IMAX Movies: The Inside Story
In the year 2008, IMAX theatres, which were as low as one or two in number in most countries until then, started popping up in all the major cineplexes and malls across the world. It was associated with the ultimate movie-going experience, with supposedly jaw-dropping visual quality, gigantic screens, and real surround audio - “the world’s most immersive movie experience”, as the IMAX Corporation markets itself. The tickets for an IMAX movie are usually twice or even thrice the regular prices - but that did not stop theatres from selling out seats - especially during major action/adventure and superhero movie releases during the summer and holiday seasons. The boom in torrents and peer-to-peer movie sharing plateaued, and suddenly the demise of the “movie theatre” (as people predicted) was no longer a concern. More people wanted to watch a movie the way it was meant to be watched - on a large screen, with booming audio, munching on popcorn with friends and family.
All were aboard the “IMAX” hype train, but is IMAX actually as good as people say it is? Is it worth the hype? Is it worth paying twice the normal rates? Read on to find out:
“IMAX” BRANDED MOVIES: THE REALITY:
In the past five years, all popular superhero or action movies are always released on IMAX screens. Let’s do some fact-checking:
Most movies that are released on IMAX screens are not shot on IMAX cameras or IMAX films. They may be shot on traditional 35mm film or digitally, and then remastered or converted later into IMAX format. Some recent examples include Spiderman: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, Kong: Skull Island, and so on.
The remaining movies which were shot on IMAX cameras, typically are not shot completely on such systems. Only parts of the movie such as action sequences, aerial shots, and other important segments are shot on IMAX cameras. For example: 1. Dunkirk (79 minutes - IMAX film cameras) 2. Batman: The Dark Knight Rises (72 minutes - IMAX film cameras) 3. Interstellar (66 minutes) 4. Transformers: The Last Knight (Almost entirely shot of IMAX digital 3D cameras) 5. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (25 minutes - IMAX film cameras) In addition to feature films, IMAX is a popular format for documentary films shown in science museums and planetariums - such as “A Beautiful Planet” and “Hubble 3D”.
So not only are most IMAX movies not true IMAX films, the true IMAX films have less than half of their runtime shot on IMAX cameras!
THE REAL “IMAX EXPERIENCE”:
The real IMAX theatres are gigantic, with a typical screen size of 72 x 52 ft (for comparison, traditional movie screens are 42 x 19 ft). The screen is more square than the wide rectangular screen in regular cinemas. Also, the screen would be slightly concave in geometry. The stadium-style seating with steeply inclined rows,
such that the viewer is as close as comfortably possible to the big screen. Multi-thousand-watt speakers and amplifiers all around the arena with intelligent acoustic monitoring immerse the audience in one of the most realistic soundscapes ever. Once the lights dim and the movie starts, the audience can look up, down, left and right and still find their eyes lost on the gargantuan screen. Every thump, crash, and heartbeat in the movie is not just heard but felt. At the end of the presentation, one would say they didn’t just go for a movie, rather, they were actually in the movie. It is truly an experience like no other.
But not all IMAX theatres offer this same experience. Wait! What?! :/
LieMAX vs IMAX:
Out of the 1226 IMAX-certified screens across the world, less than 200 are the “true” IMAX screens that provide the “real IMAX” experience. Then why is it that we have so many IMAX screens everywhere?
In the mid-2000s, IMAX Corporation introduced the digital IMAX projection system, which was more easier to handle and portable. It did not use film as its projection material. Skilled work-force wasn’t required to operate the system, as it was computerised and modern. It also costs much less than traditional IMAX projection systems. In view of all these advantages, many more theatre chains and cineplexes could acquire this digital projection system. The people were also after the “ultimate movie experience” which was synonymous with IMAX.
How does this digital IMAX compare with the film IMAX screens? For instance, the digital system uses two 2K-resolution projectors (double of full HD, which is the standard on most laptops, smartphones, and televisions these days). On the other hand, 70 mm film IMAX is equivalent to a digital resolution of 12K (Holy shit!). You can do the math, and easily guess how much superior the image quality in such theatres would be!
Note that the seats aren't as close close to the screen or the rows aren't as steep. Also, the screen size is smaller and more rectangular in the above image of a digital IMAX auditorium. Now since digital IMAX bites the dust on comparison to its 70mm film counterparts, how do they stack up against traditional movie screens?
As you may have thought, digital IMAX screens are indeed larger than regular screens; but the difference isn’t very stark. They are typically 20-30% larger, but do not have the square-form screen of film IMAX, instead use a wide rectangular screen (1.90:1 or 2.00:1 aspect ratio) with black bars at the top and bottom like regular screens. Well, now if the audience looks up and down, they are no longer “immersed” in the visuals of the movie. This was adopted so that most existing multiplexes could convert their “regular” screens into IMAX-certified ones by simply removing some of the curtains at the edges and pasting some screen there, without having to construct a large hall and undergo higher expenses just for IMAX. Now, all IMAX screens have great audio, at least Dolby 7.1 Surround - while regular screens usually have a 5.1 Surround audio, which gives a richer audio immersion in either digital or film IMAX.
Digital IMAX screens also use 2K projection systems, while most cineplexes nowadays use digital 4K projection systems on their regular screens. So, going to most digital IMAX screens is the same as watching a lower quality (2K) movie on a slightly larger display! But because of all the hype surrounding IMAX, people who watch movies on digital IMAX screens tend to subconsciously convince themselves that it was the best experience ever (maybe the combined effect of a slightly larger screen and better audio with comfortable recliner seating), but objectively and technically speaking, the difference isn’t that much to start charging customers twice and thrice the price of regular movie tickets. But all the hype seems to be working very well for IMAX Corp. and the theatres, as IMAX screens are always packed for most movies. :P
Cinephiles across the world have come to realise this fact, and have termed digital IMAX as “LieMAX” for fooling movie-goers without providing the real IMAX experience.
What’s more sneaky is, IMAX Corp. nor the theatres mention anywhere whether the screen is a digital IMAX or a film IMAX - it’s all just branded as IMAX! Very cunning tactics indeed. The average movie-goer has no clue that they are being conned (to some extent).
THE FUTURE: IMAX with LASER
Since early 2013, “IMAX with LASER” branded screens have popped up in various locations. They are digital projection systems which combine the best of both 70mm film and digital IMAX projection systems. It would be as light, portable and efficient as digital IMAX systems, with computerised systems; and it would also use two 4K resolution projectors with laser light sources for better quality images. In technical terms, super-imposing two 4K images with a tiny pixel offset creates a higher perceived resolution of 6K-8K. In addition, they would be able to project onto the deeply immersive square-format screens (1.43:1 aspect ratio) that IMAX was popular for. Also, the screens can be as large as 100 ft (even larger than 70mm film IMAX screens!).
All of this sounds great, but there are very few Laser IMAX screens around the world - sadly, there’s zero in India; and there’s one in UAE. In India, currently, all the IMAX screens are digital IMAX, except the one in Gujarat Science City, Ahmedabad - which is the only 70mm film IMAX in the country. Unfortunately, It does not show feature films, and is reserved for science documentaries.
THE DECLINE OF FILM PROJECTION:
Why are an increasing number of theatres switching from film to digital projection systems (IMAX and non-IMAX)?
Size Comparison: IMAX (left/first) vs Red Dragon (right/second):
There are a lot of factors that go into this decline, the major one being most films are now shot on digital cameras such as Arri Alexa or Red Dragon. These systems are capable of resolutions up to 8K, while traditional 35mm film (Super35) is equivalent to 6K resolution. IMAX films offer a much higher resolution of 12K, but the cameras are very bulky and difficult to use. Such bulky expensive cameras cannot be placed in tight environments and risky locations for shooting scenes. The convenience and portability of digital cameras outweigh the gains in picture quality of 70mm film most of the time.
The film stock or film reel used in IMAX cameras can cost a few million dollars per movie! Compare this to the ability to store, erase, and reshoot scenes as much as the director wants on digital cameras, where the storage costs only run in a few thousand dollars. This difference can easily sway production companies and directors from shooting on 70mm IMAX film if budgets are constrained. Only film purists like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan pursue to shoot as much as possible on 70mm film.
Each film reel sent to theatres weighs as much as 300 kilograms! Usually, forklifts are used to lift up 70mm IMAX film reels. The film also undergoes some damage every time it is run through the projection systems and exposed to the atmosphere. It does not last as long as digital formats and requires a skilled workforce to operate the projection systems and the film reel throughout the runtime of the movie. This is an additional cost as compared to digital projection systems which are computerised and automated.
The decline is so drastic, that there is currently just one 70mm film IMAX theatre in Los Angeles - the home to Hollywood and the "movie capital" of the world. Even worse, it will be soon replaced by an IMAX with Laser system in the near future. Every passing year, the number of film productions decrease and just a handful of directors are brave enough (or resourceful enough) to shoot in film. This, combined with the higher costs of maintenance and operation would ultimately result in the extinction of film projection theatres.
Why are cinephiles so obsessed with film? Maybe it is because the digital movies are just too bright, too smooth, too sharp, and too perfect. Film projections have a fine subtle grainy look, the tiny vibrations and flicker on-screen, and the depth and clarity unmatched by anything digital - it is imperfectly perfect. Film is as important to cinephiles as vinyl records are to the audiophile. It is hard to explain in words, but if you get a chance to watch a movie in an actual 70mm film theatre, please do! The experience transcends anything digital. Maybe these differences won’t matter to the millennials or the generations to come, who have grown up to perfect-looking digital screens all their life.
CONCLUSION: WHAT’S THE BEST MOVIE EXPERIENCE?
By now, you would have a more honest and in-depth idea of the various types of projection systems and theatres. The best movie experience is one how the director wants the audience to watch it. If they shoot the movie partly with IMAX cameras, it is meant to be watched on IMAX. If it’s shot on film, it is meant to be watched on film. That way, the audience would see and feel exactly what the director wanted them to experience. But all movies are released on every format possible to garner more profit. Sometimes, movie distribution companies go against the director’s vision for more profits. For example, movies shot in 2D are converted to 3D later for release on more expensive 3D screens. Such converted 3D movies just don’t have the same experience as those which were actually shot on 3D cameras.
For 2D movies shot on IMAX cameras, a 70mm film IMAX screen is the ultimate experience, then a normal 70mm film screen, followed by IMAX with Laser screens. If there was a choice between digital IMAX and a regular theatre with Dolby Atmos or Dolby 7.1 Surround, you could choose the latter and have a similar experience, albeit on a slightly smaller screen. For 3D movies shot with digital IMAX 3D cameras, the above order holds good.
For non-IMAX movies, the optimal choice would be a Dolby Atmos or 7.1 Surround regular screen. By all means, feel free to watch the remastered or converted versions on larger IMAX screens for blown-up visuals, but there would be no gains in visual quality, and you’ll be greeted by thick black bars at the top and bottom since such movies were not actually shot on IMAX film. The immersion won’t be anywhere close to watching an IMAX movie. For non-IMAX 3D movies, you should prefer the superior Dolby 3D over RealD 3D.
Now, these are easy to say, but most people may not be able to choose the best or optimal viewing experience simply because of lack of properly equipped theatres and location constraints.
I’ve also been guilty of trying to watch every other movie possible on an IMAX screen (LieMAX :( ) and have wasted a ton of money on movies that weren’t even meant to be watched on such screens. Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance who works at a theatre and had this enlightening conversation about different screens and projection systems and so on. These businesses profit from the ignorance of people. I thought I should share this information with a larger audience so that they can make a more intelligent decision the next time they hit the theatres!
Do share this article with your friends too!
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Factual accuracy has been checked, and if you come across any conflicting facts or corrections, please let me know. As always, comments and constructive criticism on writing style and presentation are welcome.