Panavision 70 On an Indian Reservation
This article first appeared in
The 70mm Newsletter
Issue 63 - December 2000
Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut, USA looks in almost every way
like a "spare no expense" facility. Nestled in largely unsettled
New England woodlands, the museum is an architectural wonder with wide
curved lines, astonishing vaulted windows, and a hair-raising observation
tower. The historical exhibits inside are extensive and beautifully designed
and maintained. It seems natural that their main film program would use one
of the greatest methods of audiovisual storytelling...the 5 perforation 65mm
and 70mm motion picture process.
is one of two identical cinemas in which "The Witness is shown. Click
to see a larger version. Picture supplied by Mashantucket Pequot Museum
& Research Center.
thirty-minute, 1998 film, "The Witness", was photographed
in the process originally known as Todd-AO and later duplicated under trade
names like Super Panavision
70, Sovscope 70, and MCS-70. Arriflex built the
Arri 765 to photograph in this format. "The Witness" was
filmed with two Arri 765's and the classic Panavision HSHR (Handheld
Reflex). The Panavision camera won a Class II Academy Award in 1968 and was
used in films like "Grand Prix" (1968). It is a wonder to
find a movie made entirely in 5 perf 65mm and exhibited in 5 perf 70mm in an
era where digital sound has all but obliterated the high-class 70mm film
image. Inspired by the article in the March 2000 issue of "...in
70mm" by Rod Miller, I ventured into the wilderness of a modern
American Indian Reservation to witness with my own eyes this rarity of
modern times: a newly-photographed and properly projected 5 perf 70mm film.
main attraction of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation is the
Foxwoods Hotel and Casino complex. It is nestled in the Connecticut
woodlands and, being the world's largest casino, stands as a towering
reminder of its power to collect enormous wealth for this formerly
aboriginal tribe. It is commendable that some of this wealth is being used
to produce and maintain a "spare no expense" museum located a few
miles from the casino to exhibit native culture and history.
museum's architecture is stunning. The grounds are clean and impeccably
manicured. The exhibits include dioramas that bring to life the era when
Pequot ancestors first arrived in North America, reproducing the flora and
fauna of its ice age. There is an extensive reconstructed Pequot village
with every imaginable detail, fulfilling senses of sight, sound, and smell.
Dramatically posed stuffed animals and wax figures of the aboriginal Pequot
are portrayed at all ages and walks of life. Every aspect is intelligent,
tasteful, educational, and authentic.
most important moment in Pequot history was undoubtedly the attempt by the
English and Dutch to exterminate them. One of the few who survived the
genocide and witnessed the horror of the slaughter of his family and village
was a teenaged Pequot teen named Wampishe, who is competently brought to
life by actor Edward Spears. He is the title character of the film. Hiding
away from the village during its annihilation, he is seen returning when
safe to pay last respects at the bodies of his slain mother and little
sister. Like most epic movies, "The Witness" smoothly shifts from
large scale to personal drama, pulling the heartstrings like few other
genres. It is a testament to the engrossing and emotionally provocative
5-perf 70mm film format that it was chosen to dramatize this event.
Further in 70mm reading:
Filming of "The Witness"
Cast and credits
Pequot Museum and Research Center
movie runs continuously in two wide-screen theaters deep in the museum. Each
seats 110 people. I was able to see the film once in each theater. What
follows are my technical and artistic reviews of these two screenings. I was
there incognito in order to view the screenings as they commonly ran for the
public, rather than to announce my presence, and avoid any special effort
that may have been invested in the particular screenings I attended.
my first screening I sat about one fourth of the way back from the screen so
that the picture nearly filled my entire front field of vision. A railing
but no curtain protected the screen. It appeared curved about to the radius
of projection and was either a toroidal or a spherical section shape, and
not perforated. Sound came from three speakers above the screen, a huge
sub-woofer below the screen, and a few moderate-sized surround speakers
along the side walls. A Century projector could be seen through the porthole
threaded with 70mm film from a platter.
on schedule the lights dimmed and the film began. The opening credits, sharp
and steady, were green and blue against black - a very unusual color
combination for credits, presumably representing Pequot tradition or part of
a coordinated motif, since they resembled the color scheme at the Foxwoods
Casino. The DTS sound (stored on a separate disk) was flawless. A thin,
blurred, black film scratch the full height of the screen cut through the
center of the frame for the entire duration of the film. There was no
visible sign of the cross reflections that sometimes plague large, curved
screens. The picture was quite sharp except for the top three or four feet
of the screen, which was noticeably blurry. There were objectionable shutter
streaks (descending comet tails on bright objects) during the credits and on
subsequent superimposed subtitles (Pequot characters spoke in Pequot
language). In the closing credits, a large film tear repaired with clear
tape passed by. Because of these distractions and my closeness to the
screen, I paid little attention to the story and reserved my aesthetic
appreciation for a second screening.
browsing the museum for a few hours, I returned to the second screening room
for another viewing of "The Witness". Outside the theater,
we heard customers complaining that the lights dimmed in the first theater
but the projector had never started. They filed into my room. The film began
and ran without a hitch. I sat near the back of the theater for a different
vantage point. This time the entire screen was well focused and the print
was free of scratches. This made it easier to pay attention to the artistic
merits of the work.
is an absolutely beautiful film. There are sunsets, landscapes, ships at
sea, and reconstructed Pequot villages that resonate with authenticity and
dazzle with color and detail perfect for the huge 70mm cinema. Generous
panoramas fill the 2.20:1 aspect ratio screen. The acting is sharp and the
dialogue is clear and well written. Music heightens emotions to good effect.
Costumes and makeup are faultless. This is a first-rate production. The only
complaint might be that 35mm techniques of cinematography and editing
(close-ups and frequent intercutting) predominated. When 70mm is used to
greatest effect, close-ups are less frequently needed. At the high
resolution, the audience makes their own close-ups by focusing on the action
or speaking actor or other detail that interests them. This enhances the
sensation of watching reality instead of viewing a concocted drama at arm's
length. In "The Witness", though, that "70mm
feeling" is nevertheless manifest.
story line of "The Witness" is, on the surface, the
frequently-retold tragedy of European colonialism's pillage and rape of
indigenous peoples. The worldwide legacy of this horror of human history
cannot be underestimated. Whether in India, Australia, North, Central, South
America, the South Pacific, Asia, the Mideast, or Africa, the pattern is
endlessly repeated. Europeans with guns enslaved and stole the property of
people without guns. But the Pequot's story, as told in "The
Witness", expounds on the particular details of their struggle.
Pequot War was ignited by a series of misunderstandings. To Europeans, the
native tribes were all the same. When a non-Pequot tribe murdered a
Dutchman, the Dutch would retaliate against any Indian tribe. When the Dutch
retaliated against the Pequots, the Pequots would retaliate against any
European. The result of this mutual confusion and reciprocal dehumanization
led to the genocide of the Pequot people and culture, portrayed with heart
ripping authenticity in the large format.
Pequot loss was not just the consequence of their failure to acquire modern
weaponry, but also the result of their inability to cooperate with their
neighboring tribes...tribes who collaborated with the invading Europeans to
annihilate their ancient foe. The failure to band tribes together to
expurgate imperial invaders links "The Witness" with the
most famous of 70mm epics, "Lawrence of Arabia". In that
masterpiece of the giant screen, feuding tribes of the Middle East could not
expel the invading Turks until Lawrence banded them together into a
successful, though at times uncomfortable, coalition. Even though some
Native American tribes were able to put ancient squabbles aside to fight the
Europeans, collaboration was not widespread enough to let them keep their
homeland. Uncomfortable divisions remain to this day between some Native
American tribes. Arabia, likewise, remains divided.
is a primeval leit motif of the human struggle. We collaborate in some
efforts, and squabble through others. The large format struggle exemplifies
this. While big screen enthusiasts engage in bitter debates about whether
Todd-AO was better than Cinerama or
Super Panavision or IMAX, 35mm, with its
marginal resolution, annihilates 70mm and takes over the screens of the
world. The feuding formats denied 70mm's chance of surviving against the
more cost efficient and lower quality standard. Against the likely
prevailing standard of digital cinema with even lower resolution, large
formats have little chance of prevailing.
recommendation is if you can visit Connecticut and the Foxwoods/Pequot
complex, that you see "The Witness". It may be the last
time a new 5-perf 70mm narrative film will ever be made.
December 19, 2000
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