and aspect ratio potential of 70mm have historically made it useful for epics (BEN HUR, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA), large-scale musicals (SOUTH PACIFIC, WEST SIDE STORY, MY FAIR LADY), and movies aiming for a sense of spectacle (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, CLEOPATRA, GRAND PRIX). It has even been employed for comedy; Stanley Kramer’s IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD needed the super-wide aspect ratio in order to accommodate its massive all-star cast. By every measure, 70mm conveys the intention to deliver a powerful impact to moviegoers.

The downside of 70mm is that making prints is very expensive. Because the film itself is physically larger, it costs more to manufacture and ship. Reels of 70mm film are twice as heavy as those of 35mm. Additionally, special equipment is required to show a movie made in this format. Theaters need special 70mm projectors, as well as screens that can accommodate the oversized picture.

From the mid-1950s through 1970, 70mm was used fairly frequently for “event pictures.” Then those pitfalls caught up to it, and use of the format diminished abruptly. Not until the 1990s did it start to make a comeback. Ron Howard shot his 1992 Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman drama FAR & AWAY in 70mm. Four years later, Kenneth Branagh did likewise with his four-hour cinematic adaptation of HAMLET. More recently, Christopher Nolan shot select segments of INTERSTELLAR in IMAX 70mm. The last true 70mm production, however, was Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER in 2012, although that movie utilized the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT, then, will be the first true ultra-widescreen 70mm motion picture in decades. (It’s being released at a 2.75:1 ratio.) To make sure audiences get the full benefit, Tarantino is helping fifty theaters worldwide prepare by retrofitting them with 70mm projectors containing the proper anamorphic equipment to create that wide image. If you’re not fortunate enough to be in close proximity to one of those theaters, THE HATEFUL EIGHT will receive a traditional digital release two weeks later, on January 8, 2016. Obviously, though, the 70mm option will be the preferable one.

Now that some of the 70mm basics have been covered, let’s look at the implications of this particular release. Tarantino, a longtime celluloid advocate, is reviving a format that has largely laid dormant for many years, and was presumed by many to be dead, thanks to the widespread conversion to digital projection in cinemas worldwide. He is clearly trying to provide audiences with a type of moviegoing experience most of them have never had. That in itself is pretty special. Furthermore, THE HATEFUL EIGHT gives him a chance to pay homage not only to some of the movies that influenced him, but also to the way those movies were exhibited to the public. Given that he’s well-known for paying tribute to his cinematic inspirations, it will be thrilling to see how Tarantino morphs his own unique style with a format that has long signified visual spectacle.

Tarantino is not the only person getting to experiment here. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has photographed some of the most visually daring movies of our time, including Oliver Stone’s JFK and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND and HUGO, and Tarantino’s own KILL BILL and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So now you also have one of the cinema’s top DPs getting the chance to play around with a format most of his peers have never touched. Richardson will bring all his knowledge and expertise to the table, and there’s little doubt that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will encourage him to pull out all the stops. It’s inconceivable that THE HATEFUL EIGHT won’t be one of the most visually sumptuous movies of the modern era.

If Tarantino’s grand experiment proves to be a success, it may well inspire other top directors to try 70mm, as well. This would help ensure that celluloid continues to survive – and maybe even thrive – alongside digital. It would also increase the odds of us seeing inventive, spectacular masterpieces. So whether you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan or not, THE HATEFUL EIGHT will give 70mm another shot at glory. And that is a reason for every film buff to rejoice.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan