INTERSTELLAR in Five Dimensions: A Trip through the Many Formats of Christopher Nolan’s Epic

by Chris Rasmussen

From beginning to end I’ve now seen Interstellar four times: the 35mm and 70mm film, 4K digital and IMAX presentations. I saw it halfway through in 2K digital, and I may watch it all the way through in that format as well. I’m definitely going to see it in 70mm again. The 70mm standards at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland take the cake, boasting outstanding presentation.

InterstellarPoster

Almost all of the negative reviews of Interstellar center on the film’s sound. Critics ascribe problems to the filmmaker when it’s the presentation they don’t like. I read up on the audio on the film’s website, and what I divined is that Interstellar was never mixed to play in a multiplex. It was mixed to play in large single-screen systems with immense sound. The film is loud, and it is mixed to play really loud. When a storm envelopes the characters, Christopher Nolan wants you to feel the force of the wind.

The IMAX version has the best presentation of the original sound mix. All the IMAX releases are individually remastered and remixed, because the theater is an entirely different environment, with 100-foot-high lead ceilings. The mix has to compensate for the different space.

The IMAX sound at the Metreon screening I attended was awesome. Out of the sound mixes of the film that I didn’t tinker with directly, or have anyone else tinker with, that mix was right on point. In the IMAX presentation, you have to pay particular attention to the mix for dialogue, because the auditorium is like the Grand Canyon. The audio is mixed specifically so the audiences can make it out.

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I liked Interstellar the first time that I saw it. But I didn’t fully appreciate it until I realized Christopher Nolan’s intent. There isn’t a line of dialogue in the film that doesn’t propel it forward to the finale or push the arc of each character. Most of the complaints I’ve heard are about Interstellar ‘s audio mix. People say, “I couldn’t understand the dialogue,” and by extension they say they couldn’t understand the movie. Now that I’ve seen the movie enough to get everything, or more than I did in the beginning, every line is there for a purpose.

The first and second times I saw the film, I teared up during the last reel. The third and fourth times, I was crying through the second reel until the end, and laughing in between. Every bit of humor in the film is intentional. I thought, “Wow, am I the only one getting why this is funny?” Some of the humor comes from cultural references to 2001: A Space Odyssey , such as when the marine robot TARS makes the joke about “plenty of human slaves for my robot colony” and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) talks about turning down its humor quotient. Or when TARS says, “I also have a humor cue light if it helps. You can use it to find your way back to the spaceship after I blast you out of the airlock.” That was a great line!

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Why has Christopher Nolan defied convention, insisting on the release of his movie on film when the industry has converted to digital? Many theater owners are rightly upset—only two years ago, they were told the future is all digital: film is dead. The studios behind the film are also in a hard place, having pushed eagerly for digital to replace film, yet banking on a proven director.

Digital is efficient and less expensive to ship and maintain. Once a 35mm print is scratched, it’s damaged for good. In spite of all of this, Nolan essentially said, “I’m going to insist that my movie is released on film before it’s released on digital.”

I absolutely understand the resentment of the theater owners, because most made no provisions to project 35mm again. The studios likewise had to backtrack, so they are not happy with Nolan either. But they went along with it because Nolan has made them a lot of money. That’s the only reason he was allowed to get away with this.

That is where my excitement comes from. The studios Nolan was shooting for had been part of the machine that drove out film. He knew he would piss off just everyone, including his own studio, and he did it anyway because he was that passionate about the medium. He shot all of Interstellar ‘s most impressive scenes in IMAX, and we don’t have the digital that can touch that quality. He had this story and vision and he wanted the audience to get the best he could possibly deliver.

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Even the choice to use anamorphic 35mm for a lot of the film is partly a matter of practicality. I’m sure that part of Nolan’s intention is to draw attention to the quality when it goes to the IMAX footage. I say that not just because of the grandeur of some of the IMAX scenes but because of their emotional content or impact, as well. In the sequence where Cooper is leaving home, the interior shots when he’s talking to his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) are in 35mm. When she tears out of the house calling to her departing father as his truck speeds away, Nolan switches to IMAX, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN INTERSTELLAR ADVENTURE: COMPARING THE FORMATS

Was Christopher Nolan right to push for Interstellar ’s release on film? Let’s take a look at the various release formats and their qualitative differences to find out.

From Cameras to Screen:

How sharp an image appears, and more specifically, how much information is displayed on screen can be abbreviated to a few key factors.

In production:

  • Data capacity of the light-gathering sensor, be it film or digital.
  • Quality of glass (lenses) used, and attention to focus in gathering images.

In presentation:

  • Quantity of data— for film, the area of the film’s frame; for digital, the spatial resolution of the imaging chip or chips.
  • Quality of glass (lens) used in presenting the image.

Other factors are also at play, such as power, and the evenness of the light propelling the images onto the screen, and even the condition of the screen itself. But we’ll focus on the quality potential of each format, and assume uniformly excellent presentation. (If a presentation is compromised, the format hardly matters!)

Nolan and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (who lensed Let the Right One In and Her ) shot Interstellar in multiple film formats. Some sequences were shot in standard 4-perf 35mm anamorphic, some in 8-perf 35mm Vistavision, and some of the most dramatic in 70mm IMAX. To the attentive, these format shifts—often within the same scene—will be apparent, yet surprisingly, not distracting. In IMAX, the changes are most apparent, as the 35mm-originated footage is noticeably less detailed. These images fill the width of the screen, but leave large portions above and below that explode to life when the IMAX footage appears.

Basic Differences—Film vs. Digital:

These differences will be noticeable to the casually attentive viewer:

  • From all but the very best of insulated film projection rooms, one will hear the gentle flutter of film passing though the film gate, whereas digital projectors produce only the noise of cooling fans.
  • Specks of dust and, depending on care taken by projectionists, scratches may appear on film prints. Digital, having no physical surface to collect dust or scratches, is free of these artifacts.
  • Film projector shutters flash the 24-frame-per-second image twice each, 48 times per second; some people are acutely aware of this flicker. Digital presents successive frames in a continuous stream without a physical shutter system, producing no flicker.

InterstellarDigitalFormatComparison

35mm and 2K digital: While having no direct correlation, 35mm film resolves roughly 3K, so while the actual information packed into the 35mm frame is greater than 2K digital, generational loss due to post-production steps (intermediate negative, titles and effects) leaves an image strikingly comparable. Interstellar looks unified in both these formats, with fewer clues as to film source changes than are apparent in the more robust formats. With solid presentation, 35mm and 2K digital should provide equally impressive experiences, however, making the leap into higher quality digital or film makes a world of difference.

70mm and 4K digital: While a brown wooden table presented in 35mm or 2K digital might convey only enough information to discern those two facts about the object, both 70mm and 4K can clearly deliver the grain of the wood, details of the table’s construction, coffee stains and dust. Each of these formats delivers four times the information of its lesser-endowed sibling. Where the 35mm and 2K versions of Interstellar show outer space as dark, the 4K and 70mm presentations present it as vast, with 70mm leading in quality when compared back to back.

70mm IMAX: Standing atop the imaging mountain is the unarguable king. With more than double the resolution of standard 70mm and nine times that of 35mm, IMAX film gathers more data than any other motion picture media. On a 90’ screen, the density of projected information is still greater than that of 35mm on a standard screen, giving one an entirely immersive experience. In IMAX, space is infinite.

The audio:

Played at proper volume, Interstellar boasts excellent digital audio in all formats. A key element of its presentation is being intentionally loud during certain scenes. If theaters take the precaution of lowering the volume so as not to disturb neighboring auditoriums, much of the dialog will drop so low as to be unintelligible. The most impressive audio experience comes, unsurprisingly, from the IMAX format.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Interstellar is an impressive achievement in filmmaking, well deserving of the best presentation available to the moviegoer. While IMAX leads in absolute quality of sound and picture, the use of 35mm anamorphic stands out as being softer than the IMAX footage, making the 5-perf 70mm presentation a closer second place than if the entire film originated in IMAX. Presented effectively, the 4K digital is also a pure delight, pouring more detail into every shot than 35mm or 2K digital. The latter two formats run neck and neck at the back of a very respectable pack. Experiencing Interstellar in these formats is akin to using a small economy car for a commute. One won’t miss the luxury not known.

While the battle to bring a work to the public in the intended format is an artist’s right, Christopher Nolan’s insistence on a celluloid release was met with dissent from much of the industry. Was he correct in this insistence? From this viewer’s seat(s), while held in rapt attention through multiple screenings, the answer is absolutely and unreservedly—yes!

Interstellar is screening now in theaters. For a selection of ways to see it, click here.

 

rasmussenAs a teenager attending Berkeley High, Chris Rasmussen showed up on the reopening day of the UC Theatre (April 1, 1976) and enthusiastically offered to help tear tickets, soon becoming known as a jack-of-all-things-movies, including a superb projectionist. His knowledge and enthusiasm served him well greeting audiences and answering their questions. Rasmussen is the projection and sound guru for Landmark Theatres in the Bay Area. He’s mastered and maintained their 35mm projection, installed the new digital systems, and reinstalled 35mm at the California Theatre for  Interstellar. He’s also on the projection team at the Telluride Film Festival, and is a fine photographer and cinematographer. All of these talents make him the perfect reporter for this story.


Editors’ note:

Stanley Kubrick, especially with his 2001: A Space Odyssey , made movies that audiences returned to experience often, seeking new meaning via the many layers of visual, audio and intellectual detail. 

Director Christopher Nolan acknowledges being influenced by Kubrick, especially 2001, both in interviews and through the many references to that earlier science fiction classic found in Interstellar.

At least one theater circuit is trying to encourage repeat viewings with a special pricing structure that allows multiple visits to see Interstellar. Read about it here .

For those of you wanting to go deeper into the technical aspects we present these links:

nolan

Nolan, left, on the Interstellar  set in Iceland, with the director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema, on an IMAX camera. Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures/Warner Brothers Pictures.

The Viewing Experience According to Christopher Nolan:

https://interstellar.withgoogle.com/transmissions#/viewing-experience/detail

Interstellar  Technical Specifications:

http://www.interstellarmovie.com/formats/

The sound mix of  Interstellar has stirred considerable controversy.  Here is Nolan defending the sound mix (with a link to his full interview on THR) .

And here is Forbes’ Scott Mendelson challenging the sound mix .

Just as Kubrick was a perfectionist who actually screened each print before it was sent to theaters (in the days when movies opened on far fewer screens), Nolan has been checking presentations in theaters to be sure they meet his demands.

This New York Times article  catches him listening to sound in a theater, and reveals much more about his influences and career.

To see the other Christopher Nolan movies and read books about Nolan, please visit our Amazon or Indiebound affiliate links.

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