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Production > IMAX and The Dark Knight Rises Part Two: What IS IMAX?
mike | 6 Jul 2012 | 3,621 Views | 2 Likes | 0 Dislikes
IMAX and The Dark Knight Rises Part Two: What IS IMAX?
In the run-up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises and its record-setting hour-plus of IMAX footage, we decided to have a gander at what exactly it—IMAX, that is—is. Last week in the Film Lab we wrote about the genesis of the company and its emergence from Expo ’67 as a business intended to soothe various filmmaker’s frustrations with multiple-screen projector systems. To that end, IMAX secured two innovations quite quickly. Their first was a camera that exposed 65mm film horizontally resulting in a frame three times larger than the already huge negatives 70mm formats like Todd-AO could provide. Their second was a projector that was able to take 70mm prints of that footage and, using a rock-steady registration system and a super-bright bulb, project it on screens that were and are absolutely enormous. Big negative, big screen: IMAX.
That bedrock system and its attendant limitations actually put a whole bunch of dampers on the idea that IMAX could be a viable fiction feature film technology. The cameras are heavy and so loud that you can’t record sound at the same time, and the technology is expensive to rent. The film stock and prints are on a whole ‘nother planet of expensive, as well, and because of the sheer size and weight of prints, the IMAX projectors could only show movies under a couple hours long, or else the platter would fall over and punch a hole in the floor or something. As a result, IMAX was for a long time a curiosity, as perhaps befits a company whose technology was an outgrowth of weird artistic around-screwing at Expo ’67.
Still, though, IMAX—the technology that for years was more prevalent in museums and space-science centers than cineplexes—is everywhere, seemingly all of a sudden. And while it’s good (speaking as a movie fan) that powerful filmmakers like Brad Bird (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and Christopher Nolan (the Batmans) are insisting on incorporating giant-frame IMAX footage into their Hollywood movies (and showing them in giant-screen IMAX theatres), much of today’s IMAX isn’t really IMAX. Not in the way IMAX has always been, anyway. Here’s why.
As it turns out, installing theatres in museums and then showing short educational movies to students on film trips only gets you so far, which is not far. Waiting around for the occasional huge-budget blockbuster with 20 or 30 minutes of IMAX footage doesn’t get you much farther, either. Looking to grow their business beyond those constraints, IMAX in 2002 debuted their “DMR” (Digital Media Remastering) process. That year, “IMAX” versions of both 1995’s Apollo 13 and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones screened in real, big-screen IMAX theatres. To make that possible, the films (which originated on 35mm film and on HD 24p video, respectively) were turned into a digital intermediate and given over to IMAX for 3 months. Their resolution was boosted in-house enough that they could then be turned into 70mm prints to be exhibited IMAX-style.
The DMR process has had its detractors, certainly, but to be fair, it’s a difficult proposition and the process is hardly push-button automated, the way DVDs are up-scaled in a Blu-Ray player. Much of the DMR work is handled if not “by hand” then certainly “by eye”, with dozens of artists going over every frame of releases like the Matrix sequels, Watchmen and Iron Man 2, minimizing grain and other imperfections that disappear in a normal theatre but would glare on IMAX’s giant real estate. For the most part, such presentations are superior in image quality to the same films projected in 35mm (even if they were shot in 35mm), but they pale in comparison to “real” IMAX, images originated on 15/70 film. As early as 2004, artists like director and producer Frank Marshall were complaining that IMAX was tarnishing its own brand and muddying the water about what IMAX actually means:
For IMAX corp. though, it made sense. What theatres they had were suffering from a lack of real, non “20 laps in an F1 car” content, and they perhaps sensed with the arrival of the Star Wars prequels that the digital “revolution” was right around the corner. Which, unfortunately, was true enough. What complaints there were about DMR—that the films themselves had to be edited for length (giant platter, hole in the floor), that IMAX was confusing their own audience by labeling non-15/70 IMAX-shot films as IMAX films by playing them in IMAX theatres—were about to be dwarfed by IMAX corps. moves to take their brand even further.
In 2008 IMAX unveiled their digital projector system, which used two 2k-resolution projectors to out-brightenify their competitors’ single 2k digital projection systems. Theatres bought in en mass and installed the projectors in regular theatres retrofitted with screens about 20% bigger than normal, and stuck the word “IMAX” on the door, called it a day, and jacked ticket prices up.
Roger Ebert excerpted a letter from filmmaker Mike Williamson to IMAX corp. on his blog in 2009:
While 20% bigger is good, it’s a far cry from traditional IMAX screens, which can be 400% bigger or more. They’re not even the same shape, meaning that not only do movies look different depending on which IMAX-branded theatre you see them in, but for movies with scenes shot in 15/70 (like The Dark Knight Rises), there will be information on the print that will not make it onto the screen at non-traditional IMAX theatres because of the shape of the screen. It will literally be absent—you will not be getting the whole picture—an irony given IMAX’s origins as a tech company looking to meet the needs of filmmakers looking to project images beyond the boundaries of a traditionally-sized and shaped screen.
A mea culpa: I don’t run IMAX, I’m not beholden to a board of directors, I don’t have to turn R&D money into revenue or face going out of business. Filmmakers have been arguing that IMAX has been violating its own first principles and confusing consumers since they started projecting blown-up 35mm and 24p films in 2002, but even I know that waiting around for guys like Brad Bird and Christopher Nolan to show up is a losing proposition.
But I also know what IMAX is, and what IMAX isn’t. IMAX exists because they created a camera to shoot huge, enormously detailed images on huge pieces of film, and because they figured out how to project that image onto a screen the size of an apartment building. Bird and Nolan know this, that’s why they shoot 15/70 IMAX when they can. IMAX’s focus on digital and on projecting non-70mm films has muddied the water for consumers about what IMAX actually is, but seeing The Dark Knight Rises in an actual IMAX theatre will be a showcase for what the technology actually was and could do, and can do in the future. No matter what the sign on the door says, “the IMAX experience” isn’t IMAX. Neither is seeing Attack of the Clones in an IMAX theatre. Those are both neat, and cool, and better even than seeing movies in regular theatres, but IMAX didn’t come into being by bettering an experience by 20%. It was massive, huge, ballsy and as close to the perfect medium for displaying films as has ever been created. Everything since is a diminishment of that ideal. Does it matter? It does to some people, and it will to more and more if we can make sure that they know what IMAX is—Dark Knight Rises in a real IMAX theatre—and what it isn’t: