2001: A Space Odyssey New Release on 70mm Film

2001: a space odyssey

I graduated from high school in 1971. During the ceremony, the school orchestra played Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss—and I got to play the tympani part! Aside from being a wonderful, majestic piece of music, it’s also the iconic opening and closing theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had debuted three years earlier and rocketed the relatively obscure piece into the cultural mainstream.

Now, 50 years after its initial release, Warner Bros. is celebrating this historic milestone by re-releasing the movie on 70mm film for a limited run in a few cities around the US, beginning May 18. Famed director Christopher Nolan worked closely with the restoration team, and true to his well-known preferences, no digital manipulation was used in the process. Instead, the team used an interpositive that had been made directly from the original camera negative in 1999. Then, they created a new internegative from which the new final prints were made. The process was entirely photochemical—and analog.

I just got back from seeing the 70mm film presentation at the ArcLight Hollywood, home of the famous Cinerama Dome. It is being shown in the Dome, but the tickets sold out in minutes after they went on sale. So, ArcLight added more showings in one of its other theaters, which is where I saw it. I had wanted to see it in the Dome, but I decided it was probably better in another theater with a less-deeply curved screen that would have less reflected light spill from one side of the screen to the other.

Before the show, I happened to run into one of the distribution supervisors from Warner Bros., who was there to make sure everything went well. She told me that Warner had made only eight prints that would be played in a given venue for about a week, then shipped to another venue in a round-robin arrangement. She also said that the ArcLight Hollywood had gotten three of the prints; one was supposed to be a backup, but because of the demand, the theater decided to show the film in a third auditorium. That required the third print, so there was no backup. If anything went wrong, the showing would stop.

Warner Bros. refers to the new print as “unrestored.” According to the press release, there are “no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits.” In fact, it looks quite different than the 2007 Blu-ray and, presumably, the broadcast version seen on TV once in a while.

How do I know that? I came across a YouTube video created by Krishna Ramesh Kumar that compares the Blu-ray with the new 2018 version. He used footage from the trailer for the new release along with the same footage from the Blu-ray. It’s an interesting comparison:

As you can see, the Blu-ray looks very cool, while the new trailer is quite a bit warmer. It’s impossible to know how accurate these comparisons are—after all, I have no idea who Krishna Ramesh Kumar is or how he put this comparison together. However, now that I’ve seen the re-release, I can confirm that it is, indeed, quite warm looking with a slight yellowish cast in the whites, just as Kumar’s comparison shows. I also took a quick look at the Blu-ray, and it is significantly cooler, so the comparison is at least reasonably indicative of the difference.

Other than the color balance, I observed several things that confirmed my preference for modern digital presentation. First, the black level was very high, and the contrast was quite low with poor shadow detail. In addition, the far sides of the image often looked darker and softer—in some cases, even out of focus—compared with the center. I went with a friend who had worked on the 1999 interpositive, and he thought that was due to the lenses used to shoot the footage.

Dirt and scratches were obvious. I don’t know if they are in the 1999 interpositive, the new internegative, or the actual print I saw, but I was certainly distracted by them. According to my friend, there are a couple of tears in the original cut negative during the “Dawn of Man” sequence, and I did see a couple of significant blips that could have been those tears.

Finally, I saw some obvious, fast strobing in bright objects on dark backgrounds, especially when viewed in peripheral vision. My friend thought this was probably due to the projector, which could be, but I don’t really know. I also saw some gate judder, which is definitely caused by the projector.

The Warner rep told me that the soundtrack was 5.1 from a DTS disc synchronized to the film. To my ears, it was exceedingly bright, which is a common complaint about DTS soundtracks. And once, near the end, there was a loud sync beep that should not have been there. The film was loaded onto a platter, so there were no separate reels to synchronize. The sync beep was clearly a mistake for which someone could lose their job.

At least the levels were very reasonable: Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie) = 87.8 dBZ (flat), 80.1 dBA, 87.2 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 111.4 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 88.7 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 70.4 dBZ. An Leq of 80.1 dBA is nearly 5 dB below reference level.

This fall, Warner Bros. is apparently planning to release 2001: A Space Odyssey on UHD Blu-ray in high dynamic range. I wonder how they will eke out an HDR image? If the showing I saw is any indication, the 1999 interpositive doesn’t have enough dynamic range in and of itself. Perhaps they will artificially expand the dynamic range. I imagine they will retain the color balance, which is likely closer to what Kubrick approved. It will be interesting to see how it comes out.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in seeing the re-release, it’s now showing at the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles, the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and the Village East Cinema in New York City. It will be there for about a week, then move on to other venues with a 70mm projector. I’m glad I saw it when the print was new; it’s sure to degrade after numerous showings, which is another reason I prefer digital.

Regardless of this presentation’s technical faults, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great movie, one of the best of all time. Yes, it’s very slow-paced by today’s moviemaking standards; I would call it a meditation on some very deep issues. And by today’s technical standards, the faults seem all too obvious. Nevertheless, seeing it again in a large theater was a nostalgic treat.

Check out the trailer:

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