Thursday, April 30, 2009

Not All IMAX Screens Are Created Equal

Michael here. Tonight I attended one of the 20 special screenings of the first Transformers movie and new Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen trailer at The Bridge IMAX in Los Angeles. We got a special visit from Michael Bay, Shia LaBeouf, and Tyrese Gibson, who introduced the clip and whipped the already primed audience into a frenzy.  Bay said that he has just shot the last bits of the film.  Anyway, for those of you who haven't already seen shoddy cam versions of the trailer, it should be online tomorrow in HD.

Needless to say, the trailer, which was played three times to raucous applause (twice before the movie, and once after the credits), looked amazing on the IMAX screen, as did Transformers itself.

But this leads me to my main problem with IMAX: namely, that depending on at which particular IMAX theater you see a movie, you either get an amazingly immersive, eye-popping experience, or something that looks dreadfully bad - much worse than 35mm or 2K sourced footage projected with a standard 2K projector.

Some background on the different types of IMAX theaters and the various types of films that are capable of being shown in these venues:

1. The highest quality IMAX experience is that of footage shot on IMAX cameras using IMAX film (69.6 mm by 48.5 mm) being run through a special IMAX projector onto the large, tall IMAX screen.  For example, The Dark Knight has multiple scenes shot and projected in what I like to call "true IMAX,", as will Revenge of the Fallen.  As for "true IMAX 3D", some IMAX 3D documentaries are filmed and projected this way, but as of yet no major hollywood film has been completely shot and projected in true 70mm IMAX 3D.

2. The second highest quality IMAX experience is that of footage - either 35mm or digital 2k/1080p - being "blown up" using a proprietary process that IMAX refers to as DMR (Digital Remastering), which employs digital methods to reduce film grain/pixelization, and then prints the result onto IMAX film stock.  This was the way I saw Transformers tonight.  Watching a 2k/1080p or 35mm film "blown up" to IMAX stock in this way is definitely more impressive than watching it in a regular 35mm or digital projection theater, but it is still quite a bit below the level of detail and clarity of watching something like those specially shot scenes from The Dark Knight, the super high resolution of which (along with my close proximity to the giant screen) made me believe I was looking through a crystal clear window into another world.

3. Here is what you absolutely have to avoid: IMAX digital.  This process is simply two stacked 2k projectors.  I saw Watchmen in an IMAX digital theater, and the image quality was dreadful: incredibly pixelated and with a ton of digital artifacts.  The main reason for this low quality? The fact that IMAX digital is essentially a 1080p image digitally projected onto a huge screen which you will be sitting relatively close to.  Try sitting less than one image height away from your 1080p TV, and you will see the pixels.  IMAX digital looks even worse than that.

Moral of the story?  Although I understand IMAX's financial motivations for getting their brand into as many theaters as possible, IMAX needs to go back to offering the highest possible quality of viewing if they wish to retain their reputation as a premium experience.  I am disappointed that they are lowering their standards in this manner.  "True" IMAX theaters are an incredible experience whether showing a film shot on IMAX stock, or even a DMR blowup printed onto IMAX film.  And, of course, IMAX 3D is the best 3D you can get - as long as it is projected from real IMAX film stock.

But I urge you to stay away from IMAX digital until IMAX at the very least acquires 4k projectors for these theaters.  Seeing giant, blocky pixels isn't pleasant.  Give your IMAX theater a call before deciding on which IMAX screen to see your next movie.

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Jim Dorey
jim (at) marketsaw (dot) com

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