When the lights dim in the theater for select moviegoers about to watch director Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, when it’s released this Christmas they’ll see something that hasn’t been onscreen in a new movie for nearly 40 years. It doesn’t have anything to do with Tarantino’s iconic quick-paced and self-referential dialogue. It doesn’t have to do with the impressive ensemble cast that includes Tarantino stalwart Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, or Jennifer Jason Leigh. It definitely doesn’t have to do with the movie’s western setting, which the director previously toyed with in 2012’s Django Unchained.
Instead, it’ll have to do with what the audience is literally seeing. The Hateful Eight will first be presented on Ultra Panavision 70mm film, and at an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 — meaning the image is 2.76 feet of width for every foot of height — it’s the widest possible movie frame. So, what does that all mean and why is it such a big deal?
To understand why, you must understand that cinema is full of upheavals. These schisms in movie production typify an artform that’s just barely 100 years old. It’s constantly changing, and yet in America filmmaking is the most consistently lucrative and popular artform consumed by snobs and plebes alike.
Cinema was over when sound was first introduced. It was over when color film replaced black and white. It was kaputt when cheesy gimmicks like smell-o-vision ad 3D were introduced, went away, and were recently reintroduced. But no other disruption has shaken moviemaking to its core than the current struggle between shooting and watching movies on film or digitally.
The vast majority of theaters show their movies on something called a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package, which looks like a huge scary-looking Nintendo cartridge. All of the 1s and 0s encoded in the huge hard drive are the digital equivalent of a 35mm film reel. Movie theaters love this format because it’s a worldwide standard format that can be used in any digital theater anywhere, and it’s relatively cheap. A first copy DCP could cost anywhere between $1400 and $3000 with additional copies costing a maximum of $300 per film.
The majority of the moviegoing public probably can’t tell the difference and doesn’t really care one way or the other about seeing a DCP or movie shot on film, but they should. It’s this price and quality reduction that has caused film fiends like Tarantino to go into full on backlash against digital. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the director went off: “As far as I’m concerned, digital projection and DCP is the death of cinema,” he lamented. “That’s just television in public.” He elaborated by saying, “I don’t see any reason to leave the house when home theaters are so good and the presentation on the DVD is so good. Why would you go to the theater? 35mm, which most people don’t have in their house, well that’s a reason.”
It’s a controversy marred in the fact that people can now buy things like gigantic 4K TVs, or the increasing tendency for TV shows like Breaking Bad to become more aesthetically cinematic. People don’t need to go to the movies anymore because, in effect, what is regularly seen in theaters across the country are blown up versions of what is available in the comfort of your own home.
Though he didn’t mention it, it’s the desire to make watching a movie special again that caused Tarantino to present The Hateful Eight in 70mm. But what is that exactly? 70mm film is basically IMAX’s grandfather. It’s massive film stock that gained popularity on epics like Ben Hur in the mid-20th century meant to be more crisp and show more detail on the biggest and widest screen possible. It attempts to be a more immersive and expansive experience without actually having to watch a 3D movie.
The picture quality of 70mm is the Blu-ray to 35mm’s DVD quality. Though that still sells it short. The picture on consumer quality Blu-rays somewhat compare to the 2,000 pixels projected at normal theaters, while 70mm has upwards of an 8,000 pixel resolution. The camera actually shoots the image in a 65mm frame, while the extra 5mm is reserved for a Hi-Fi soundtrack. Newer 70mm prints also sometimes forego that 65/5 split and simply produce their sound digitally.
But the projection itself is a full 70mm, and it’s a prestige format, which means it’s costly. A 70mm print of something like the restoration of Lawrence of Arabia cost around $71,000 for a single copy. It’s also much heftier than a DCP cartridge that easily fits in a small box. For a contrast, the 70mm IMAX stock theaters used for director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar were transported on a set of reels that weighed 600 pounds.
The other problem is that modern theaters just aren’t equipped, and projectors could break down. 96 screens have been outfitted with 70mm projectors for The Hateful Eight, up from the only 11 theaters that were equipped to show Nolan’s Interstellar last year and 16 theaters that showed director PT Anderson’s 2012 film The Master in the enormous format. It’s astounding, considering it costs theaters nearly $60,000 to $80,000 to upgrade to this nearly obsolete format.
Is the format just for film snobs to watch old movies at prestigious cinemas like the famed Alamo Drafthouse or Tarantino’s own New Beverly Cinema (where he shows only films from his personal collection no less)? Yes and no. The difference is a mix between quality and nostalgia. As actor Tim Roth says in the promotional clip above, “For the actors it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re in a movie. We’re not on a hard drive. We’re in a movie.’” For the audience it means they’re watching a real movie. That’s something they couldn’t get at home.