Boiling Point: IMAXimum Confusion


I had scheduled myself to rant against a specific point about seeing movies in “IMAX” this week, but funny man Aziz Ansari changed all that after he felt he was ripped off at an “IMAX” Star Trek screening.  He then threw a little fit at the theater, asking for his $5 surcharge back.  It seems Aziz was suckered in by the “IMAX Experience,” a new phrase tossed around by IMAX (a corporation, Image Maximum) that leads viewers to believe they’re about to see a movie on a huge ass screen, when in actuality, that might not be true.  Firstly, I would like to say to Mr. Ansari – how much money are you making (or not making)that you, after just finishing a season of Parks and Recreation, felt the urge to ask for your $5 back?  That aside, I would like to say welcome to the IMAX con.

You see, my friends, IMAX is good at two things – recording amazingly detailed images and taking your money without cause.  Before I discuss how, let us first understand what IMAX and how ‘the experience’ differs.  IMAX is the name given to a film type that is 70mm wide, as opposed to the standard 35mm wide film that is used in most major motion pictures.  This larger film frame allows more information to be recorded in each frame, achieving a higher resolution and thus a cleaner, more detailed picture that can be projected at tremendous sizes and still be clear.  The conventional IMAX theater screen should measure 72 feet wide and 53 feet high.

The “IMAX Experience” or “IMAX digital” indicates a film that meets the IMAX corporations standards for picture and sound.  These theaters also project films that have undergone the DMR process of upconverting the image, a fancy way of saying the film has been Digitally Remastered to fit the new, bigger screen.  Here in lies the rub – the ‘bigger’ screen doesn’t have to be that much bigger.  A movie that has undergone the DMR process can be projected on the gigantic screens, but it can also just as easily be projected onto a series of screens that are smaller- about the same size as your average theater screen.  So you, as Aziz Ansari did, may pay a premium and only get to see your movie of chosen projected onto a slightly larger screen than you’re used to.  Hence the ripoff.

However, I can tell you this – IMAX is still ripping you off.  The IMAX format is based around a 70mm film strip.  Almost no movies are shot in IMAX.  Notably The Dark Knight filmed a few minutes in IMAX, but the majority of the film was shot in 35mm.  Now, despite 70mm being twice 35mm and perhaps leading you to assume that the picture and screen should merely be doubled, that’s not the cast.  You see, the IMAX aspect ratio is 1.43:1, which is much more square than your average theater screen.  The standard aspect ratio of 35mm film today is 2.4:1.  What does this mean?  Well it means when you shoot something in 35mm and blow it up, or “Digitally Remaster” it, you’re changing the aspect ratio.  You’re warping the way the film was shot.  You’re changing the frame.  Either that, or you’re not filling up the screen correctly.  To make this work, you either have to enlarge the 35mm to fill the screen and then selectively crop it or only enlarge the 35mm enough to fit the projection area as best it can, leaving some screen unused, or the third option – blow the image up and then stretch it.  The point is, there is no perfectly clean way to transfer a 35mm image up to IMAX format without compromising something.

imax-diagramsSure, there is definitely something to seeing a great summer blockbuster on the biggest screen possible, but file it away in your head that they’re cheating you.  If the film wasn’t recorded in IMAX, it’s not truly an IMAX presentation.  Why should you take a movie shot on 35mm film in an aspect ratio of 2.4:1 that is meant to projected from a 35mm projector at an aspect ratio of 2.4:1 and watch it in another format?  That’s almost like purposefully watching a full screen movie instead of a letter box one.  Maintain the original aspect ratio, maintain the original vision!  If there is a movie that has been filmed in IMAX, or had parts filmed in IMAX, then by all means check it out, but don’t go apeshit just yet, because that’s not the whole deal.  The Dark Knight had minutes of IMAX footage but hours of 35mm footage digitally remastered to fit a screen it was never meant to fit.  It is true that often times the picture will still look great and be impressive but I maintain you should see a film as it was meant to be projected.

If you have it in your mind to go see a movie at an IMAX theater, there are a few things you can do to make sure you get the most out of the experience.  First, make sure you’re going to a true IMAX theater and not getting into one of these bullshit tiny IMAX “experience” or “digital” theaters.  You can do this a few ways.  First, call the theater and ask.  Ask what the screen dimensions are.  If the screen isn’t close to 72×53, you’re in trouble.  Check out the theater or ask how its set up.  A theater designed to show IMAX films will have a very different theater set up.  It is beyond stadium seating – it is extreme stadium seating.  No seat should sit below the screen.  The angle of the seating rise should be extreme.  The headrest of the seat in front of you should be below your knee line.  Check out the information available on the film.  Some movies, such as 2009s Friday the 13th and Revenge of the Sith had 35mm prints projected in IMAX- without having been upconverted for the screen.

As you can see, something is rotten in the state of Canada – IMAX’s country of origin.  I’ve seen several flicks at IMAX theaters and for the most part, have been unimpressed.  Unless the image you’re seeing is a true IMAX image, I don’t really see the point.  Find yourself a good theater that has good sized regular screens and a good theater layout.  If you’re in Los Angeles, think of Arclight, which is just a great theater.  In the end, everyone is out to shank you for your money, so keep your eyes open.  Do your research.  Does your IMAX experience even meet the basest of IMAX experience guidelines?  Why pay more for an IMAX adventure that has a picture never meant to be presented on IMAX?  In the end, this is your decision on where you see movies and whether or not you let yourself get conned.  For now, filming entirely in IMAX is cost prohibitive and 35mm still looks as great as ever, so why change?  As for me, I’ll be sitting in a nice, clean theater that projects 35mm movies as they were meant to be seen as you all simmer past your boiling points at five lost dollars.

What do you think about the IMAX experience?  Is it worth it?

Robert Fure is many things: horror expert, ruggedly handsome man of the world, witty prose composer, and writer of his own biography page. Beneath the bravado is a scared little boy, ready to grow into an awesome man and make lies about a scared little boy inside of him. Wait a minute...

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