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"Tenet" Reviewed in 70mm IMAX
he IMAX experience was outstanding, with practically a standing ovation thanks to the amazing print and projection system

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Tyler Purcell, Los Angeles, USA Date: 29.03.2021
After a year of COVID 19 lockdown, and closed cinemas, "Tenet" finally played in 70mm IMAX for two weeks late in March 2021 at the AMC Universal CityWalk IMAX, in Los Angeles, USA.

"Holy crap does this movie look good on film. Shut off the digital projectors!"

I’ve been eagerly awaiting "Tenet" for quite sometime. As a huge fan of large format filmmaking, it’s always great to see it being used for “normal” movies. Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have been a great team so far, but they haven’t yet made a more “normal” movie until "Tenet". The trailers were very enticing as well, with a great cast and very interesting plot line revolving around inverse time. The boxes were checked and I couldn’t wait to see the movie at our local 15 perf IMAX theater and probably Cinerama Dome on 5 perf 70mm as well. However, the global pandemic prevented a wide release of the movie at its scheduled dates. With that said however, I was able to see a special screening of the 5 perf print and recently (finally) the 15 perf IMAX print. I’ve also seen the film twice at home on UHD BluRay, in stellar 10 bit full HDR 4:4:4 quality.

For what it’s worth, "Tenet" is a very basic -end of the world style- spy thriller with one little tiny element that makes it different; people in the know can go backwards in time. Now the device that does this is a bit clunky, the explanations are a bit vague, lots of “you don’t really want to know how it works” dialog, but it’s fine because the basic premise is all the audience needs to know. Had it been a normal spy thriller, without the fancy twist, it may have worked totally fine. However, it’s clear the twist was the movie, which I guess makes sense for Christopher Nolan, but so much time is wasted on it, we don’t really get a complete spy thriller. It’s more like a 90 minute spy thriller, with another hour tacked on that explains what you just spent 90 minutes watching, isn’t what you thought it was. Not saying that’s bad, but there just isn’t enough time to flesh out the characters and the plot drives endlessly. The only time you get to reflect on anything is during the credits, which for a movie that’s 150 minutes long, full of complex paradoxes and overlapping timelines, you really do need a break somewhere to let the audience relax and think things through. That’s really my biggest beef and had it been 3hrs long, had there been some quiet intimate dialog scenes to understand the characters motivation, maybe it would have been better. Doesn’t help the score is very over-powering and the sparse dialog is muddied heavily by the music and effects. It’s as if the center channel is simply mixed too low on purpose, so the audience focuses more on the visuals and less on the dialog?

John David Washington is fantastic and since the film centers around his character, it was important to choose the right actor. I think Nolan nailed it and honestly ALL the cast is great. From Robert Pattinson who is Washington’s side kick, to Elizabeth Debicki, who comes out of nowhere to be one of the most critical characters in the story. Of course Kenneth Branagh smashes it out of the ballpark as the Russian antagonist, but that’s to be expected. I put a lot of emphasis on the cast in this film, because many of them have to walk, fight, shoot and talk backwards in scenes, which is not easy. They did quite a bit of training and the end result is very seamless.

My friend Chester Milton worked with the camera crew (over 250 people total, making it the largest project Nolan or Hoyte had ever made) on the European and American shoots. I also have talked extensively with Fotokem’s lab folk about the post production aspects and how they were able to fix the mistakes they made in Dunkirk, to make the 5 perf and 15 perf prints stellar this time around. "Tenet" was a tricky shoot due to the myriad of locations and working with large format the entire way through. Nolan pushed his crew to get the production done under schedule, which made the days very tricky for them. There are many stories about Nolan wanting the crew to try new un-tested things on set, wasting countless hours in an already tight schedule to then throw them away in post, which is too bad. He also does not storyboard, meaning that time on set is a lot of experimentation rather than simply shooting.

Like "Dunkirk", the film was shot mostly with 15 perf, except for intimate dialog scenes, which were shot on a myriad of cameras from the Panavison System 65mm 5 perf sync sound cameras made in the early 90’s for "Far and Away" to the Arriflex 765 and even a few shots were done with the new Logmar camera, though the final cut does not feature them. The 765 was used on a few scenes, but my friend said the final cut does not feature anything of any substance from that camera. Thus, the bulk of the movie was Panavision System 65 5 perf cameras and a batch of 15 perf IMAX cameras (MSM 9802, MKVI and MKIII) for any scenes where dialog was not critical. Funny enough, on this movie, you can hear the camera in scenes a lot more than on other Nolan movies, which was interesting. Nolan used a handful of very special Hasselblad lenses that he acquired over the years as his “A” lenses, which is what he primarily used. There was also a group of Panavision Sphero 65 lenses he used on the 5 perf cameras.

The film was processed and finished at Fotokem here in Burbank California. They spent 6 months finishing the film and due to the delay on release thanks to the pandemic, Nolan was able to tweak the cut even more, making a slightly different cut for theatrical and throwing away one reel of the film. For digital this may not have been seen, but for the film prints, there for sure will be a splice done by the projectionist to fix that problem, though I never saw one. They still did 35mm reduction dailies for 15 perf shots and 5 perf dailies (projected using a Kinoton projector) for the sync sound material. The film would be shipped to LA, processed, printed and shipped back to whatever destination the production was at. Sadly they couldn’t use Cinelab London, a phenomenal facility with top notch techs, because they currently can’t do reduction OR prints of 70mm material. So Nolan was stuck using the last fully featured lab in the world in California.

More in 70mm reading:

"Tenet" Production Info

"Tenet" in the splendour of 7OMM

in70mm.com's IMAX Page

The Hateful Eight is a Wonderful Cinematic Experience for the true Cinefile

Panavision and the Resurrecting of Dinosaur Technology

Nolan's "Dunkirk" will feature over 100 minutes of IMAX material

Magellan 65 Presented in Hollywood

They also did a photochemical color, which would be from the negative to the IP. Due to Nolan insisting on a photochemical finish, IMAX had to develop a camera that shot backwards. This may sound easy, but it’s really not as most film cameras are really only made to run one direction. So they needed to develop a special magazine that had the supply reel load the film. This was the ‘reverse’ magazine and they only had a few and according to my friend, they always had issues. If you look at BTS footage, you always see pictures of stacks of mags lying around on set. They also had an HD tap on the cameras, with Blackmagic Design playback units, so they could play back the footage in reverse to insure it came out well. The IMAX cameras presented other challenges of course, like doing hand held scenes in reverse and having a tethered camera (for power), something Hoyte had to deal with on a shot by shot basis.

I have to say for the record, the team did an outstanding job technically. Hoyte knocked it out of the ballpark and rightly so, his cinematography has improved dramatically since he started working with Nolan. Hoyte’s work in "Dunkirk" was fantastic but with "Tenet", he’s made it even better. Basic dialog scenes are perfectly lit, to the point where you never know the source of the light. Hoyte is the master of hiding lights in plain sight and with darker skinned cast members (which is always more tricky) he’s done a brilliant job. I have to say it’s one of the best looking movies I’ve seen in years. Not a single mistake cinematography wise in the entire movie. I will say tho, the movie did feel much better (like "Dunkirk") on the 5 perf 2.20:1 prints, rather than the 1.44:1 prints. The framing was just not ideal in the IMAX setting, people were too large for the screen, it felt unrealistic. Had they used wider lenses, it may have worked better, but to get the angles they wanted, the smaller standard movie screen worked a lot better. Even though the IMAX experience was outstanding, with practically a standing ovation thanks to the amazing print and projection system, I still preferred the smaller screen. It wasn’t as nauseating and because the film’s pace is so fast, you don’t have time to look around the HUGE IMAX screen to see things going on. The added size meant nothing either, there was nothing out of the 5 perf frame that had any relevance. The only thing about the 15 perf footage was how crisp it was. When I mean crisp, I mean it was so crisp, I could see signs in the distance that looked like they were a mile away or so. Yet, it wasn’t disturbing like high-resolution digital because film itself adds a layer which helps hide those things. The 5 perf material on the 15 perf prints, was absolutely recorded out digitally. It was much softer than the 15 perf material and unlike "Dunkirk" which had dirt and higher grain, this time the 5 perf material in the 15 perf prints was clean. So clearly they recorded out the 5 perf material onto 15 perf IN stock and then cut it into the 15 perf string because its impossible those 15 perf scenes were recorded out, no way. Both the 5 perf and 15 perf prints had deep rich blacks, they had no grading issues at all. Tho I will say, both presentations weren’t very bright. I don’t know why that is, maybe they made a higher density print for a reason? Not sure, but holy crap does this movie look good on film. Shut off the digital projectors, I’m sold. Sadly, neither theater I saw the film at, had film trailers. The 5 perf presentation, the old Century JJ projector (part of "The Hateful Eight" fleet) started up after the digital trailers and chugged away at the print, making a lot of noise in the theater, which was comforting. The 15 perf IMAX presentation was at an AMC, with some digital trailers that made me want to puke in both content and quality of digital projection. When the film projector popped on, I was so happy to see the absolutely jaw dropping high resolution 15 perf image. How can anyone think digital projection can hold a candle to 15 perf IMAX.

In the end, I think "Tenet" is a very flawed film, mostly due to it’s lack of character development and humanity. However, the incessant over-powering score and mix did not help. Had the film been quieter and more pleasing to listen to, with a more temperate score, it may have been a lot better. But as it sits now, sadly it is obnoxiously loud and in your face, which I don’t think sits well with anyone, even the most die hard Nolan fans. I hate to say this because I love the imagery so much, but it doesn’t add up to a complete product in my eyes. Rumors are that Nolan has re-worked "Tenet" for a new-release that is premiering in New York only. Nobody has said anything to me about it, but supposedly Fotokem has been working on it. Maybe we will see him fix some issues? I doubt it as the video release is the same as the theatrical prints, but I hope one day Nolan does tweak it and learn from his lessons about over-bearing mixes and difficult stories to follow.
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Updated 21-01-24