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Star Wars Episode 7 – back to 35mm film

As films become ever more sophisticated and CGI delivers increasingly complex visual illusions, the director and cinematographer of Star Wars Episode 7 are taking things back to their roots. JJ Abrams and Dan Mindel are rejecting digital for film – specifically the Kodak Colour Negative 5129 35mm film. It sounds a little odd, when so many of us are currently converting our 35mm to digital to have one of the world’s most successful movie franchises going the other way, but they have their reasons.

It’s partly homage – they are returning to the original film format because they want to recreate some of the feel and look of the early Star Wars films. And it’s party director preferences – JJ Abrams says … “Film is the thing I am most comfortable with. If film were to go away… then the standard for the highest, best quality would go away.”

35mm film to digital – why shoot on one to display on the other?

It’s a strong claim that film is ‘the best’ – but Abrams himself is well placed to make it. His track record is unparalleled for blockbuster movies, especially the spectacular kind with Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness in his portfolio. So what makes 35mm his medium of choice?

Star Wars 7 - 2

Reality. According to Abrams and his chosen film partner in all those movies, Mindel, 35mm evokes a feeling of reality and of comfort. It also offers ‘warmth’ a quality it’s hard to define but easy to spot – many digital films have an air of precision and crispness that is stunning … but chilling. 35mm on the other hand has a depth and warmth that makes it immediate and solid – what Abrams describes as ‘comfort’.

Of course this doesn’t mean that digital won’t be used at all. CGI is an integral part of the Star Wars genre and the franchise has been a ground breaker in many CGI developments, including filming one episode entirely digitally.

Film projection and format conversion

The marriage of film, whether 8mm, 9.5mm, 16mm or 35mm, to digital technology has been a fruitful one. For home film-makers, the conversion of film to digital formats has rescued many long-lost reels of family history from oblivion. For commercial film producers, the hybrid film-to-digital pro-cess has given unlimited scope to blend the best of computer graphics with the finest film quality to create superlative viewing experiences. Now, for movie-makers like Abrams, 35mm film shown as digitally projected entertainment offers something new – the ability to breathe new life into one of the current decade’s biggest preoccupations – vintage.

The nostalgia for old technology began with steampunk and has spread through every strata of modern life, from the return to huge headphones to play the best digital sound through to the reinvention of fashion (and not for the first time) so create new versions of old classics. Just look at the way old school beards are sprouting on every face – vintage is big!

So it’s hardly surprising that Abrams will choose to ride this wave of nostalgia by filming Episode 7 on the same film stock as the very first Star Wars film, and for those eagerly awaiting the results, shooting begins in London, this month, with a tentative release date of December 2015.

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