If you went to the cinema this weekend to see a movie, the chances that you actually saw a film are zero.

For in the last half dozen years or so, the digital revolution completed its purge of projection booths throughout the world. Replacing celluloid with servers and bringing a new, cost-effective polish to movie presentation. Albeit one devoid of human presence, let alone touch.  This has left film archives and specialist cinema houses as the last – not so much pockets of resistance, for there’s no fighting technological progress – sanctuaries for celluloid’s tactile 35mm past.

Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman, screening in the 70mm format at Dublin's IFI next month.
Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman, screening in the 70mm format at Dublin's IFI next month.

It’s in such places that you can sometimes, if you’re very lucky, experience the results of the movie’s last great revolution. The 70mm format wasn’t just widescreen writ large, but giant-screen and bellowing new surround sound to boot. At its peak, around the late 1970s (for my generation of movie worshippers, everything seemed to peak in the '70s) nothing could touch it, at least as far as pure Technicolor spectacle goes.  Surprisingly then, not many films were actually shot in 70mm. Around 60 or thereabouts. That’s including the most recent auteur forays into 70mm, P.T. Anderson’s The Master, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. But many more movies were blown-up from their original 35mm negative and presented in this super-sized format. This did not, in most cases, compromise the quality of the original, but in fact enhanced it, as the resulting image was far more stable and bright than its original source.

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It also brought an added bonus: sound, such as you’d never heard before.  Not just extra oommph, but magnetic sound. Six-track stereo magnetic sound! Which, in the audience world of bog-standard optical stereo, was the audio equivalent of going from two pints and a packet of crisps, to four pints, two double whiskeys and a shot. If you were a real Cinephile, you even followed these prints around. Nisan Greenidge, master of machines at the IFI, spent many of his university years poring over the entertainment section of newspapers, then taking trains from one side of Montreal to another in an endless chase, that rivals any hard-core audiophile’s pursuit of the vinyl.

ifi 70mm

In downtown Dublin, both the Savoy and Adelphi cinemas had 70mm projectors in their arsenal up to the 1980s. In the end, somewhat ironically, it was the return of the dinosaurs in 1993 that ultimately caused the format’s mainstream extinction. Specifically Jurassic Park’s new-fangled multitrack DTS sound, where for the first time in cinema history the sound wasn’t printed on the film stock, but came from a time-coded CD and opened up a whole new world of digital auditory delights.  It wasn’t until the late Pete Walsh installed one for an anniversary run of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Irish Film Institute, did cinema at its most cinematic return to Irish screens.

It remains the only operational 70mm projector in the country today. And through which over the years I’ve experienced such cinematic delights of Baraka (the viewing of which makes all drug consumption redundant), Ryan’s Daughter (the storm scene drenched my ears with such fidelity. I regretted not bringing a towel), Die Hard (yippekiyay multi-tracker) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (absolutely bleeding sublime).  I’ve somehow managed to go this long without experiencing David Lean’s other great opus on the big screen, Lawrence of Arabia. So there’s that to look forward to someday.  To be honest, there is one special film that if I found it playing, restored, in 70mm, within flying distance, I’d be on the first plane: My Fair Lady. Man, wouldn’t it be lovely? Lovely.  

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But until that day arrives, forget your ones and zeros, digital and 3D. I’m firing up the projector for Tim Burton’s Batman, which stole my summer of 1989, and will own the night like never before, one frame at a time.

Batman in 70mm screens at the IFI, Dublin on March 28th and 29th.