The IMAX theater at AMC Lincoln Square 13 on New York’s Upper West Side features one of the biggest screens in the country, measuring 97 feet wide and 76 feet tall.
Starting this week, it will be one of only 30 theaters in the world screening Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster “Oppenheimer” in 70-millimeter IMAX film.
David Keighley, executive vice president at IMAX, invited CNBC Make It into the projectionist booth at the venue to show off the 600-pound, 11-mile-long film reel that comprises Nolan’s three-hour nuclear bomb epic.
What makes 70mm film so special, Keighley explains, is the level of detail it can capture. While a modern digital projection is equivalent to a 4K display, 70mm film is equal to roughly 18K.
It’s known as the gold standard in the industry, but is also rare. The last film to receive a 70mm IMAX release was Nolan’s “Tenet” in 2020. Due to pandemic restrictions, only 11 theaters were able to screen it.
Of the 30 theaters equipped to show the 70mm IMAX print of “Oppenheimer,” only 19 are in the United States. The rest are in Canada and the United Kingdom, with Australia and the Czech Republic each being home to one as well.
At Lincoln Square, the 70mm print of the film was delivered in three separate 200-pound metal cases. When fully assembled, it requires a forklift to pick up.
But it almost wasn’t possible to display “Oppenheimer” in Nolan’s preferred format. The problem? The movie is three hours long, resulting in a reel that was too big to fit on the platter designed to hold IMAX film.
The previous record-holder for longest IMAX film was another Nolan movie, 2014’s “Interstellar,” which clocked in at two hours and 45 minutes. When the director informed Keighley that his newest film was going to be 15 minutes longer, IMAX had to improvise.
“We engineered those extensions [to the platter],” Keighley explains. “We changed some bolts and some things and were able to make it so that he could realize his dream of three hours in IMAX.”
The effort, it seems, was worth it. Keighley has worked on over 500 films over his 51 years at IMAX. “This is in the top five,” he says.
The 70mm IMAX film reel for ‘Oppenheimer’ is 11 miles long and weighs 600 pounds.
And it’s not just because of the format’s picture quality. The company’s sound systems are calibrated to Nolan’s precise specifications as well.
“When you see the bomb go off, you will feel the bomb go off not just in your ears, but in your chest,” Keighley says.
If you can’t catch “Oppenheimer” at one of the 30 locations, don’t despair. The digital IMAX showings will still be excellent, Keighley assures CNBC Make It.
“The vast majority of projections around the world are digital versions made from scanning the original IMAX negative,” he says. “No matter where you see this in IMAX, you’ll see the benefits of Chris shooting in the gold standard.”
“Oppenheimer” will hit theaters on July 21.
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