In an age where the studios make fewer, but significantly bigger, movies, we all know the sales pitch: This franchise film is so big, so expensive, so overloaded with VFX spectacle you need to see it on the big screen. This approach also creates an expanding market for premium theaters that promise, in exchange for a higher ticket price, an even more heightened experience with superior picture and sound. And when “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is released today, many will have the choice to spend $5 to $6 more to see it on one of the 403 IMAX theaters in the U.S.
Universal, like Disney with its Marvel and Star Wars films, decided years ago that the new “Jurassic” installment would be shot on IMAX. But in 2018, in the age of digital capture and projection, what does it actually mean to shoot and screen in IMAX, and how is the viewing experience different?
The Proprietary Theater
While the technology has changed, the constant in IMAX is its large floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screens. What makes IMAX unique is not its screen size, but where the viewer is seated in relationship to it.
“The whole secret is to try and get as much image around your peripheral vision so that you start to feel that you’re in the envelope of that story,” said Brian Bonnick, IMAX’s chief technology officer. “Most of our theaters are what we call ‘short throw’ theaters, meaning that the seating deck is much closer to the screen than you might find in other theaters.”
The actual dimensions, viewing angle, and pitch of the seats is, like most things IMAX, proprietary. And the construction and management of an IMAX screen, even in a large national chains like Regal or AMC, is something the technology company handles, while maintaining a financial stake in the success of their customized theaters through a revenue sharing agreement with theater owners.
“When we go into one of those theaters, we convert it and we have a piece of IP around this conversion,” said Bonnick. “So the first thing we do is we take the screen down and we move the screen closer to the audience and have it [fill] the full width and height of the envelope, or of the room.”
The idea is to make a 70-foot screen feel like a 90-foot screen, while creating the angle for the viewer’s eyes in which it’s not a strain to take in the visual information. It’s a process that often means eliminating the first couple of rows and changing the pitch of the seats.
Originally, to fill these large screens, IMAX films were shot on special 15-perf, 70mm film stock that was significantly larger and captured far more detail than even 5-perf 70mm film stock.
Nature or exploration documentaries were first to make use of IMAX cameras, but with “The Dark Knight” Christopher Nolan became the first director to use the large-format cameras for studio features. The cameras are cumbersome and loud, so even Nolan mixes them with other cameras: Thirty percent of “Dunkirk” was shot in regular 5-perf 70mm film. In most cases, filmmakers — like Damien Chazelle for his upcoming “First Man” and Patti Jenkins for “Wonder Woman 1984” — will only use them for “select scenes,” and only six non-Nolan Hollywood films have even used the large film stock.
Alexa 65 and DMR
The question then becomes: Does an image need to be shot on the large format IMAX film stock to be worth seeing in IMAX? To some degree that’s a matter of personal taste, but over the last five years the quality of an “up-res’d” image has improved significantly.
One factor has been IMAX’s partnership with ARRI on converting the Alexa 65 camera for IMAX, with proprietary hardware and software. The large format — the 65 refers to the camera’s sensor mirroring the size of 65mm frame of film — is now advertised by studios and the technology company itself as the “ALEXA IMAX” camera, which is why “Avengers: Infinity War” was billed as “the first film shot entirely with IMAX cameras.”
The Alexa 65 (“The Revenant,” “Rogue One”) was already a popular camera with cinematographers for non-IMAX films. While both ARRI and IMAX are bound by NDAs, conversations with IndieWire made clear that the alterations to the camera for IMAX are tied to creating digital files that are optimized for IMAX’s digital remastering process known as DMR.
The algorithm-based conversion software scans every pixel over multiple frames to determine not only what is an artifact that needs to eliminated, but how to best up-res each shot. DMR has been around for 10 years, but it has evolved and won many believers. For many, the turning point was when IMAX approached HBO about showing a “Game of Thrones” promo, and later episodes, in IMAX.
“There was a lot of discussion about, ‘Well, this is a show with very high-quality production values and lots of VFX, but everything was finished in HD, how would it hold up on the big IMAX screen?,'” said ARRI president President Glenn Kennel, who admits he was skeptical himself. “They put it through the DMR process and it looked stunning.”
Cinematographer Óscar Faura shot “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with the IMAX-compatible Alexa 65. Because of the time required by the DMR process, he had yet to finish color grading the film by time they needed to DI, so he sent individual reels and updated patches if parts changed. When he finally got to see the up-res at a private screening, he was delighted to see that the darkly-lit film held up even in its oversized format.
“I was very surprised in a positive way,” said Faura. “The transfer is very good, it’s amazing how the size changes, but the image’s [strength] is still there.”
Faura, in particular, was concerned about a scene in which the characters escape in a gyrosphere that rolls down a hill, off a cliff, and sinks into the water. The Alexa 65 was too big to be attached to the gyrosphere, and they had to rely on the smaller sensor of the ARRI Alexa Mini for the scene. On the IMAX screen, the transition between cameras was seamless.
Balancing the Aspect Ratio
The biggest concern for Faura and director J. A. Bayona in shooting with IMAX was deciding how to handle the film’s aspect ratio. Based on their experience with “A Monster Calls” they felt strongly that “Jurassic World” should be shot in scope, 2.40: 1 widescreen. At its largest, the IMAX aspect ratio is 1.43:1, which provides up to 40 percent more picture; a 1.9:1 aspect ratio (commonly used by Marvel) in IMAX provides up to 26 percent more picture than standard screens playing scope.
Working with CGI dinosaurs, Faura and Bayona didn’t want to compromise and frame the movie twice, so they went to Universal for permission to have only one 2.40:1 version of the film for both IMAX and standard theaters. The studio agreed, but it highlights the artistic challenge of IMAX for widescreen filmmakers.
As demonstrated with the “too dark” projecting debacles with Bradford Young’s low-light cinematography in “Solo,” all movies face the challenge of theaters that don’t meet basic standards. When a DCP must play in hundreds and thousands of wildly different theaters, possibly the biggest advantage of seeing a movie in IMAX — from camera to theater — is there is a clear standardization.
“The [IMAX theaters] are all acoustically treated scientifically to achieve a common reverberation,” said Bonnick. “The idea there is, if you go into IMAX theater A and listen to something, and then you go to IMAX theater B, the reverberation should be the same, and hence the playback should also sound the same.”
IMAX also has microphones and cameras permanently located in every theater, and every morning, the system goes through an autocalibration. Many chain theaters don’t adjust its xenon projector bulbs, which lose 10 percent of their luminosity every 100 hours, but IMAX adjusts its daily. If the problem is not something that can be adjusted or fixed remotely, a technician is there by the afternoon screenings.
The result is filmmakers in shooting and mastering their film for IMAX can sound mix and color grade for a palette that is not only richer and deeper, but they can be confident the theater itself will play the film as they intended. And in 2018, with the poor state of our theaters, that is everything.