70MM Odyssey: The Music Box’s Celluloid Celebration Returns

Contributor Sean Duffy interviews Julian Antos, The Music Box Theatres Technical Director, about the theater’s upcoming 70MM Film Festival.

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For the third time in three years, the Music Box Theater in Chicago is putting on a film festival dedicated specifically to showcasing 70MM. This year’s festival, “70MM Film Festival: The Ultimate Version”, includes previously shown classics like 2001: A Space OdysseyVertigo, Lawrence of Arabia, and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as well as first-time prints of Brainstorm, Starman, Krull, and even a collection of shorts co-presented with the Northwest Chicago Film Society.

Not only is this the Music Box’s biggest 70MM festival yet in terms of its programming, it’s also the first with their new 41-foot screen and 7.1 surround sound system, installed recently for their 70MM showing of The Hateful Eight.

The experience of seeing a 70MM presentation with a packed audience is something that can’t be replicated at home, and with audiences turning more often to streaming, the romanticism of the format seems more ready than ever for a big comeback.

We spoke with Julian Antos, the technical director of the Music Box, about the festival, 70MM, and the continuing debate of film vs. digital.

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Before The Hateful Eight started, there was a little video explaining the quality of 70MM, comparing it to both 35MM and 4K digital projection. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but it was quite staggering. How do you compare film, which has no real resolution, in that it isn’t made up of pixels, with digital? How exactly do you measure it? Could you just keep scanning film at higher resolutions as digital technology gets better, or would there be a certain point where there’s no more detail left in the negative or print?

Comparing film to digital in terms of resolution is actually a little silly, but it’s an easy thing to convey to a non-tech audience. The number that’s thrown around is that projected 70mm has a resolution of about 8K, 35mm has a resolution of about 4k, and 70mm IMAX is well beyond that. We’re running Son of Saul in 35mm right now and I can tell you if looks as sharp as any 4K DCP I’ve seen. But look, you can watch things in 4K resolution on youtube and buy 4K television sets at Best Buy, so what’s the big deal? You can make a digital image as sharp as you want, but it won’t have the latitude, color, contrast, or texture of film. I’m getting ahead of myself.

This will be Music Box’s third 70MM festival, all of which have been in the last couple years. I remember going to see 2001 at Son Of 70MM and there was a line way down the street. It was really incredible to see such public enthusiasm for film. Do you find that all your celluloid screenings are getting such warm receptions from audiences, 70MM, 35MM, or otherwise?

Not everything is as much of a draw as 2001, but there is definitely a tangible audience demand for film-on-film presentations. People ask “is this going to be on 35?” all the time. People ask “is this going to be 70mm?” about things that were never printed on 70! I never thought I would walk out into the lobby after a show of The Hateful Eight to hear 20 and 30-somethings raving about film-on-film, but it happened! And they did!

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A couple months ago I interviewed Kyle Wesphal of The Northwest Chicago Film Society and the Celluloid Chicago blog. When I asked him what kind of audience celluloid screenings typically draws, I was very surprised to hear that it’s mostly younger people, twentysomethings and millennials. Here’s Kyle:

“It’s not really a nostalgia thing–the opposite, in fact. It’s so common to hear these condescending refrains that skewer millennials’ supposed ignorance–”You know, we didn’t have Netflix in my day. Do you even remember VHS? We used to have these things called LPs.” Young people are really sensitive to medium specificity, and to the idea that the medium is an intrinsic part of the art.”

Do you find that the Music Box’s audiences for these screenings tend to skew younger as well? Why do you think real film projection still makes people tick, even if they’ve grown up with digital?

It’s hard to tell if more young people care about medium specificity or if they’re just more vocal about it. A lot of older people care about film-on-film presentations, too. Some people like it because of the grain, some people say they were sad when they noticed the light didn’t flicker any more when they looked back at the projection booth. For some people it’s a political thing, they’re not happy about the wholesale abandonment and systematic destruction of an artistic medium … the discussions can get pretty intense.

I think young people being interested in film projection has to do a little bit with the small backlash we’re seeing against digital technology. I think the vinyl records analogy is problematic in many ways, but that’s the closest thing I can compare it to. And film projection is more punk rock.

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Growing up seeing 35MM in theaters, I honestly can’t remember any major issues when seeing a movie. Maybe that’s because I was still a kid for the most part, but since digital projection, I’ve seen and heard about far too many reoccurring issues with screenings. Is there a difference in terms of reliability between the formats? If digital and film are both to stay, how can the two live side-by-side and intersect with each other?

Both formats have issues, that’s show business. Digital projection doesn’t automatically mean good presentation. The image can still be out of focus, the color can be off, and it can even be shown in the wrong aspect ratio. I remember seeing HER in DCP and there was a big pink horizontal line on the bottom of the screen. The industry switched over not because digital was more reliable (it isn’t) or because it looks better (it doesn’t), but because it represented significant savings for the studios and major chains.

At the Music Box, our film projectors and our digital projectors live side my side, and they play nice with one another. We run film whenever we can, and we run digital out of necessity. Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Company have done a great thing by Son of Saul and Hateful Eight on film, and I hope we see more of that in the coming years, but I also loved looking at Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone. There’s room for both.

One major misconception about 70MM is that it’s only real purpose is getting really nice wide shots, lots of big landscapes and such. But what I thought was so brilliant about The Hateful Eight’s use of the format was the way it shaped interiors. 70MM really creates an incredible breadth of detail to each frame and makes even small or cramped spaces (like the cabin) seem large and expanded. Jacques Tati’s Play Time especially embraces this aspect. What else about 70MM do you find to be unique, not just in terms of image “resolution”, per se, but about the actual visual quality it brings as compared to 35MM?

Yeah, all those close-ups are just incredible. I love seeing Samuel L. Jackson’s cold breath travel across the screen. I think 70mm has always done close-ups really well – I’ll never forget the first time I saw Peter O. Toole’s piercing blue eyes in Lawrence of Arabia, or Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. There’s something about the format that’s very immediate.

Through cinema’s history there seems to have been crisis after crisis that made the industry worried that people are going to stop going to the movies. With the emergence of Television in the 1950s, the movies responded with Cinemascope, 3D, multi-channel soundtracks, big epics (mostly in 70MM, of course), and even the ill-advised Smell-O-Vision. Now, with the rise of streaming and what’s being called “The New Golden Age of Television”, the industry is again in another panic. We have, of course, the resurgence of 3D, “Mega screens”, theaters with comfy chairs and a waiter you can call on at point to get you food or a drink, IMAX, and, somewhat, the return of 70MM. Do you see the industry re-popularizing the format? Should they? Is the fear of people not going to see movies anymore a valid one? What do you think keeps an audience coming back, even with new alternatives?

One thing they haven’t tried yet is putting a buffet below the screen. You could go down in the middle of the movie and there would be all sorts of goodies: buffalo wings, crab cakes, nacho cheese – the whole works. Or, yes, we could try going backwards a bit. Maybe make movies a little better than we have been, maybe exhibit them with more care then we have been. If that’s the solution, I do think film projection can and should be a part of it.

Find out more about the festival and its schedule here and revisit our 70MM Supercut below.


Author:  Sean Duffy is a writer and filmmaker. He is an award-winning screenwriter and poet, and his films have screened at The College Town Film Festival, Driftless Film Festival, and Chicago Filmmakers. He has one of those website things. This spring he is the Editorial Intern at Facets.

 

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