Joker (2019) & The Return of the Celluloid

One Saturday afternoon, while browsing the Internet to buy a ticket for Todd Phillips’s highly anticipated Joker (2019), I was faced with an unexpected choice: 70mm, 35mm or digital. Although I must admit that my immediate reaction was to look for a theater that would show Joker on 70mm, I ended up watching it digitally. Following George Lucas’s Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), which was the first major studio blockbuster to be shot with a digital camera, the move away from film was accelerated. Since then, most productions—ranging from blockbusters to independent films—have been shot, edited and projected in a digital manner. Naturally, I pondered the question: Why was Joker receiving a 70mm and 35mm run if it was shot digitally? While it is difficult to present one definitive answer, the celluloid’s comeback seems to be part of a larger trend in production and viewership. This preference for shooting and projecting film is sometimes influenced by aesthetic and stylistic choices, but it is also strongly determined by nostalgia and marketability. 

Although most movies today are shot using digital cameras due to practicality, cost effectiveness and high quality of the technology among other reasons, some directors have opted for a more traditional approach. Christopher Nolan, for instance, is known to be somewhat of a celluloid enthusiast. Ever since The Prestige (2006), he has been experimenting with and shooting on 70mm. Not only that, but The Dark Knight (2008) was the first feature film to be shot using IMAX, which employs this format. Following The Dark Knight, Nolan continued to choose IMAX cameras for his films. For Interstellar (2014), he shot more than an hour on 70mm, and urged moviegoers to find a theater where they could see it in its intended format. In fact, IMAX “worked with theaters to ensure their […] massive 70mm projectors [were] still in use for the film’s run” and “in perfect working order to handle the 600 pounds of film that [went] into a single copy of Interstellar” (Liszewski). Although it was not until Dunkirk (2017) that he was able to shoot a film entirely on 70mm, Nolan has maintained his commitment to the practice. Nowadays it is natural to associate his name with the format—and celluloid in general—which has been making a slow but steady comeback. 

Another well-known director that comes to mind when discussing film vs. digital is Quentin Tarantino; he continues to shoot on film and has been highly vocal about his preference. When speaking at a Los Angeles radio show, Tarantino claimed, “If I can’t shoot on film I’ll stop making movies” (qtd. in Bramesco). Nonetheless, Tarantino, like Nolan, is not merely satisfied with shooting on film. For one of his latest projects, The Hateful Eight (2015), he came up with an ambitious release strategy that would allow his film to be projected on 70mm. The release plan was called a “roadshow,” and included a hundred theaters across the United States. How did he achieve this? More than 18 months prior to the release, The Weinstein Co.’s distribution chief “began buying up 70mm projectors in order to make good on Tarantino’s wishes” and finding enough projectionists to man theaters (McClintock). Much like Nolan, Tarantino has put “70mm” back into moviegoers’ vernacular. Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino’s examples demonstrate how difficult it is to not only shoot on 70mm, but to also find theaters and projectors that are able to properly screen the format. In other words, it requires a very serious commitment, both artistic and economic. 

Even though filmmakers like them have argued that shooting on 70mm film, and other film formats, provides a distinct quality of image, it would be foolish not to mention the nostalgia associated with it. In fact, the resurgence of film bears some similarities with the comeback of vinyl records. Although music, like movies, is mostly consumed via streaming services in today’s digital age, LP sales have grown since 2006 for the 13th consecutive year (Richter). According to data released by Nielsen, LPs accounted for 12 percent of album sales in the United States,” which is a significant amount (qtd. in Richter). When counting streaming and digital downloads of single tracks, the number drops to 2.7. Nevertheless, the steady sale of vinyl records, which were essentially extinct pre-2006, illustrates a sudden interest in analog technologies. 

This recent enthusiasm can be further illustrated by Kodak’s decision to release a new Super 8 camera, an announcement they made back in 2016. According to Kodak’s website, “creating a new analog Super 8 camera in today’s digital world came with many complexities” including design, engineering, and production of both the camera and film stock (“Super 8 Camera Update”). Although the camera is not completely analog—it records in both digital and film format—the news were met with appraisal, both by filmmakers including Nolan, Spielberg and JJ Abrams, and the general public (Dent). Nolan shared, “The news that Kodak is [introducing] … the same analog technology that first made me fall in love with cinematic storytelling is unbelievably exciting” (qtd. in Dent). Given that Nolan has defended his choice of shooting on film, especially 70mm, by speaking about superior quality and immersiveness, his statement stands out. Because Super 8 is essentially a low-resolution camera, it is clear that Nolan’s—and other people’s—excitement is rooted in an emotional attachment. Similarly, while one can argue that Tarantino had to shoot The Hateful Eight on 70mm, he decided to call the release and distribution a roadshow, which is highly evocative of early film practices. Thus, considering nostalgia in the discussion of celluloid vs. digital is just as important as taking into account the aesthetic or stylistic choices.  

Aside from the emotional aspect, it seems that nostalgia is also a great marketing tool. Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was shot on 35mm, yet also received a 70mm release (Brueggemann). While it could be claimed that “blowing up” 35mm to 70mm is an aesthetic choice determined by the film’s setting, it certainly was a selling point and encouraged cinephiles to find a theater that would project the celluloid. In the particular case of Joker, which is also a period piece, the 35mm and 70mm releases also created a sense of novelty. According to a Variety article, During Camerimage Film Festival, Joker cinematographer Lawrence Sher shared that shooting on 70mm was the original intent, but that Warner Bros. “quashed those plans” (Meza). Still, the studio went ahead and opened the film on 35mm and 70mm in select theaters. Transferring the digital film onto celluloid, as much as it visually adds, is a resource-consuming enterprise. It requires extra labor, expensive film stock and making sure the theaters have the projectors and personnel. If the movie was transferred onto film after it was shot, then the decision seemed to be driven by marketability. On one hand, it made sense given Phillips’s intent to present Joker as a serious film, and the studio’s desire to draw in the largest-possible audience. Joker, at the end of the day, is still a film based on a beloved comic book character, so it was already at an advantage. However, its serious tone, choice of lead actor and stunning cinematography among other things, ensured cinephiles and critics would also appreciate it. The initial desire to shoot on film and the subsequent decision to have a 70mm release is another contributing factor to the way Joker was perceived. 

Anecdotally, ever since Interstellar, The Hateful Eight, Dunkirk and Tarantino’s latest feature Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) were released, coming across online articles on different iterations of “The best/essential/must-see movies shot on 70mm” has become fairly common. Joker’s release on 70mm and 35mm, then, is in conversation with the larger resurgence of celluloid. Filmmakers like Tarantino, Nolan and others continue to embrace the practice of shooting on film. While there are several motivations behind this choice—aesthetic, stylistic and nostalgic—the truth is that they have contributed to the ongoing interest. It is no coincidence that Kodak struck a deal with the major movie studios back in 2015. As part of this deal, “Kodak [would] continue to provide motion picture film to 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., NBC Universal Inc., Paramount Pictures Corp. and Sony Pictures for their movie and television productions” (“Kodak Finalizes Motion Picture Film Agreements”). While it is unlikely that shooting on film will become a mainstream practice in the digital age, the comeback of 70mm has been a selling point in recent major blockbusters like Dunkirk, The Hateful Eight, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Joker, to name a few. Finally, given the depressing numbers regarding movie-theater attendance, maybe the nostalgia associated with it and thinking about it as a “film event” will at least continue to lure cinephiles in. 

References

Bramesco, Charles. “Film vs. Digital: The Most Contentious Debate in the Film World, Explained,” Vox, 5 Jan. 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/1/5/10714588/film-digital-35mm-70mm-explainer.

Brueggemann, Tom. “Where to See ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ on Celluloid, Quentin Tarantino’s Preferred Format,” IndieWire, 24 Jul. 2019, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/07/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-35-mm-70-mm-movie-theater-locations-quentin-tarantino-1202160721/.

Dent, Steve. “Film’s Cinema Comeback is Driven by Nostalgia, not Logic,” Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2016/02/15/films-cinema-comeback-is-driven-by-nostalgia-not-logic/.

“Kodak Finalizes Motion Picture Film Agreements with Major Hollywood Studios,” Kodak.com, 4 Feb. 2015, https://www.kodak.com/us/en/corp/press_center/kodak_finalizes_motion_picture_film_agreements_with_major_hollywood_studios/default.htm

Liszewski, Andrew. “Why Seeing Interstellar in 70mm Might Just Be Worth the Effort,” Gizmodo, 4 Nov. 2014, https://gizmodo.com/why-seeing-interstellar-in-70mm-might-just-be-worth-the-1654311658

McClintock, Pamela. “Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Hateful Eight’ 70mm Roadshow: Full Theater List,” Hollywood Reporter, 16 Dec. 2015, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/quentin-tarantinos-hateful-eight-70mm-849552.

Meza, Ed. “‘Joker’ Cinematographer on Joaquin Phoenix’s Transformative Performance,” Variety, 12 Nov. 2019, https://variety.com/2019/film/festivals/lawrence-sher-joker-joaquin-phoenix-camerimage-1203402136/.

Richter, Felix. “Vinyl Sales in the United States,” Statista.com, 12 Apr. 2019, https://www.statista.com/chart/7699/lp-sales-in-the-united-states/.“Super 8 Camera Update,” Kodak.com, 9 Jan. 2018, https://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/blog/blog_post/?contentid=4295004933.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s