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Dunkirk is playing in a lot of formats. Here’s how each affects your viewing experience.

Christopher Nolan’s new movie comes in IMAX, 70mm, digital, and other formats. And how you see it matters.

Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan with an IMAX camera.
Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan with an IMAX camera.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk opens in over 3,600 theaters on Friday, and the film’s pristine reviews so far ensure it’ll be the hottest movie ticket of the weekend. But if you find yourself confused when purchasing a ticket, you can safely assume you’re not alone.

That’s because the film is being projected in a number of different formats, and formats are notoriously complicated. And though Dunkirk is playing on both IMAX and more conventionally sized screens, the choice facing ticket-buyers isn’t just about the size of the screen they’ll be watching the film on; it’s also about whether they’ll see a digital or film projection — another complicated matter.

If you’re interested in the technical details, you can read Vox’s explainers on projection and on film vs. digital — both of which reveal fascinating things about how technological advances have changed the way we watch movies.

But if you just want to know which Dunkirk ticket to buy, here’s the lowdown.

What’s the best format to see Dunkirk in?

If you’re lucky enough to be within range of one of the film’s 31 IMAX 70mm screenings in the US, then by all means, spring for that option — it’s worth the added cost to see the film as the filmmaker intended it to be seen. (Plus, you could get a commemorative T-shirt out of the experience.)

What are the advantages of seeking out an IMAX 70mm screening? First, you’ll see about 75 percent of the film that’s been shot on IMAX film, which means enormous, sweeping shots of beaches and a super-immersive experience. That was Nolan’s intention; in this clip, he pitches the movie as “virtual reality without the goggles”:

IMAX screens are far taller than conventional screens, so the image you’re seeing on screen is nothing like what you’d see on a home viewing screen, nor on a conventional movie screen, which is wider than it is tall. (Not all theaters that offer IMAX are the same, though — see below.) So the image is truly immersive, and that’s an important part of Nolan’s creative vision in Dunkirk (and it works splendidly).

The other 25 percent of Dunkirk is projected in standard 70mm, which means the top and bottom of the screen are black for those portions of the film. If you’re not paying attention, you may not even notice that this is happening: Those sections of the film weren’t shot in IMAX because the cameras are huge and difficult to maneuver in small, enclosed spaces, which means they tend to be darkly lit scenes anyhow.

In Dunkirk, this actually works in the movie’s favor: When the men are in the claustrophobic hull of the ship, the image on screen gets tighter, too. It’s subtle, but it works.

Dunkirk is also being projected in IMAX screenings that aren’t 70mm — they’re digital prints and projections (more on that below). So why choose 70mm? Well, you don’t have to; you’ll get the gist of it just fine in a digital screening. But there are two compelling reasons to seek out a 70mm screening if at all possible.

The biggest one has to do with your moviegoing experience. When you go to a movie, you’re not just there to see actors walk you through story beats. You’re watching something, because seeing a movie is as much a visual experience as it is a narrative one.

Film — that is, the actual medium of film, which comes on giant spool-like reels and is projected through special projectors — has a distinctive look that’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it: It feels weighty and somehow authentic, probably because it recalls the way most movies in film history have looked.

Nolan has been shooting on 70mm for a while. Well, technically, he shoots on 65mm and it’s projected in 70mm; the extra mms are used to record the sound. Dunkirk was shot in two formats, with different types of cameras: 65mm IMAX, and regular 65mm.

Warner Bros. believed enough in projecting this film in 70mm that it bought projectors from the Weinstein Company, which Quentin Tarantino used to project Hateful Eight in 2015, and installed them in theaters around the country. In fact, Dunkirk is getting the widest 70mm release in 25 years — 125 theaters in total (including non-IMAX 70mm screenings), which is bigger than either Hateful Eight or Nolan’s last foray into 70mm, Interstellar.

And 70mm film is twice as big as 35mm film, which means there’s more “information” on the print as the more traditional 35mm movies we watched in theaters prior to digital’s takeover in the early 2000s. Even when it’s projected at the same size as a 35mm print, there’s a richness to 70mm that’s hard to match (and impossible to see at home). Think of the difference between blowing up a high-resolution photograph and a low-resolution photograph; one’s just got more detail than the other.

Film formats graphic
Film formats are complicated!
Javier Zarracina/Vox

The contrast between film and digital projection is pretty stark. Digital (which is favored by some filmmakers, like George Lucas and James Cameron) looks more pristine and “clean” than film when it’s projected onto the screen, while film looks more vibrant and “alive.” The distinction is readily apparent in the opening titles of Dunkirk, which consist of the title in white letters superimposed against a black background; in digital, the letters are still and strong, while in 70mm they seem to almost vibrate.

The reason some people prefer film is not unlike why audiophiles seek out vinyl over CDs or MP3s; the “cleaned up” medium might have more clarity, but there’s something gritty and beautiful about the analog version, something that feels more like the “real” world. It’s like the difference between smelling a cake baking in the oven and smelling a cake-flavored Yankee Candle burning; you can tell you’re smelling cake, but there’s something slightly fake about it, something too perfect.

Many modern movie effects are geared toward digital projection, and there are a handful of computer-generated effects in Dunkirk that look just fine in digital. But if you’re watching it on 70mm, with its slight grittiness and “noise” on the print, the effects feel like they’re all being done practically (that is, actually happening), which adds to the feeling of immersion as you’re watching the movie.

So an IMAX 70mm screening of Dunkirk combines the grit and richness of the 70mm film with the immersive storytelling effects of the huge screen and “authenticity” of the film grain. It’s definitely the one to choose, if you can make that choice.

It’s worth noting that unlike a number of major IMAX releases in the recent past (such as Gravity), not one of Dunkirk’s screenings is in 3D. That not only means the best format is accessible even to people whose eyes can’t see 3D, but that nobody has to argue over whether or not to see it in 3D. Dunkirk is immersive, but it’s still definitely an old-school movie that doesn’t benefit from the added gimmick of 3D.

What if I can’t see IMAX 70mm? What’s the next best option?

This is a remarkably tricky question to answer. In short: It depends on what you’re looking for.

Christopher Nolan would prefer that you see the film in 70mm — even with the IMAX parts cropped out — and that’s probably the “right” answer, since unless you have a film projector in your home and the ability to get your hands on a reel, you won’t ever be able to see it that way again (except maybe in repertory screenings).

If you see a non-IMAX 70mm screening, you’ll miss out on the massive, stirring shots, and the experience won’t be as immersive. (The IMAX ratio will have been rejiggered so you see the action.) But the film will still have that rich, authentic look that comes along with 70mm. This authenticity is central to Nolan’s vision — central enough that Warner Bros. invested in 70mm cameras to honor that vision — and seeing a film as the filmmaker intended is always preferable. (Indiewire has the full list of theaters projecting in 70mm, both regular and IMAX versions.)

But I wouldn’t write off IMAX, either. If you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s (like me), IMAX films may still feel like a gimmick or a thrill ride. For Dunkirk, though, IMAX is an important part of the story itself. It helps build the world rapidly, and it adds to the overall experience.

A group of soldiers, led by Alex (Harry Styles), heads for a beached boat in Dunkirk.
IMAX adds a great deal to the Dunkirk experience.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

The tricky part is that there are different kinds of IMAX, and it requires a little sleuthing to figure out which one the theater you’re going to offers. IMAX theaters may have one of two aspect ratios (that is, the ratio of width to height) — it could be 1.9:1, or 1.43:1. You want the 1.43:1 version if you can get it.

Theaters that have IMAX’s latest laser-projection system run in 1.43:1, and this is the highest-quality digital presentation you can see. The projection will have an expanded range of colors and more capacity for brightness, which will likely make this movie (which takes place during the day and night, and includes shots both in the sky and underwater) much more enjoyable to watch.

So if you have access to a screening in a laser-projection IMAX theater (this information should be available on the movie theater’s website), then that is a strong contender for the version of the film you should see, especially if you favor the immersive experience over the richness of the film. IMAX 70mm is still far better, but you’ll experience the size of the film and the enormity of the story this way.

Most multiplexes that claim to offer IMAX, though, have a more traditional 1.9:1 aspect ratio and lack the expanded range of the laser projection system. If that’s your only option — and if a 70mm screening is available to you — then strongly consider the 70mm screening. (Or if you’re a Nolan fan, just see it both ways.)

There are also regular-sized screenings of the film in both digital and 35mm happening around the country. If you have to pick one, see 35mm — it’s half as dense as 70mm, but it’s still film, and the more natural look of film suits the movie better. Plain old digital should be your last resort. It will still be enjoyable, but much of the visual impact that makes Dunkirk remarkable won’t be there anymore.

How do I find 70mm and IMAX screenings?

You’re in luck. The official Dunkirk website contains a handy tool to help you find the showtimes for the IMAX and 70mm IMAX screenings near you.

This article has been updated to clarify technical IMAX specifications.

Watch: The sound illusion that makes Dunkirk so intense

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