Some films are passable to watch on laptops, tablets or mobile phones. Other films offer something more, with their release in theaters becoming an event in itself. Christopher Nolan is a director fabled for creating such events, producing movies that need to be seen in as immersive an environment as possible to be fully appreciated. From The Dark Knight Rises to Inception and Interstellar, Nolan is a visionary who believes deeply in the tradition of cinema, a man who refuses to bow to the popularity of modern tools such as digital and 3D.
Dunkirk is a byproduct of Nolan's belief in tradition; most of the film was shot on IMAX 65mm film, a set-up rarely used in modern times due to cost and inconvenience, with the #IMAX cameras required to use the film stock weighing up to 54 pounds. For audiences, the scarcity of the filming technique translates to a rare conundrum, with the decision of where to watch the film making a distinct difference to the overall viewing experience.
How Should You Watch 'Dunkirk'?
Because of the irregularity of directors who shoot on film, for most moviegoers, these options are confusing. There are (location dependent) generally six different ways #Dunkirk will be projected across the US and beyond: IMAX 70mm, 70mm, IMAX with laser, regular IMAX, regular digital, or 35mm film. These different formats essentially boil down to two separate debates — digital vs. film and IMAX vs. regular screen size.
Most directors shoot movies in digital, but Nolan is different. As a proponent of shooting on classic film stock, a number of his films have included set sequences shot in IMAX (an abbreviation for "image maximum"), including The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, but none as comprehensive as Dunkirk. For cinephiles, 70mm is the holy grail for shooting experience (65mm film is printed onto a 70mm track ready for projection, allowing 5mm for audio). In an interview with Fandango, Nolan said:
"I think Dunkirk represents the culmination of all of these experiences we’ve had over the years [with IMAX]. How to work with that format, and how to really try to give the audience the most visceral experiential two hours that they can hope for."
Pre-digital, the majority of films were shot on 35mm, with 70mm allowing for much larger, rectangular projection to capture much more in a shot to fill IMAX screens — or ultra-wide aspect ratios in a standard 70mm viewing — along with increased audio quality. Due to the lack of compression when shooting and projecting film, in comparison to digital the resolutions are a lot higher, or as #ChristopherNolan would say: "What you get in terms of quality when you’re shooting is pretty extraordinary."
Each of the above options has a different resolution and aspect ratio, as follows:
- IMAX 70mm: Aspect ratio (1.43:1) / Resolution (18,000 pixels)
- Standard 70mm: Aspect ratio (2.20:1) / Resolution (12/13k)
- IMAX with laser: Aspect ratio (1.9:1 / 1.43:1) / Resolution (4k)
- Regular IMAX (Xenon): Aspect ration (1.9:1) / Resolution (2K)
- Regular digital / DCP: Aspect ratio (2.20:1 / 2.40:1) / Resolution (4k / 2k)
- 35mm: Aspect ratio (2.40:1) / Resolution (6k)
Without a doubt, IMAX 70mm is the optimum viewing experience for essentially watching the film in the way it was designed to be viewed. For a film like Dunkirk, that means a heart-racing and engaging experience, adding to the thrill of Nolan's trim, sub-two hour story of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk during WWII, when over 330,000 allied soldiers retreated to safety, with the extra large stock capturing the horror of the expansive, war-torn landscape.
(Maybe Not) Showing At A Cinema Near You
There's only one drawback: for many, old-school IMAX is seen as antiquated technology, technology that is also extremely costly to run and maintain. So, depending on where you are in the country, you may not have access to a theater capable of projecting IMAX 70mm. Dunkirk will be released in 70mm in 125 theatres across America — 25 more than Tarantino's The Hateful Eight — which, despite being the biggest release of its kind in 25 years, is still extremely limited.
If IMAX 70mm isn't available near you, the next question is film vs. digital (Nolan is quite clear where he stands on this argument, hence going all-out to use film). With projection, there's an element faith in the theater's expertise while setting up the equipment for the best viewing experience. That being said, if a theater still has the technology to show IMAX 70mm or standard 70mm, they will more than likely have experienced projectionists on hand.
In terms of image "quality," strictly speaking, digital is bridging the gap. The initial move from IMAX 70mm to IMAX's Xenon digital system was criticized due to the projectors' smaller size and 2k resolution, made with white-emitting lamps that block all but red, green and blue light. However, the move toward using lasers has been a breakthrough for projection; instead of blocking light, laser systems generate red, green and blue light. This allows for much more depth of color, higher resolutions and brightness, with many theaters now using IMAX laser systems that are capable of 4k resolution.
Film Vs. Digital — Or Both
While the quality of digital projection is catching up, you can watch any modern film in this new format. Although the vastness of IMAX is appealing, if you have to choose between 70mm and digital IMAX, 70mm might just have the edge. It's the next best thing after IMAX 70mm, and at the risk of sounding snobbish, it's an authentic cinematic experience. Plus, it's likely for most of those reading this article that, within our lifetimes, film will cease to be used due to its extortionate cost and impracticality. We should take these opportunities when we still have them.
There's an undeniable charm to the nostalgic feeling watching a movie on film, inclusive of its potential character-building imperfections and eroding over time. It's also a medium impossible to replicate at home, in an age of high-quality streaming. By choosing to watch on film, it's a nod toward tradition of the craft, one that is quickly becoming a dying art.
So, rather than going to your usual cinema chain to watch Dunkirk in digital, Nolan's latest blockbuster is the perfect chance to search out a venue playing 70mm, and in turn support tradition, support Nolan's belief in the medium, and make attending cinema into an exciting event. And, if you enjoy it that much, you can always watch it in digital after. Win-win.
Dunkirk is released in cinemas on 21 July. Visit the film's official website to find a theater near you showing in IMAX 70mm or 70mm.
How will you watch Dunkirk? IMAX 70mm? Digital IMAX? 70mm?