Mission: Impossible 4 Formats and Aspect Ratios

Mission: Impossible 4 Formats and Aspect Ratios

In terms of workflow, planning for MI4 was certainly a challenge. If it were just one film format or just one release format there would be nothing special to write here, but from the outset we knew we would be shooting multiple film formats and releasing in three different aspect ratios, and keeping on top of all that takes a little bit of effort. The final film contains imagery shot on six different formats, which means that there are a lot of different native aspect ratios and keycode/timecode systems at work. We also coerced all six formats into the constraints of just two aspect ratios, so in the end the anamorphic RED footage was slightly resized to fit into 2.35, and everything else was cropped to fit into the 8-perf aspect ratio, since that format had the most footage in the IMAX parts of the movie. Below is a list of the original camera formats and their native aspect ratios:

Aspect ratios from 8mm to 65mm

  1. 35mm Anamorphic (2.35:1 when unsqueezed)
  2. Super 35 (1.33:1)
  3. VistaVision (35mm 8-perf, 1.96:1)
  4. 65mm 8-perf (1.4:1)
  5. 65mm 15-perf (1.33)
  6. RED Epic (2.44 unsqueezed for anamorphic, 1.9 for flat)

Telecine & Editorial

For everything shot on 35mm, including VistaVision, we telecined the material locally wherever the production was shooting. For all the 65mm (IMAX) material, we shipped the film to Fotokem in Burbank for processing and telecine. They would telecine the film full aperture, and since 65mm formats have an aspect ratio that’s roughly 1.43, the image we would receive in Editorial would be pillarboxed to fit into the 16:9 restraints of our HD Avid project. All keycode for the 65mm and Vista footage was tracked in the Aux Ink column, though I’m pretty sure we could’ve mixed and matched all formats in the main KN Start column to make our lives a bit easier for finishing. When we got to our DI, each format’s clips in the timeline got split out to separate tracks, from which we would then make the appropriate EDLs (for conform & 35mm scanning) or Pull Lists (for 65mm scans).

Sequence prepped for DI turnover. 35mm OCN, IMAX film, RED, VFX, opticals, and temp shots split out by track

Aside from the initial ingest for dailies and the output for DI, having all these different formats in the timeline wasn’t much of an issue. The editor, Paul Hirsch, cut the whole film in 2.40, so he just added resize effects onto the 1.43 (IMAX) material to remove the pillarboxes by blowing it up to be full-width, and then our normal matte essentially cropped it to a 2.40 extraction. On the assistant side of things, we made sure to assign separate clip colors for all the different formats so that when we needed to single out what was 1.43 and what was 2.40, it was easy to do so quickly. Cutting in 2.40 with the resize effects also helped us when we got to making our 2.40 release, in that the 2.40 extraction pass was already roughed out in the Avid and was easily handed over to the DI facility to use as a reference.

Release Formats

When MI4 came out in theaters, there were three aspect ratios you could see it in: CinemaScope (2.40), IMAX Digital (1.9), and IMAX 70mm Film (1.43). The 70mm IMAX release is the one I recommended to everyone, since that’s where you’ll be in the giant theater with a huge image. IMAX Digital gives you ever so slightly more image than the Scope release, but it’s nothing compared to the aspect ratio of 70mm. The Scope release was also projected on both 35mm and 2k DCP.

IMAX, IMAX Digital, and CinemaScope aspect ratios

Having all these release formats meant that the film was being finished multiple times by different companies. Company3 did our DI, and they were as responsible as we were for keeping everything organized across all the formats. After last VFX were inserted and the main and end titles were complete, they handed off DPX files to IMAX so that IMAX could go through their process to make the IMAX Digital DCP and all the 70mm release prints. Deluxe and Deluxe Digital took receipt of our 2.40 DPXs in order to make our 2k DCP and 35mm prints. The premiere in Dubai was projected 4k from a 4k DCP. Our sound was done up at Skywalker, and they too had multiple release formats, including 5.1, 7.1, and a 6.0 specifically for IMAX.

As I alluded to earlier, the 1.9/IMAX Digital and 2.40 aspect ratios don’t show the full 1.43 IMAX image that you see in the big IMAX film theaters. This meant that an extraction had to be done for both 2.40 and 1.9 in order to make sure that the right part of the 1.43 frame was shown in the other formats. You can think of it like doing a pan and scan for a theatrical release. Since we were already cutting in Avid with a 2.40 extraction of our IMAX dailies, a lot of the work to do this extraction pass was already done, but towards the end of the schedule the director, editor and I went through each IMAX sequence and adjusted the framing for each shot. Some shots were just straight center extractions, while others had animated moves up and down to account for movement within the frame. Once the 2.40 was done we moved on to the 1.9 for IMAX Digital, and before we started that pass I went through and made quick adjustments based on what they changed in the 2.40 extraction to try to anticipate how they’d want the 1.9 to look. We also created animated letterboxes on some of the shots to transition between a 2.40 section of the film and an IMAX section, which helped increase the awe factor, especially when Ethan Hunt first steps out of the window of the Burj Khalifa. After both extraction passes were done, reference Quicktimes and AAFs went to Company3 and IMAX so they could replicate the framing we had done on their respective formats before they made our first check DCPs.

Things Learned About IMAX

“Shooting IMAX” generally refers to shooting some form of 65mm film, and in MI4 there are 27 minutes of IMAX material. The 65mm format exists outside of what the IMAX corporation does for you, but they pretty much have the lock on large format theaters and if you want to release a movie shot on 65mm then you have to go through them. 65mm film, by the way, refers to the size of the film you shoot with. When you see IMAX films projected in theaters, the print is running on 70mm stock.

Why do you shoot 65mm but project on 70mm even though the 70mm doesn’t have a soundtrack area on it? Well, from what I’ve quickly Googled, it appears that 70mm used to have a soundtrack area, but now it’s unnecessary due to digital sound, so it just gets blown up slightly. As for sound sync, it’s a very simple system that just lines up the timecode on the audio disc with whatever frame you line up to be frame 0 in the projector (Picture Start, normally). Then the projector just keeps a count of the number of frames it’s displayed so far, and if you need to resync sound in the middle of the show, you can hit a button to realign the audio disc timecode to the projector’s frame counter, but you’ll have 8 agonizing seconds of silence while it does it. I heard a story where a projectionist played Transformers 3 audio on the beginning of Harry Potter (or something like that), and was thankful for the ability to change tracks and resync on the fly.

65mm film comes in several varieties, namely 5-perf, 8-perf, and 15-perf. 5-perf and 8-perf run vertically through the camera, and 15-perf runs horizontally. 15-perf uses up a lot of film very quickly, and the cameras that shoot with it are heavy, bulky, and hard to use in a mobile manner. In a movie like Mission: Impossible the 15-perf film was reserved for the shots where having that extra detail in the negative would be useful, like in an establishing shot or in one of those “wow” moments where you really want to impress. 8-perf is then used for everything else, since you get more frames per foot of film and since the cameras are more maneuverable. We never used 5-perf at all. 70mm projection prints are all 15-perf and run horizontally through the projector.

In terms of keycode, a “foot” in 65mm counting systems is not 12 inches. If you measure it out it’s actually 22 inches, and is comprised of either eight frames of 15-perf or fifteen frames of 8-perf. We still called our footage burn-in “feet & frames,” but “foot” had a very liberal definition and was used more as just a generic unit of measurement.

When you go to finish for an IMAX release, you have to allow a lot more time for everything. It takes longer to scan because the scan resolution is higher and the scan area is greater. It takes longer to dustbust and go through IMAX’s DMR process so that you ensure a sharp, clean image. It also takes longer to record out, even with multiple film recorders running, since you can only record out on 70mm 15-perf and that’s a big image area to fill. Even plattering a film in the projection booth takes hours, since IMAX reels are 3 minutes max and are shipped to the theater that way, so splicing 40-ish reels back together and in order is no small task.

Once you get to the theater to do your run-through (you were planning to do a run-through, right?), there is no going backwards once you start the projector running. If you want to change sync by lining the film up a couple frames earlier, you have to let the film run through in real-time before you can string it up again.

For your DVD and cable/VOD release, you will actually see more image in the IMAX sections of the movie if you watch it in SD rather than HD, since the SD aspect ratio is much closer to that of IMAX. I recommend watching the Scope sections in HD and the IMAX sections in SD… just kidding, kind of.

One last but unsurprising thing I learned about IMAX is that it is heavy. I took 20-minutes of IMAX film in my luggage to Dubai, and I can tell you with certainty that the airlines don’t like it when you show up with an 83 lb. suitcase. Bellboys also think you’re joking when you say it’s heavy, and then they suggest that maybe you overpacked for your 2-day trip. On the bright side, though, I would’ve loved to see someone try to run off with my stuff.

Ask Me More!

Working on this movie was an intense rush to the finish, so I feel like there might be things that got lost in the blur. If there’s anything more I can answer, ask me in the comments.

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  1. Nice articles. Just curious how many DIT were on set…this is pretty insane with all the data you need to keep tracks on..And what was the DIT software being use..RedCineX.. Gamma n Density or other programs?


  2. Thanks!

    We only shot with the RED for about a week, so there was one DIT on set and then we had runners bring the cards to Editorial. Once we had made our own backups we transcoded the dailies to Avid media using RedCine-X


  3. Very cool insight into the process. Does the director ever seem sick having to crop the image so many different ways for so many different releases, or is it just accepted as part of the movie making process?

  4. With IMAX footage mixed in with regular 2.40 it’s hard to be really particular about people seeing it in a specific format or cropping. For standard def, airline, cable & VOD I’m sure that all of the filmmakers would love for people to watch the 2.40 version with a letterbox, but the people who decide these things have decreed that people don’t like letterboxes, so that’s why even the HD version you see on cable & VOD is full-frame (and cropped a bit on the sides). So it’s pretty much just a fact of life that you have to prepare all these different dimensions, and you try to make the best of each

  5. Hey Evan! Great article as always. Do you think you guys will do the same as Nolan did with “The Dark Knight” on the Blu-Ray release, meaning that 35mm sections will be 2.40:1 but during the IMAX sequences it pops to full frame. Fincher’s not a fan of mixed formats (he said so recently in an interview), because it draws attention to the technical side of the film and takes you out, however, I have to say that everytime the IMAX footage pops up in “The Dark Knight” on my 100 inch HD projection at home, I have a little movie-gasm… I would love a similar treatment for “MI-4”. Been looking forward to re-watching it at home ever since I saw it in Berlin over Christmas! What a ride!

  6. I wish, and I asked if we would do exactly that (not knowing about the Dark Knight BD), but I think the BD will be 2.40 all the way through.

  7. Curious to know which scenes were shot with Red’s Epic and how many camera’s were used?

  8. We used the RED mostly for individual pickups dotted throughout the film, and the scene on the airport tarmac was shot entirely on the Epic. I believe the RED shots were almost all single camera, though my memory is hazy if there were a few two-camera setups

  9. Hi Evan thanks so much for posting this!

    -At what resolution did you guys shoot on the RED epic?

    -Wouldn’t shooting in 4K+ hold up for IMAX theaters pretty much like 65/8 ?

    -Or isn’t there a camera with a high-res enough sensor that would’ve let you shoot the whole thing digitally and then just crop/pan for formats? (Thinking about whatever the camera was they used on “Born to Be Wild”)

    -If so why ever film and not all digital?

    -Any idea at what resolution the visual effects were done or where I can read about that?

    Just saw it for a second time this weekend and the only reason was for all that *stunning* footage. THANKS!

  10. Jason,

    We shot 5k for full aperture formats, and 3k anamorphic for scope material since that’s the maximum anamorphic resolution on the Epic. Shooting 5K does hold up in IMAX theaters, though optically printed 65/8 and especially 65/15 still easily beat out any digital format in terms of quality. I imagine you’ll see digitally acquired and projected IMAX maybe within a few years, but at the moment the thing that prevents you from shooting entirely on RED, filming out to 15-perf and screening it in an IMAX theater is the IMAX company itself. It’s their brand and their system, so if you want to release a movie in IMAX you have to do it their way, and right now I doubt they would release an IMAX movie where the IMAX sections weren’t mostly shot on 65mm film. Additionally, if you wanted to bypass them and screen on your own, you would run into the problem that there are no 4k projectors capable of natively projecting an IMAX aspect ratio. Most commercial projectors have a native aspect ratio of 1.9, which is why IMAX Digital is in that format also. And to answer your last question, the VFX were done at 4k for IMAX and 2k for scope, but I don’t know if anyone’s written any articles about that process yet


  11. Hi Evan! Nice article! Thanks for sharing your experience. A question regarding 35mm to IMAX 70mm release print.
    The DPX files from scanned 35mm negative was then film out in IMAX 70mm with a 2.35 ratio letterbox? Or how IMAX mix 2.35/35mm & 65mm footage in a 70mm release print? Thanks!

  12. Hi Sarah-

    That’s exactly right, the 2.35 aspect ratio footage was letterboxed in IMAX theaters. We then did a kind of neat thing that I hadn’t seen anyone else do, which was to animate the letterbox away when it was time to switch to IMAX footage. So in the most recognizable shot from the movie where Ethan first steps out of the window of the Burj Khalifa, the letterbox actually “opens up” in sync with Ethan, and we’re completely in IMAX by the time the camera is over his head looking at the ground way down below.


  13. hi.
    Imax is the coolest looking thing.
    Im just curious, why did you need the red for “dot pick ups”? Is that something for motion tracking? The film stuff looks so good. I hope you make more imax for us. Its the best.

  14. Hi.
    I love the film choice. I’m so glad you used Imax. Who was responsible for the format decisions and did you purposely use lower
    resolution of the Red to emphasize the massive resolutions of the Imax and 35mm shots?

  15. To answer both your comments, I think the RED camera was used because it was cheaper than shooting film and no one would be able to tell the difference if a RED shot was stuck in the middle of a bunch of film shots. The RED isn’t lower resolution, it just has a different texture to it, but we spent time adjusting that texture to match as closely to the film shots as possible.

  16. Oh, so it’s a texture thing, that makes sense.
    Forgive me, I thought the vision 3 35mm has approx. 6000 lines, I didn’t know the Red could do that. I thought Red was only 4k? Anyway it looks great.
    Thanks for replying.
    I love that you’re doing this.

  17. Sorry for the mix up, I talked to a Kodak rep and I learned that film doesn’t really have lines of resolution but rather circles of overlapping tiny bits as opposed to squares of data in a line. I think I get it. Anyway,
    What part of the movie was your favorite part to edit?
    How long is your work day?
    I could go on all day but I’ll stop.
    Thanks Evan

  18. Film has no set resolution, you can scan it at as high of a resolution as your scanner allows, but then other considerations come into play such as managing the increasing file sizes of those higher-res frames as well as whether or not the software you use to finish the film can handle a super high-res scan. For years most 35mm films have been scanned and finished at 2048×1556 because of the capabilities of finishing software to handle 2k file sizes in real-time and because 2k resolution is more than adequate for your average filmgoer not to notice any visual artifacts. Also, when you consider visual effects, the higher the resolution image you scan the more pixels you have to work on for each frame of a visual effects shot. That drives up the cost for what may be an ultimately unnoticeable benefit, so working in 2k can save you money over higher resolutions.

    Now, with advances in computing, cheaper/faster storage, projection, etc., we’re getting into an era where films are scanning and finishing at 4k (4096×3112), though it’s still rare to go to a theater that can project a 4k image, so even if a film is finished at 4k the theater will receive a 2k copy of it. For the IMAX footage in MI4, however, scanning at 4k only would do a disservice to the effort taken to shoot part of the movie on a 65mm negative, so all of the IMAX shots were scanned at 8k or 11k and then immediately downsampled to 4k. This allowed us to still work with 4k frames (since the DI process can’t handle anything over 4k in real-time), but those 4k images are sharper and more detailed having been downsampled than they would be if they were just scanned straight at 4k.


  19. You rock sir.

  20. Hi Evan-
    Great article!
    You mention that IMAX material was tracked in the Auxiliary Ink column, but that you may have been able to use the KN Start column? I’m up against the exact same issue now- on a 35mm show, we have a portion of the film shot on IMAX- a mix of 15p and 8p. We are receiving the 65mm15p material from Fotokem now, and we used the Aux Ink column for keynumbers. I would love to use KN Start instead because it will make finishing as well as scanning for VFX easier. The problem I am running into is that the KN Film column is not modifiable, and so I would need Fotokem to work in an Avid project of a different format than our own. Did you run into this at all?

  21. hey Jenn-

    Just got your email, will reply to that separately. I just wanted to point out here that the KN Film column is modifiable when you first copy data into it. So if your 65mm keycode is in the AuxInk column and there’s just junk keycode in the KN Start column, clear out all the values in KN Start and then duplicate AuxInk into KN Start. When you do that it will let you set a KN Film type


  22. Hi Evan.
    I’m having trouble finding the right software for editing and vfx.
    Would you mind telling what software to use besides Avid and After effects?
    Please and thankyou.

  23. What resolution did you guys do the film-out for the 15/70 IMAX release?

  24. 4k filmout from an 11k scan for 65/15 or an 8k scan for 65/8 OCN.

  25. Hey Evan! I’m a big fan of the IMAX film format, and this article was really interesting to read through. (I had no idea IMAX movies could be shot on anything other than 15-perf 65! I suppose it makes sense to use 8-perf to save film, but I had always thought it was 15 or nothin’.)

    My question is, you mention that “The 65mm format exists outside of what the IMAX corporation does for you, but they pretty much have the lock on large format theaters and if you want to release a movie shot on 65mm then you have to go through them.”

    What, if any, technical mandates or guidelines did IMAX have for recording the 65mm footage? Or, could you please tell me anything about the working relationship with IMAX that was interesting or unique? I’d love to make a film one day that uses IMAX cameras and plays in their theaters.



  26. Things have changed a little bit since 2011 when we did M:I-4, and of course there are not many IMAX film capable theaters left. Now you tend to see more films in IMAX theaters that don’t make use of the expanded aspect ratio, but at the time it was more or less required to have some larger format content in your film in order to show in an IMAX theater.