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35mm vs 70mm Film: The Ultimate Cinematic Showdown

Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have experimented with different film formats in the pursuit of breathtaking visuals and an unforgettable viewing experience. Two formats stand out in this quest – the ubiquitous 35mm, and the ultra wide-screen splendor of 70mm. But what exactly sets these formats apart, and which one reigns supreme on the silver screen? Let‘s compare these giants of analog filmmaking.

A Brief History

35mm first emerged in 1892 when William Kennedy Dickson, working with Thomas Edison, settled on 35mm wide film strips as the standard for their Kinetoscope experiments. The format allowed Edison to create the first commercial motion picture exhibition in 1894. As cameras and projectors evolved to leverage 35mm stock, the format became popular among early film studios and exhibitors. It offered a good balance of quality, cost and convenience.

70mm has murkier origins but rose to prominence in the late 1920s when Fox Studios released Fox Grandeur, the first 70mm widescreen process. It delivered an ultra-wide 2.2:1 aspect ratio, creating cinema‘s most immersive experience yet. But Grandeur was expensive and abandoned after only a few films. 70mm saw sporadic use until it really hit its strides in the 1950s and 60s when formats like Todd-AO and Super Panavision 70 wowed audiences and nabbed Oscars.

Technical Specs

Let‘s look at how the technical details of 35mm and 70mm film compare:

Spec 35mm Film 70mm Film
Width 1.375 inches 2.6 – 2.8 inches
Aspect Ratio Typically 1.375:1 or 1.66:1 for anamorphic widescreen Typically 2.20:1
Approx. Resolution 5K to 6K digital equivalent 18K+ digital equivalent
Typical Cost (90 min film) $81,000 for camera negative $1.3 million +
Release Strategy General wide release Limited ‘roadshow‘ release

Due to its immense size and resolution, 70mm captures fine details like no other analog format. This makes it perfect for epic landscape shots, massive crowd scenes and other complex, visual set-pieces. But that fidelity comes at a steep price.

The Cost Conundrum

70mm film and the cameras required are astronomically expensive compared to 35mm. Printing and distributing a 70mm release print can cost $60,000+ per copy. To offset some costs, eventize the experience and limit wear-and-tear on prints, 70mm films often premiere as special ‘roadshow‘ releases in select grand theaters before wider 35mm distribution.

35mm has its expenses too – cameras, film, processing and release prints quickly add up. But studios can recoup costs by distributing 35mm prints en masse. Limited only by the number of global screens, 35mm facilitated cinema‘s growth into a mass medium. Modern blockbusters like The Dark Knight easily saturated theaters worldwide with 35mm.

The Cream of the Crop

In terms of current usage, only a handful of admired directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan wield the power to demand studio funding for film projects. Shooting on 35mm or 70mm celluloid is now seen as an artistic choice rather than economic necessity.

While many films combine digital and 35mm, few feature 70mm outside of select scenes or set pieces. Kenneth Branagh‘s Death on the Nile (2022), Christopher Nolan‘s Tenet (2020), Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight (2015) and Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master (2012) all used the ultra-large format to accent key sequences. The last full-length feature filmed entirely in 70mm was 1955‘s Oklahoma!

The Verdict

What film format reigns supreme in 2022? For filmmakers and studios, 35mm strikes the ideal balance of quality and convenience to be crowned king. It may lack the staggering resolution or showmanship of 70mm, but its sensible costs and global infrastructure keep 35mm firmly embedded in filmmaking. Occasional 70mm flourishes provide extra allure.

Meanwhile, for audiences seeking the pinnacle of cinematic immersion, 70mm remains unbeaten. Watching the latest blockbuster is fine, but nothing beats seeing true 70mm projected in all its glory within an opulent picture palace. In an age of endless digital distraction, this analog experience offers unmatched thrills.

The Future

Can celluloid film retain its shine in the 21st century? Digital cameras grow cheaper and more convenient each year. By 2013, over 90% of theaters had converted to digital projection. Yet icons like Tarantino and Nolan insist that film captures magical qualities digital cannot. Advances like IMAX 70mm and Panavision‘s large-format camera system cater to this niche.

While film will likely never regain its dominant status, a market exists for discerning creators and fans. Boutique film stocks and processing, screenings at repertory cinemas and techniques like Soundstream which add analog sound to digital prints will ensure celluloid never fades to black completely. Thirty years on, we’re still debating 35mm vs 70mm. With support from devoted filmmakers, the discussion will continue for decades to come.