We watched Dunkirk in standard digital and 70 mm Imax to see if viewing format really makes a difference.

Does It Really Matter What Format You See Dunkirk In? We Watched It Three Times to Find Out.

Does It Really Matter What Format You See Dunkirk In? We Watched It Three Times to Find Out.

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 25 2017 11:18 AM

Does It Really Matter How You See Dunkirk?

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In digital, the soldiers are a mass. On high-res film, they're a group of individuals.

Warner Bros.

The excitement that normally greets the release of a new Christopher Nolan movie was, in the case of Dunkirk, tinged with uncertainty. It wasn’t just a question of whether to see it but also how. Nolan’s 10th movie, which chronicles the mass evacuation of British troops from the beaches of France in 1940, was a massive undertaking, and Nolan’s preferred presentation is equally massive. Although it runs a tight 107 minutes, the movie is, according to Nolan, best seen on an Imax screen, preferably projected from 70 mm Imax film, a format that dwarfs standard digital projection in both size and clarity.

Dunkirk in 70 mm Imax is a singularly dazzling experience. With a resolution some nine times that of 2K digital projection (if you don’t have a firm grasp on the distinctions between the whopping six different formats in which the movie is currently screening, Slate made a helpful video), the footage shot on Imax has an almost hallucinatory clarity. (Nolan calls it “virtual reality without the goggles.”) As soldiers scuttle along a plank stretched over a gap blown in one of Dunkirk’s piers, I was temporarily pulled away from the action by how clearly I could I make out the grain of the wood beneath their feet.

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The one-of-a-kind experience of seeing Dunkirk in 70 mm Imax moved some critics to fits of ecstasy. “I can’t stress this enough: you must see Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm,” tweeted IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “Wait however long you need to wait, travel however far you need to travel.” But their enthusiasm started to bleed into one-upmanship, an insistence that there was only one way to really see the movie. “Dunkirk is meant to be see in 70mm IMAX,” tweeted critic Nick Schager. “All other formats are going to be inferior. Go complain to Nolan.” The conversation around the movie became increasingly exclusionary, especially since 70 mm Imax comprises only 31 of the 3,600 theaters showing the film in North America. The ideal way to experience a work of art isn’t always the easiest—you can get a lot out of studying prints of Guernica, but it’s not the same as traveling to Madrid and standing in front of the real thing. But when even residents of the United States’ third largest city can’t see the 70 mm Imax version without taking a six-hour road trip, it’s not especially helpful to insist that they’re watching it wrong.

Having seen Dunkirk in three different formats—standard digital projection, 70 mm Imax, and non-Imax 70 mm—I can happily confirm that Dunkirk is Dunkirk whether it arrives via a stream of pixels or light projected through celluloid. In digital, the picture was crisp and clear, the sound massive—so massive, in fact that the scream of dive-bombers and the whistle of gunfire often drowned out the movie’s dialogue. My pulse quickened with the tick tick tick of Hans Zimmer’s score, and I marveled at the precision of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and the inventiveness of Lee Smith’s editing.

In 70 mm, Dunkirk’s dialogue was significantly easier to discern. Some of that may have been that I was seeing the movie for a second time and in a different theater, but it was immediately clear that the movie looked different, the colors deeper and with more subtle gradations, the landscapes more detailed. There’s a shot where Nolan crams a pier jutting out into the Dunkirk surf with hundreds of soldiers who dive for cover when the German bombs start falling. In digital, they were an undulating mass of humanity, like people in a stadium doing the wave. But in 70 mm, they were individuals, falling one after the next like a row of dominos. If the image somehow froze, you’d be able to count every helmet.

Of course, while celluloid offers increased richness—proponents of film like to cite the fact that even 35 mm offers resolution equivalent to 6K—it also increases the likelihood of visible imperfections. Even on its third showing, the 70 mm print I saw had a few signs of wear. They were just minor flecks in the image, but given the delicacy of 70 mm film and the lack of projectionists with experience presenting it, some prints may deteriorate fast. (For what it’s worth, a highly unscientific poll conducted via my Twitter account indicates that nine-tenths of 70 mm screenings are going off without a hitch, which is a significantly better result than when I asked the same question about The Hateful Eight in 2015.)

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What was striking about Dunkirk in 70 mm wasn’t its sharpness—to cite a quality often touted by proponents of digital projection—but its softness. In the scene where the soldiers are crammed belowdecks in a rescue ship, I could see how cinematographer Van Hoytema kept subtly, almost imperceptibly, adjusting the camera’s focus, so that the soldiers’ faces were constantly sharpening and then blurring together. During my first viewing, I found it almost impossible to keep track of the soldiers in the beach sequences, especially the central characters played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles. (If you prepare for Dunkirk in no other way, spend a few minutes making sure you can tell the two of them apart.) It seemed as if in his push to create the most visceral experience possible, Nolan had forgotten to perform the basic function of making sure we could tell one person from another.

But those subtle shifts of focus, all but invisible in the lower resolution of digital projection, gave me a new way of looking at Dunkirk. It seemed now that far from failing to distinguish one soldier from another, Nolan was deliberately effacing the distinctions between them, so that even though the movie focuses on only a small handful of characters, we’re periodically reminded how arbitrary that focus is. There are 300,000 soldiers outside the frame, all as desperate to survive as our arbitrarily chosen heroes, and when they disappear into the crowd, we’re reminded just how small a part of that mass our protagonists are. It’s the same idea that drives the moment later in the film when Nolan cuts between two soldiers, one trapped under a burning oil slick and the other being dragged aboard a ship, deliberately obscuring their faces. We know that one of those bodies belongs to Whitehead, whose survival we’ve been conditioned to root for, but not which, and we confront the fact that we’ve been treating one man’s life as more expendable just because he’s not fortunate enough to be the movie’s hero.

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Warner Bros.

The same tension drives Dunkirk’s three-part structure. Nolan has often been guilty of structural gamesmanship, of dressing up unremarkable stories with format gimmicks like a magician who’s better at misdirection than actual tricks. (From that perspective, The Prestige almost seems like a mea culpa.) But in Dunkirk, the transitions from story to story, and from timeframe to timeframe, underline the importance of perspective. For Tom Hardy’s pilot, the Dunkirk evacuation lasts an hour: Watch the movie a second time, and you can see him flying past events that the other characters won’t experience until much later in the movie. For Mark Rylance’s weekend sailor, it’s a day’s travel there and back. For the soldiers on the beach, a matter of a week or more. But Nolan finds a way to join them all in a common effort, whether they’re on land or sea or in the air.

That’s true in 70 mm Imax as well. On that huge screen, nearly as tall as it is wide, every moment looms larger than life, and every image is as sharp as if you were standing there yourself. Forget counting helmets: You could count the hairs in Kenneth Branagh’s eyebrows. But seeing Dunkirk for the third time in that most deluxe of formats, I started to wonder if I really wanted quite so much clarity. Although the sharpness of 70 mm Imax film is not the same as the sharpness of high-definition video, it has some of the same feeling of overkill. Does it really need to be quite that big or quite that loud?

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What’s more, not all of Dunkirk’s Imax versions were actually shot on Imax film. About a quarter, most of it on board Rylance’s small boat, was shot on regular 70 mm, which looks dramatically different, in both shape and resolution, from the native Imax film. I was close enough to the screen that the shifts in aspect ratio weren’t distracting, but the pronounced differences in visible film grain threw me for a loop. The qualities I’d prized in the 70 mm version were still there, but now plain old non-Imax 70 mm felt like a step down. The 70 mm Imax version of Dunkirk isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen, and for that reason alone, it’s worth seeking out. But given the choice, I’d opt for the non-Imax 70 mm version, especially over the 4K digital Imax that’s available in most of the country

The most transformative experience I’ve ever had seeing a movie in 70 mm—the closest I’d come to saying that if you haven’t seen it in 70 mm, you haven’t really seen it—is Jacques Tati’s Playtime. On DVD, the movie, an immaculately designed sendup of the increasingly mechanized experience of everyday life, felt cold and sterile—a dehumanized movie about dehumanization. Tati had sidelined his beloved alter ego M. Hulot and failed to replace him, following a crowd of crass tourists and urbanites around a city that had become a simulacrum of itself. But in 70 mm, I realized that the movie’s crowds were actually composed of recurring characters whom Tati recirculated through different scenes. It wasn’t a film with no protagonists but one with many. Dunkirk doesn’t push things that far, and Nolan isn’t equal to Tati’s genius. But Dunkirk, or Dunkirks, is convincing evidence that Nolan’s attachment to high-end film formats isn’t mere nostalgic purism. He’s pushing celluloid film to its limits, before it’s gone for good.

Read more in Slate about Dunkirk:

Sam Adams is a Slate senior editor and the editor of Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat.