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Brilliant film formatting for “Dunkirk” to usher an era of wide format movies

Anya Lomsadze, Managing Editor of News

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

There seems to be no real reason to go to the movies anymore. Netflix is cheaper and you might as well get HBO for “Game of Thrones.” 3-D is tacky and the only sold out tickets are for premieres of nostalgic sequels. But director Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk” changes everything.

“Dunkirk” tells the story of how thousands of Allied soldiers cornered in on the beaches of Northern France were taken across the English Channel to safety in Britain, many by civilians on civilian boats. The story unfolds on land, sea and air, featuring various perspectives of the battle.

There are many reasons you should see “Dunkirk” — the impeccable cast, the intense story of a World War Two event, the beautiful cinematography, Christopher Nolan’s unwavering genius — but none of those are reasons to pay the hefty fee for a quality movie theater when you can wait for Netflix to catch it on. The main reason? The format.

That may not sound particularly important, but it really is. “Dunkirk” was not shot like the typical Hollywood blockbuster. About 75 percent of the film was shot in IMAX format, which means the screen is wider and taller than the average movie screen. It wasn’t shot to look like a Fernbank documentary. Consider a phone camera on square mode. If it’s switched to the regular mode, you can see a lot more of the picture. That’s what watching “Dunkirk” feels like, as if you stopped blinking and finally saw the whole picture in front of you.

IMAX isn’t the only formatting feature Nolan took advantage of. He also wanted to make the movie wider. The average movie is shot on 35mm film. The parts of Dunkirk that weren’t shot in IMAX used 70mm film, which is much wider than what typical movies use.

Viewers of Dunkirk in both IMAX and 70mm formatting will see a wider and taller picture than anyone saving five bucks on the standard option. But why is this even important?

Movies filmed in different formats make for a varying movie watching experience. Graphic courtesy of Vox Media.

“Dunkirk” utilizes this atypical formatting because it isn’t a typical movie. It’s a war movie that shows no blood, and the main hero of the story might have said ten lines at the most. “Dunkirk” tells the story of what can be barely dubbed a battle in 1940, early in the start of World War Two.

Filming in IMAX isn’t a new idea. In fact, Nolan has already filmed in IMAX for movies like Interstellar and the Dark Knight Trilogy but at most, only for a third of a movie. Dunkirk was his first feature to be shot almost entirely in IMAX.

The movie opens to a scene of thousands of Allied troops surrounded by enemy forces in northern France. The United States still has a few years before they enter the war, but the atmosphere is so hopeless, it’s hard to believe then war would only end in another five years. The soldiers, many of them British, can almost see home across the English Channel, but they’re stuck.

This film in not at all like the bloody “Saving Private Ryan” or “Hacksaw Ridge,” your typical war films. The violence and the horridness of war are there, but they’re shown more subtly through the fear in the soldiers’ faces rather than through bleeding guts.

“Dunkirk” is more so an immersion than an entertaining story, which is why it’s formatting is so important. The tall, wide screen completely enraptures the viewer, to where it almost feels like you’re wearing a virtual reality headset. It’s hard to explain the feeling you get after watching “Dunkirk,” but there is no way you can appreciate it on a phone or computer screen at nearly the same level.

There’s a lot of reasons to appreciate “Dunkirk.” I could write a good fifty pages on why the structure of the plot alone is worth every cent in your back pocket. The score, written by Hans Zimmer, utilizes mesmerizing sound illusions, each of which deserves its own chapter. However, the only time sensitive reason is that “Dunkirk” will leave theaters soon, so go now while you can still see it in IMAX and 70mm formats.

“Dunkirk” could have just started the next big movie format trend, like the way “Avatar” did with 3-D. It showed that yes, it is feasible to make a blockbuster with IMAX film, even if it is a notoriously difficult type of camera to use. If soon, there is a story worth watching and it seems just a little bit too grand for the standard, squashed Netflix binge, pay the extra five bucks to see it in the format it deserves.


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Brilliant film formatting for “Dunkirk” to usher an era of wide format movies