IMAX – an ‘immersive’ experience and Beyond

‘We cannot make our eyes better than they have been made, but the movie camera we can perfect forever’ - Dziga Vertov (1923)

With IMAX, everything literally seems to be bigger. Walking into an IMAX theatre, the first thing you’ll notice is that the screen is twice as big as your traditional cinema screen. Intimidating it may look, but make no mistake, whether you’re watching a 35mm film that has been digitally converted for IMAX screens (IMAX DMR), Prometheus, or watching a film with sequences shot with IMAX cameras, The Dark Knight Rises, the IMAX is the best movie going experience at this time and I believe that in time when this technology develops that it will be the future of filmmaking. Let me make something clear. When I use such a claim I am mainly referring to the shooting format of IMAX cameras and how it has the highest resolution in picture quality not necessarily because of the size of theatre screens. But of course I have other (deeper) reasons for my love for the IMAX experience and alas I have some explaining to do. Upon researching for this article (many thanks to both the official IMAX corporation and the tweeting universe for there help) many responded with just a simple word that described the IMAX – ‘Immersive’. Which brought up a great question: What do we mean exactly by immersive?

BFI IMAX, August 2nd 2008, 5:15pm, seat L24. My first IMAX experience was The Dark Knight – which is no surprise to people who know me. From the opening prologue to the Jokers last plan, I was absorbed into the world of the film. The picture quality and surround sound was outstanding. The excitement and wonder brought back feelings that I had first encountered when I experienced cinema at the age of 5 (Toy Story). This is one of beauties of having films like Raiders of The Lost Ark being re-released for IMAX DMR – audiences can re-experience the best that cinema has had to offer in a comfortable ‘spectacle’. For many people, IMAX is simply the expansion of the cinema screen so you don’t see the frame and we have a larger viewing experience. However there is so much more to it than that. IMAX brilliantly complements a film whether it is the production values or even the ideas that are being explored. This is the key meaning to what we mean by ‘immersive’. We bring our subconscious into the film world and become so immersed that we are part of the film world. In fact some audiences have become so immersed that they have even suffered vertigo and motion sickness. In other words – the bigger the perception, the bigger the meanings we can extract. This is a quality that 3D is currently missing out on. Wearing a pair of glasses (on top of another pair like I have too) and having the picture quality darkened is not a comfortable viewing experience. Despite on a few occasions being cleverly used, an example being Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, 3D is still a marketing device and does not enhance the films storytelling.

Essentially the idea to increase the size of the cinema ‘canvas’ has been going on since its existence. But it was in the early 1970s when a group of Canadian filmmakers attempted to create the first large screen film experience by synching nine projectors together. It was a success but they knew there had to be an easier way. So roll on forty years of developing and experimenting, we have over 20 IMAX cameras and 660 IMAX theatres in the world. With these cinematic upgrades come some challenges. Specifically the cameras are four to five times heavier than a conventional 35mm camera and they make too much noise meaning it’s problematic to shoot dialogue scenes. Thus why IMAX has been mainly used to shoot wildlife documentaries. The format for IMAX film is called 15/70. This means the film stock is 70mm high with 15 perforations per frame, which is ten times the size of 35mm film and takes longer to process due to its increased size. In addition this also means that the film stock costs four times more than usual. Hereby giving us the main reason why most Hollywood studios are favouring the IMAX projection more than the shooting format. Studios want to spend as little as possible on production costs – which makes sense. It is too much of a risk to shoot an entire film in the format knowing that it would cost too much and have some challenges along the way.

On the contrary we must not forget what Christopher Nolan’s last two Bat-films have achieved. When shooting The Dark Knight, the first feature film to use IMAX cameras, Wally Pfister (Director of Photography) realised early on that they couldn’t shoot handheld and they had to invent or develop the camera rigs to hold the IMAX cameras because as mentioned earlier, they are bigger and heavier than the standard 35mm cameras. Additionally the cameras can only hold three minutes a roll of IMAX film stock and it takes twenty minutes to reload the camera. The IMAX shooting format does sound complicated and it is. But that’s one of the beauties of film and filmmaking. Taking those challenges head on and finding new ways to make the technology happen and deliver something that completely changes our expectations of what the medium of film is capable of. Feeding off the success of The Dark Knight, Brad Bird utilises the format with Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol having 30 minutes of IMAX footage as well as Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which features 9 minutes of footage. The Dark Knight Rises is by far the stand out example of those challenges that have been met head on and the lessons have been indeed learnt from its predecessor and as a result we have a beautifully shot film with 72 minutes (a record) of the most exciting, sequences in the highest picture resolution quality.

The main reason why I love IMAX is because it keeps the spirit of film alive. At this time we are part of a digital age and many say that film is slowly becoming the old and possibly dead piece of filmmaking. Why? Because digital is cheaper and it has some of the same picture qualities as a 35mm film would have. Although the IMAX screens are being used to there full potential with films, the IMAX shooting format is still in its experimenting stages with Hollywood studios. But from what we have seen so far, the resolution of picture quality and the experience of IMAX films are truly incredible and the technology is still developing. As the recent example of the DMR IMAX shows, Raiders of the Lost Ark, IMAX captures and enhances the thrills of the movie going experience of the past, present and future. In the words of the IMAX corporation: “There’s only one IMAX, and once experienced there’s no going back”.

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