Books & Film Technology

WhyMAX

You’d think I, a child of the 70MM Dolby era, would be a huge fan of IMAX, which yields images three times the size of 70MM screens and 10 times the size of conventional 35MM screens.  For those lovely space or underwater exploration flicks, sure, it can’t be beat.

The Super Size culture we live in makes IMAX screenings of event flicks like Star Wars, Matrix Reloaded, Batman, Harry Potter seem like a natural progression.  The problem, as with wretched excesses of french fries and Coke, is that there’s nothing you can do with all the extra stuff but throw it away.  I don’t go to the movies to get <span style=”font-style:italic;”>some</span> or <span style=”font-style:italic;”>most</span> of what I’m seeing.  I endure the torture of the modern monsterplex by seeing everything the filmmaker put up there for me to see.  What, otherwise, is the point?

I’ll admit that the opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith was spectacular on IMAX, but you know what?  It was spectacular on a 35MM screen.  And on the smaller screen, I was better able to figure out what was going on.  I didn’t have to scan and parse at the 35MM level because the film had been shot with cameras tuned to a specific ratio, a ratio that IMAX, by definition, distorts.  Champions of IMAX cite the extension of an image beyond peripheral vision as a positive thing (you’re “right in the action”).  To follow that theme-park line of reasoning, you’re actually closer to “the action” if you watch the movie on a PSP while holding it up to your nose.

IMAX doesn’t lend itself to intimacy or closed spaces.  IMAX fuel-injects intimacy, which seems to defeat the purpose of a quiet moment, while closed spaces become cavernous, defeating any sense of the smallest effective difference.

Another problem with IMAX is its limited seating.  For the experience to work properly, seats must be arranged in a specific fashion, quite vertical in arrangement, which allows you to look up and down with ease.  That’s great when a movie is shot with special IMAX cameras that yield a huge square with as much depth as width.  Hollywood blockbusters are <span style=”font-style:italic;”>not</span> shot with such cameras because the vast majority of conventional screens are much wider than they are deep.

Let’s take <span style=”font-weight:bold;”><span style=”font-style:italic;”>The Goblet of Fire</span></span>.  The movie was shot with film cameras.  A copy of the master was provided to IMAX, where it digitized each 35MM frame using its proprietary DMR technology.  This digitization removes what only IMAX cameras and George Lucas’ digital cameras ignore naturally: film grain, which many cineastes (myself included) argue is the quality of a movie that heightens its artifice, make it seem dreamlike rather than oh so nightly-news real.  The digitization process includes a very intelligent sharpening tool, a multi-million-dollar version of the sharpening filter in Photoshop.  This supports IMAX’s voracious demands for clarity at massive resolutions.  The difference in screens and how they reflect light requires that colors be corrected.  In effect, you get a brand-spanking new digital interpretation of something the director had already interpreted to his satisfaction.  Money talks, the director shuts up.

I have yet to be blown away.  Isn’t that what IMAX is supposed to do?

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