Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssee in 70mm

Yesterday marked what appears to be the final show for this year at the Eye Film Institute of a restored 70MM film print of Stanley Kubricks masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssee. I went to see the film together with a fellow analog film fan. So how did the movie and the format hold up in this modern day era of gazillion stop dynamic range digital cameras and HDR projection systems? Well let’s find out..

In the early fifties and sixties, companies like Todd AO and Cinerama stunned audiences with an unprecedented movie going experience by recording and projecting feature films and travelogues in a widescreen format rather than the conventional 4:3 aspect ratio using special film camera and projection equipment. During these years various different formats were developed ranging from an extremely complex but impressive setup with 3 35mm cameras and projectors (Cinerama, more on that in a future installment of Glorious8) aligned to project a single image all the way to 70mm spherical and anamorphic single lens systems that would later become known as Super and Ultra Panavision. If the latter sounds familiar, that’s because Quentin Tarantino revived the format for his Hateful Eight film.

During this “golden age of cinema” 70mm projection systems along with their 65mm camera counterparts were known as the pinnacle of cinema technology. Many years later IMAX would take the whole thing to the next level by running the 70mm film strip sideways through their camera and specially designed projectors to allow for an even bigger size frame on the same film strip.

Kubrick shot 2001: A Space Odyssee with a 65mm Super Panavision camera with various extremly large custom lenses. It was released in a roughly 2.20:1 Super Panavision format which was suitable for the second generation of Cinerama theaters that employed a single lens 70mm projection system rather than the more cumbersome (but wider) 3 panel Cinerama projection system that were only available in a very limited number of theaters. This 70mm release was later followed by various 35mm scope prints that were considerably cheaper to produce and could be screened at regular theaters that lacked the huge 70mm projection system. These prints however lacked the surround channel and multichannel mix that was present with the 70mm version.

Now to the average modern day movie fan 2.20:1 might not seem very impressive and I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed. Hell pretty much everything these days is shot in 2.39:1 or similar ratios. But in the early sixties, this widescreen format was considered insanely wide so I can only imagine how movie audiences must have felt when this movie was first released in theaters especially since it featured visual work by some of the greatest special effects people that ever lived including the legendary Douglas Trumbull who developed and/or modified many intricate optical devices designed specifically to generate the amazing visual effects in this movie.

Granted the print looked very crisp and clean with only minor lines/cables or scratches at times (particularly in the opening of the film sequences). I was amazed to see that the introductory music to the film that played in theaters was also included in the film which showed only a black screen during this entire sequence. If that was all black 70mm film whizzing by during this sequence then somebody paid a hell of a lot of money for just some music.

According to their website, Eye signed a deal with Warner Brothers that includes three annual screenings which means we’ll likely see a reappearance of this film at the Eye Film Institute somewhere in the next year. From what I understand, Warner Brothers released the digitally restored 70mm print of Stanley Kubricks masterpiece to coincide with the 50 year anniversary of the film. I also read somewhere that American Cinematheque paid for and owns the 70mm print that toured various theaters across the United States. However it is unclear to me if Eye also purchased a 70mm print or is screening the version owned by AC. In any case it’s always cool to see classic movies re-released in their original formats so we as film fans get to see the film as it came out upon its initial release in theaters. Eye promoted these screenings with a press release stating that this was your chance to see the movie in the way the director intended it and well this screening probably is the closest thing we’re ever going to get. That being said I cannot help but wonder if Kubrick would’ve wanted us to experience this film in this manner today or would have opted to go all out on color correction and denoising if he had had the chance to do so.

One thing that surprised me was how much noise the image contained. This may have been do to the fact that film stocks back in the day were considerably slower and thus may have required more push during processing to make up for exposure problems.
I went to see this film together with a fellow analog film enthusiast and we both commented that the film at times felt more like watching a 35mm print blown up to 70mm because of the fairly high amount of noise and limited detail in certain areas.
It wasn’t until I got home and revisited the bluray release of this film that I realized just how much color correction and denoising must have been going on between print and bluray because the bluray image at times was considerably more pleasing to look at. This left me rather conflicted about the whole 70mm experience because while I definitely enjoyed watching the movie on the big screen I didn’t quite feel like this was the be all end all version of the film.

As for sound the folks that restored the print went with a more modern approach and used the Digital Theater Systems (DTS) format for the multichannel audio tracks. Sound was very clean although the lack of dynamics and rather prominent mid range frequencies along with the insanely high volume at which Eye was playing this movie at times made the sound quite fatiguing. (Note to Eye: This isn’t the first time this has happened during one of your analog shows) At times it even became unbearable up to the point where I put my fingers in my ears as to prevent my tinitus rewarding me for my exposure to the sound the day after. We also noticed the original print apparently had a fairly front centered sound stage and while I am aware the original likely had a monaural surround channel only I felt the movie would have benefited from a new, more immersive, surround remix.

One thing I had never noticed with the bluray and TV broadcasted versions was the problems caused by the ‘open matte’ of this original print. In one scene during the Dawn of Man sequence you can literally see the top part of the sound stage where the backdrop featuring a front projected background for the apes doesn’t extend all the way. In another scene aboard the wheel, we see some kind of support of some kind above the camera’s field of view during the walk around the wheel which is not visible in any of the other releases I’ve seen. I also felt like the Dawn of Man sequence was smudged by some kind of foot print but I later found out I was actually seeing patches of projection screen cloth glued on the background of the studio lot to provide for a more even distribution of light.

One particularly irritating issue with our screening was that the first half hour or so was suffering from a serious focus and jitter issue in the top center part of the screen. It was as if the film was warped inside the gate or somebody had accidently mismatched a lens to screen curvature. After I complained to the nice lady at the register and she immediately contacted the projectionist the problem seemed to have disappeared by the time I returned to my seat. Only to turn up again for a at least a few minutes after the intermission. Knowing that Kubrick was absolutely obsessed with his lens focus I doubt this problem lies in the original print itself and may indeed be warpage or some kind of projection problem. I was kind of bummed out by this and rather surprised that nobody else was complaining in the theater seeing as we all paid 15 bucks to see this 70mm version. But like I said the problem was quickly resolved and the rest of the experience was pretty cool. Seeing 2001 on the big screen really felt like something special and I was amazed how well the visual effects hold up today.

Below you will find a number of extremely cool videos on the making of 2001 which will put a lot of stuff into perspective and highlight really how much of an incredible landmark in cinema history this movie really is. When I first saw it as a kid in the eighties I didn’t like it at all. I felt it was boring and extremely slow. This 70mm format release of course doesn’t change the pace of the movie. It is still extremely slow. But knowing Kubrik made this film only 15 months prior to the first moon landing and seeing just how much time and effort went in to bringing his vision to life really puts things into perspective for me. I could never push myself to watch the entire movie again. Until now. Now, almost 30 years later and as an aspiring film maker I can only watch in complete awe at what Kubrick and his team managed to accomplish with this production in a time where color television was only just making it’s entry into households. It truly is an amazing movie experience.

CinemaTyler’s excellent series on the making of 2001

Kubrick’s incredible range of Lenses