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Why 70mm is the best format for watching Oppenheimer

Eye Filmmuseum and KINO in Rotterdam are the only two cinemas in the Benelux where you can see Oppenheimer on 70mm. What makes this so special?

By Sarah Famke Oortgijsen27 July 2023

Christopher Nolan with Panavision 65mm camera
Behind the scenes at Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, GB-US 2023)

For Boomers it was normal; for Millennials it’s a fuzzy, romantic memory of times past; for Gen Z, it’s a completely new experience: watching film on film. A long strip of translucent material 8, 16, 35 or 70 millimetres wide, running from one spool to another through a projector at a speed of 24 frames a second, creating the illusion of a moving image.

Not without a certain amount of risk: film can get scratched and, although this almost never happens, the image can get stuck or jump. And all those cans with rolls of film are not exactly easy to transport and store: a film on celluloid or polyester can easily weigh many, many kilogrammes. To cut a long story short, this method has long been superseded by technical advances and new possibilities. Now, any film can easily be consumed digitally: every (arthouse) cinema is equipped with digital technology, and their old-fashioned projectors have been thrown out or put into storage.

So why would you want to watch the latest film from Christopher Nolan on 70mm film, when you could see the shiny digital version? Well, we can think of plenty of reasons. First and foremost Nolan, like Quentin Tarantino (whose The Hateful Eight on 70mm still holds the record for best-attended film in Eye ever, selling 36,000 tickets in 2016), is a fan of the 70mm format. This is the format he had in mind when making the film. What’s more, the picture quality offered by celluloid film is still better than digital projection.

Behind the scenes at Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, GB-US 2023)
Christopher Nolan with camera
Behind the scenes at Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, GB-US 2023)

The equivalent of 12 to 18K

These days, pretty much all cinemas screen films in the DCP format as standard. This digital projection format has made distributing films a lot cheaper and easier. Nowadays, digital films can be projected at a pretty good resolution: most are shown in 4K (4096x1716 pixels). A standard analogue film on 35mm would be roughly equivalent to 6K. Because 70mm is twice as wide as 35mm, it has space for even more detail on the big screen. Expressed in pixels, 70mm film would be equivalent to at least 12K. When you add in the richer colour palette (the colours are more lifelike, the black is darker) and the particular beauty of the grain of analogue film, there you have it: a unique cinematographic experience. Film as film was intended.

The ultimate analogue viewing experience is IMAX 70mm – the film format Nolan shot Oppenheimer on. The digital equivalent of this would be no less than 18K. It just doesn’t get any more high-res than that. But, there are only thirty cinemas in the world that can project this ‘70mm True IMAX’ format – four of these are in Europe (two in London, one in Manchester and one in Prague). And the original film roll weighs a whopping 272 kilos and is 17.7 kilometres long.

The original Oppenheimer film roll weighs a whopping 272 kilos and is 17.7 kilometres long

The difference between IMAX 70mm and ‘standard’ 70mm

70mm refers to the width of the film roll, but because of the perforations at the sides and the space for the soundtrack, the frames themselves are 65mm wide. That's why it says ‘shot on Kodak 65mm film’ on the strips of Oppenheimer film handed out to visitors to Eye.

On a 'standard' 70mm roll of film, the images are on top of one another along the roll. Each frame is five perforations long (the little holes along the sides of a roll of film). This gives the film an aspect ratio of 2.2:1.

In the case of an IMAX 70mm film roll, the images are next to one another. This roll is also 70mm wide, with the image taking up 65mm, but in this case each frame is fifteen perforations wide, as the images are positioned lengthways on the roll. This results in an aspect ratio of 1.43:1.


Oppenheimer was shot using a combination of 65mm film (5 perforations) and IMAX 65mm film (15 perforations). If you go to an IMAX 70mm screening, you’ll see the scenes shot in IMAX format full-screen (and the rest will have black bars at the top and bottom). Projection will switch during the film between aspect ratio 1.43:1 (for the sections on IMAX 70mm) and 2.2:1 (for the sections on ‘standard’ 70mm).

If you watch the film on ‘standard’ 70mm, the IMAX sequences have been cropped at the top and bottom so they fit the aspect ratio of the rest of the film. Which is why people make the joke about ‘Croppenheimer’. The 70mm film prints, one of which is showing in Eye, have been made using a photochemical process, which perfectly retains the original analogue colours. And, as Nolan himself said about the cropping in an interview: “From a creative point of view, what we’ve found over the years is that there’s no compromise to composition.”

So if you want the most complete visual experience – on IMAX 70mm – you’ll have to take the train to London, Manchester or Prague. But luckily the second best option is available right here in Eye: Oppenheimer is still screening on 70mm in Cinema 1, with a projection measuring 11.9 by 5.4 metres.

Our collection specialists tell you more about film formats:

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