Is PLF the new 70mm?  Grant Lobban continues his history of cinema with a look into the past, present and future of Premium Large Formats


The cinema is  often described as the big screen, but with ever-larger TV screens being squeezed through the door at home, cinema is trying to prove that size still matters by offering even more eye-filling Premium Large Formats. This has pleased those who, although they appreciate the value of the latest sound systems, still think that a good picture is worth a thousand extra speakers.

What exactly is PLF?

The term appears to have a broad definition and several categories based on providing ‘the optimal configuration of sight and sound and seating experience’. This has always been the main aim of the various special venue systems found at and supported by museums, science centres and theme parks. Here they present specially produced, usually short, films on various flat, curved, domed and all-around screens, with some viewed while ‘riding’ on movie seats. For long periods, they would be the only opportunity to see big screen 3D.

Many of their ideas are now inspiring more adaptable multiplex versions to give normal commercial features the same enhanced degree of audience participation. Before the general switch to digital projection, many would make use of cinema’s original large format, 70mm film.

So, what is 70mm?

Back in the 1890s, wider film gauges were common, but all had disappeared by the time the more popular smaller 35mm size became the industry standard. Wider formats returned briefly at the end of the 1920s and early 30s when Hollywood tried to introduce bigger and wider screens. This time they were killed off by the Depression, and the new Talkies were already drawing in the audiences. In a case of third time lucky, wide film finally came to stay during cinema’s switch to widerscreen in the 1950s.

The current 70mm format was launched with the Todd-AO process, its name a combination of producer and showman Mike Todd and the American Optical Company which turned his ideas into reality. Todd was involved in making the first 3-strip Cinerama film, but thought its triple 35mm projector system too complicated and costly for normal film-making and cinemas. Despite its success, he was determined to find a simpler way to fill a similar large deeply curved screen using a single film and projector. Announced at around the same time as CinemaScope (Fox’s 35mm anamorphic lens response to Cinerama, which reached the public just ten months later), Todd-AO took almost three years to develop. For the photography, a 65mm camera, left over from the earlier 1930s widescreen experiment, was fitted with a range of lenses, with one having an ultra-wide view approaching that of Cinerama. To make it an attractive proposition for more theatres, its projector would be multi-purpose, able to show 35mm films, including CinemaScope, as well as the new 70mm prints. These were a little wider beyond the perforations, to follow CinemaScope’s idea of finding room for multi-channel magnetic stripes.

The first Todd-AO films would featured HFR, the frame rate increased from 24 to 30 to reduce flicker and smooth out the action on the intended brighter, bigger screens. To make it easier to install, the theatre’s normal projection room could be used even if it was high at the back of the circle. Cinerama used level projection, with each of its projectors only having to cope with a third of the curve.

A single wide film image from above sags in the middle so, long before digital help, an ingenious optical printer arched the image on the print to counterbalance the effect. Sadly, it wasn’t entirely successful and together with a poor print, marred the premiere and early shows of Oklahoma!, the first film in the process, resulting in 70mm being given the thumbs down by both critics and trade press. Fortunately, the film was a smash and drew attention from Todd-AO’s shortcomings. Also, it was simultaneously filmed in 35mm CinemaScope just in case of trouble and for later general release.

Too good to lose

To give 70mm another chance, ‘bent’ prints were abandoned and projection rooms relocated lower to reduce the distortion on the deeply curved screen, before these too were largely discarded in favour of a normal flat or slightly curved screen. Todd personally produced the second Todd-AO feature, the star-studded Around The World in 80 Days, which now displayed the great advantages of its larger frame. The 2.2:1 aspect ratio suited the biggest screens, with at least the width of CinemaScope but with extra height, all achieved with less magnification, resulting in a sharper, brighter, steadier picture.

70mm was first seen in Britain, when the third Todd-AO production, South Pacific opened at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road. By now, the frame rate had been reduced to 24 fps, so the same 65mm negative could be used for 35mm reduction prints. Sadly, just as 70mm was taking off, Mike Todd was killed when his plane crashed on the way to New York to receive the Showman of the Year award in 1958. Fox would acquire Todd-AO and Todd’s widow Elizabeth Taylor retained an interest in the process and helped ensure Cleopatra was shot in it, rather than the originally intended CinemaScope. This film would be among many large-scale epics and big-screen musicals photographed on 65mm film for an initial 70mm release. Todd-AO’s specifications and dimensions became a new 65mm/70mm international standard. One variation came from MGM, which teamed up with anamorphic lens attachment maker Panavision to add a low power (x 1.25) version to both the camera and projector for its Camera 65 process which increased the width of the screen to provide an aspect ratio of 2.75:1. It became available to other studios as Ultra Panavision 70 and another, Super Panavision 70 using normal lenses was the same as Todd-AO. Like PLF today, installing 70mm gave the chance to re-model and upgrade the auditorium and offer a different, more theatrical, performance.

The 70mm Roadshow

When 70mm arrived, most cinemas operated on a continuous performance basis. Once doors opened, cinemagoers were free to enter the auditorium at any time. You could enjoy the show until the ‘this is when we came in’ moment came round again, or stay in the warm until the national anthem. A roadshow presentation was special. Chosen seats could be booked in advance for a separate performance which came with an overture, intermission and a souvenir brochure. People would travel to the West End and other big theatres to see the film first in 70mm splendour.

Unfortunately, recent attempts to revive the idea, like special 70mm showings of The Hateful Eight, left some viewers, unfamiliar with the etiquette of roadshows, rather bemused. Originally, most overtures were played with the curtains closed, the music coming from tracks recorded on blank film at the start of reel one. Even in the glory days of 70mm, some did project an image on screen in case the unenlightened in the audience thought the film had started but the bulb in the projector had blown. An unexpected intermission can also leave modern audiences sitting wondering what to do next. In the past, sales staff soon came down the aisles with trays of drinks and confectionery delivered directly to your seat.

The rise and fall of 70mm

All projector manufacturers would soon be producing dual 70mm/35mm models and 70mm would soon become an added attraction in many more cinemas. To ensure a continuing flow of 70mm prints to show, many began to be made by enlarging 35mm films. At first, these came from anamorphic CinemaScope-type negatives, their 2.35:1 images a reasonable fit to 70mm’s 2.2:1. Although not a match to 65mm shooting, if carefully done, the results were more than satisfactory with films like Doctor Zhivago showing their worth. The average viewer didn’t notice a loss of image quality and still enjoyed other benefits, including 70mm’s magnetic stereo sound. Many dedicated 70mm enthusiasts didn’t consider these ‘blow ups’ to be true 70mm and even more so, when they began to be made from various shapes and sizes of non-anamorphic 35mm negatives, with most, in an effort to retain their original aspect ratios, no longer filling the complete 70mm frame. However, in terms of print numbers, the 1980s and most of the 1990s would become the heyday of 70mm, with blow-ups mostly being ‘Presented in 70mm’, before a combination of improved film stocks, the coming of optical Dolby stereo to 35mm prints and the smaller auditoriums and screens in multiplexes, led to a decline in 70mm. The last 65mm/70mm film presented under the Todd-AO banner was in 1970 and Cinerama in 1974. A new name soon became familiar and synonymous with giant images.

Behold, IMAX

The special venue side of the industry also seized on 70mm. Some used the same five-perforation high theatrical frame, but others changed it to suit their various shows and rides. One of these, IMAX, was first seen in 1970. It was the invention of Canada’s Multi-screen Corporation, which as its name suggests, provided the expertise for the multi-screen displays popular at events like major exhibitions, world fairs and expositions. It was premiered in the Fuji Group pavilion at Expo 70 in Japan.

To reduce the number of projectors needed, a single 70mm film was turned on its side with a 15 perf. frame, shown using a unique compressed air ‘rolling loop’ projector, much kinder to the film as it moved through at 3x the normal speed. The emphasis was still on multi-images, with up to three 65mm or nine 35mm, printed within its large, now 3:4 frame. However, a 65mm 15 perf. camera was constructed for the occasional full frame image. These were so impressive on the 60ft screen, they would set the pattern for future IMAX theatres with steeply raked seats to keep all the audience close to the vast screen which filled their complete field of vision. IMAX would go on to produce a domed screen version, sometimes combined with a planetarium, photographed and projected via fish-eye lenses and even a ‘Magic Carpet’ show with another screen under your feet.

At first, IMAX mostly showed short films at museums and other institutions. Often of an educational nature, for many, unlike Cinerama, they didn’t always exploit the giant screen to the full. When they did, IMAX produced amazing sights, particularly when the camera was taken up in the air, under the water and out in space, when its huge negative area allowed the eye to roam over a vast screen, picking out the tiniest detail. IMAX also lead the way to bringing back 3D to the big screen — which we will investigate in the next issue.   


Keeping the Curve

Missed by many was the practice of showing 70mm on deeply curved screens, which have been in and out of fashion. Most cinema higher gain screens have a directional effect and are slightly curved to improve distribution of light directed back to the audience. There have always been advocates for a much greater depth of curve, thinking it draws the viewer into the picture. Unfortunately, if very deep, one side of the screen can see the other and cross reflections can spoil the contrast. Always an integral part of Cinerama, they solved the problem with louvered screens, the slats angled to allow stray light from the other side to pass through the gaps and out to the back of the screen. Todd-AO’s early screens embossed their reflective surface with ribs which changed in profile as they moved away from the centre, all to keep the light going in the right direction. Both the vertical ribs and slats gave pictures a streaky look which, in the case of Cinerama, helped disguise the seams between its three panels. Even so, they kept this type of screen even after switching to single lens 70mm prints.

A rival deep curve system, Dimension 150, relied on a relatively low gain screen to help keep cross reflections to a minimum. Higher contrast 70mm prints were sometimes used to keep the picture looking good. Both the new 70mm Cinerama and D-150 kept to level projection and used lenses with a curved field of focus to keep their images sharp. They could also provide laboratories with special printer lenses to modify the image on the print to help reduce the distortion, including the stretching effect at the sides. All this was not good enough for one prominent director. The London showcase for D-150 was the Odeon Marble Arch. When it hosted the 1989 70mm restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean didn’t like its effect on his desert landscapes. The curved screen was replaced with a flatter one.