Though fewer and fewer films are actually shot on film with each passing year, celluloid nevertheless continues to be used in motion picture photography. Most often, this is in the form of 35mm vs 70mm film. These used to be just two of many motion picture film formats — i.e. CinemaScope, VistaVision, Panavision, 8mm, 16mm, and the like. Nowadays, they’re about two of the only film formats that get any sort of attention at all. But what sets them apart?
Obviously, the two have similar names. Plus, 70 is 35 times two, so that probably has something to do with it, right? Well… not exactly. The real differences between 35mm vs 70mm film are a lot more meaningful — and a lot more intricate — than that. Let’s take a look at all these detailed differences below, starting with their respective specs.
35mm vs 70mm Film: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Date Created||1889||1894-1897; 1928|
|Creators||William Kennedy Dickson and Thomas Edison||William Fox and Theodore Case|
|Size||1.377-1.378 in. wide||2.6-2.8 in. wide|
|First Use||Short film experiments||Filming the Henley Royal Regatta|
|Average Cost||Approx. $900 per roll||Approx. $1,300 per roll|
|Shooting Limits||11 minutes per roll||9 minutes per roll|
35mm vs 70mm Film: What’s the Difference?
These key differences between the two can be distilled into three key categories: the costs associated with each motion picture film format, the distinct size of the two formats, and the specific uses of each in motion picture photography. Let’s review.
Firstly, the prices and fees associated with 35mm vs 70mm film can vary quite drastically. The average roll of 35mm film comes in at just under $1,000 for 11 minutes of footage. Not all of that footage will be usable, of course, so you’re going to need a batch of ’em.
For a completed 90-minute film, a director can expect to shoot close to 15 hours of footage in total. That comes out to around 90 reels, which will cost around $81,000 in total. From there, it costs around $2,000 every time you make a print of that movie for distribution. If your movie goes wide to 600 theaters or more, that’s at least $1.2 million.
Comparatively, 70mm is a totally different, more expensive story. That $81,000 total for a 35mm production? That’s not much more than one single finished 70mm print, which costs around $60,000 per copy. And that’s not even counting the cost of actually filming in 70mm, which is in the millions.
A wide release of a 70mm film would be unfathomably expensive; something like $36 million or more. For that reason, 70mm film projections typically receive a “roadshow” release, meaning a limited, traveling release in a small number of major cities.
Still, the picture quality of 35mm film — which roughly translates to 5-6K — and the picture quality of 70mm film — which roughly translates to 18K — is unmatched by anything a digital camera has to offer. Regardless of the cost, this is the real reason some filmmakers continue to use these formats.
Even when reformatted from film to digital for easier, cheaper wide distribution, it still looks remarkably good. Digital equivalents to 35mm and 70mm film cameras can’t even come close to the look of the film, but these production and distribution costs continue to keep celluloid at bay.
Secondly, there’s a difference in size between 35mm vs 70mm film. Obviously, 35mm is smaller than 70mm. But it goes beyond this; 35mm film is 1.377-1.378 inches wide and is stored in 1,000-foot rolls.
On the other hand, 70mm film is 2.6-2.8 inches wide and is also stored in 1,000-foot rolls. While the distance is the same, the difference in the actual size of the film itself makes 70mm far larger than 35mm. All in all, 70mm is around 3.5 times the size of 35mm. This difference in size also manifests in the aspect ratios of the formats; 35 mm film’s ratio is 3:2 and 70 mm film’s ratio is 2.2:1.
Thirdly, cost and size come together to impact use. 35mm film sees far more use than 70mm film. From the sheer cost to the physical size (to the fact that 70mm film cameras are much louder than 35mm film ones), it only makes sense that the former would be used more than the latter.
What’s more, films shot on 35mm film will use the motion picture film format throughout the duration of the shoot. Cinematographers shooting on 70mm, on the other hand, typically only use the format for action-packed bits and pieces of the overall film, and tend to rely on 35mm for the rest.
Some examples of recent films shot on 35mm are Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021), Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021), and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021). These are three directors who tend to use film exclusively, alongside the likes of Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan, and Edgar Wright, among others.
As we said above, films are rarely shot completely in 70mm, but they do exist. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) used Ultra Panavision 70, while Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile (2022) used Panavision System 65.
The Origins of 35mm Film
The 35mm film format was originally used for experimental films rather than feature films. William Kennedy Dickson and his co-inventor Thomas Edison initially developed the format way back in the late 1880s during their early experiments in photography and videography.
The name comes from the size of the film loops they used, which measured 35 millimeters. Edison put in the papers for a patent in the year 1891, unknowingly kicking off what would eventually become the booming motion picture industry.
Years later, 35mm film became the most important thing to come out of the young Kodak company. Soon after, 35mm and the cameras required to shoot it became widely accessible to filmmakers and studios. These new 35mm cameras were far more portable and much faster to use than the previous standard, large plate cameras.
By the 1910s, 35mm film and 35mm cameras were all the rage. Competing brands and manufacturers scrambled to get their own hats in the ring, resulting in boatloads of success for these companies throughout Hollywood and even abroad.
Once sound films — i.e. talkies — emerged in the 1920s, 35mm saw even more use than ever before. That’s because sound could be easily recorded and printed on the film at the same time as images. The use of this standard celluloid format increased until the dawn of the 21st century, and the advent of digital cameras.
Following one of the first major uses of digital in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), it was only a matter of time before 35mm was phased out and digital took over. 35mm film is still used by photographers and cinematographers today, just less often.
History of 70mm Film
While used far less than 35mm (and used hardly at all compared to digital cinematography), 70mm film has been around since the earliest days of Hollywood. While the true inventor of the format remains unknown, historians tend to credit it to two separate incidents.
The first is Herman Casler’s 70mm filming of the Henley Regatta sometime between 1894 and 1897. The second, more popular accreditation is William Fox and Theodore Case’s 70mm Grandeur film from 1928. Fox and Case’s 70mm invention came alongside several other film formats between 50 and 68mm. Due to the costs, they all fell off around the time of the Great Depression.
The Renaissance of 70 mm Film
70mm would not make a serious comeback until the 1950s as the Golden Age of Hollywood neared its peak and studios were desperate for something new and exciting. As it turns out, sometimes the newest thing is just an old thing in a fresh package.
Cinerama co-founder Michael Todd had the idea to take three 35mm film projectors and play them side by side by side, resulting in a wide image of 2.6:1 — just over 70mm’s standard aspect ratio of 2.2:1. Todd went to work creating a new film format that could combine the size of three 35mm projections into one. Thus, 70mm was reborn.
Despite the excitement surrounding the new (old?) format, the cost was nevertheless still an issue. To counter this, many 70mm films would initially show in the large format through a roadshow distribution before being released widely on 35mm. Examples of this strategy include Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), among others. This strategy faded in the late ’60s but had a brief resurgence in the 2010s with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017).
35mm vs 70mm Film: 5 Must-Know Facts
- Prior to the popularization of the digital movie camera in the 2000s, movies had no choice but to shoot on film. Hundreds upon hundreds of films used celluloid each year. In 2021, that number dropped to around 30.
- IMAX film is a horizontal variant of 70mm, delivering a much bigger picture area than standard 70mm film; IMAX has 15 perforations — the little holes or sprockets on the side of the film frame — while typical 70mm film has just five.
- 70mm film is actually just 65mm during the filming process. The additional 5mm comes in post-production when the soundtrack is added to the print.
- Based on their names, you’d think 70mm was twice the size of 35mm film. In reality, it’s even bigger than that; 70mm is about three and a half times the size of 35mm.
- Surprisingly, there are even bigger formats than 70mm. For instance, the picture on Ultra Panavision 70 is currently the widest size in film history at an aspect ratio of 2.76:1. The only thing to ever surpass that was Polyvision — a 4:1 aspect ratio. It was only ever used once, for a silent epic called Napoleon (1927).
Pros and Cons of 35mm vs 70mm Film
|Pros of 35mm||Cons of 35mm|
|Looks notably better than digital||Typically costs more than digital filmmaking|
|Used for far longer than digital||Fewer and fewer theaters can support 35mm projection|
|Cheaper than 70mm||Requires careful upkeep and preservation in order to remain high-quality|
|Historically lasts longer than digital||Harder to get your hands on today|
|Pros of 70mm||Cons of 70mm|
|Currently the best-looking form of photography, equivalent to 18K resolution||Incredibly expensive|
|Creates a true spectacle||70mm cameras are quite loud|
|Has inherent novelty with roadshow distributions||Projections cost tens of thousands of dollars|
|Captures gorgeous details not seen with 35mm or even digital||Phased out in favor of digital IMAX cameras|
35mm vs 70mm Film: Which One Is Better?
Taking all of this into account, it’s overwhelmingly clear that both 35mm and 70mm have immense value. Not just for the art of filmmaking, either. 35mm and 70mm also have value in that they literally cost a lot more than digital.
However, filmmakers that can convince the studios to budget for either format will do so every time for that improved picture quality and glorious, indescribable glow of film grain. Alas, if a winner had to be chosen between 35mm and 70mm, it would have to be 70mm.
It looks the best; plus it’s bigger, bolder, and wider than 35mm. Even though it’s used far less than 35mm, 70mm represents the absolute best a film can look. From Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), filmmakers continue to combine the best of 35mm with the best of 70mm.
They do so by taking advantage of the latter for selected scenes with particular importance. 70 mm film’s superiority seems to shine through best when used as a way to underline or punctuate a scene as in these instances.