Posted 5/22/09. Originally published
in LF Examiner, November 2008.
How immersive is IMAX?
An editorial by James
So is IMAX, as the company claims “the most
immersive experience in the world”?
In short, no.
Some IMAX theaters, notably IMAX Dome theaters,
are as immersive as any theatrical experience in the world, but there
are other film, digital, and planetarium systems in domes that match the
immersiveness of IMAX Dome. Some may not have the resolution of a 15/70
film frame, but that is not the only, or even the most important,
quality for immersiveness. For instance, the star field presented on a
large dome by a top quality electro-mechanical planetarium projector is
arguably more immersive — in the sense of creating the illusion of
reality — than any film or digital projector to date. Such systems
are, of course, limited to that one form of illusion, but that doesn’t
make them any less immersive.
On flat screens, classic giant-screen IMAX
theaters are more immersive than virtually any other film-based systems.
IMAX screens are the largest in the world, and the geometry of the
theaters was carefully designed to provide optimal viewing angles to
maintain the illusion of “being there.” The largest conventional
cinemas, including a handful of former Cinerama theaters still in
existence, have screens that match or exceed the screen size of smaller
classic IMAX theaters. But regular movie theaters have generally not
been designed for immersiveness as much as for maximizing seat counts.
And this is the flaw of attempting to put IMAX
into a regular movie theater.
Corporation co-CEO Richard Gelfond told the Giant
Screen Cinema Association in September that many factors besides
screen size go into making the IMAX Experience: “It’s the sound,
it’s the raking of the seats, it’s the color, it’s the content,
it’s David Keighley’s post-production on the material, it’s
the way the images are captured, it’s the way they’re projected,
it’s the sound system, it’s the sum of all parts.” He is
absolutely right about this, and when Imax controlled all aspects of the
presentation, including theater design, screen size was not as important
a factor. The IMAX Experience was just about as effective on a
45x60-foot (14x18-meter) SR screen as it was on the giant 97x117-foot
(30x36-meter) screen in
, the largest in the world.
But change too many factors and you inevitably
weaken the experience. With MPX and digital, Imax has given up its tall
aspect ratio and, in retrofitted multiplexes, the seating configuration
that put all seats closer to the screen, with a steeper rake than in
most conventional theaters. Add in a digital image that is noticeably
lower in resolution than even good 35mm, and what is left does not
compare favorably with the original.
Gelfond said that Imax’s president of film, Greg
Foster, had labelled IMAX’s mix of factors its “special
sauce.” With the IMAX digital system, the special sauce has been
diluted to plain ketchup.
On one episode of their cable TV program Bullshit!,
bad-boy magicians Penn
and Teller poked fun at the pretensions of fancy bottled waters by
offering patrons of an upscale restaurant a “water list” with florid
descriptions of the special flavors and qualities of each. When they let
the unsuspecting customers taste and compare the various beverages, all
in fancy bottles, most agreed that the different samples had
dramatically different tastes, scents, and feels. Of course, all the
bottles had been filled with tap water from the restaurant’s kitchen.
Every one of the IMAX digital complexes LFX visited
has an auditorium that is a virtual twin of the IMAX house,
pre-conversion. In those theaters, the screen may be a few feet smaller
(although some were actually wider) and the house may be 20 or 30 feet
deeper, because the screen has not been moved. Although the changes to
the IMAX house have increased the average field of view throughout the
seating area, it is a relatively subtle change that most customers would
be unlikely to notice.
Viewers who go to a theater to see an IMAX
presentation, who pay an extra $3.00 or more for an IMAX ticket, who
walk into an auditorium with a big IMAX sign outside, and who then enjoy
the movie they saw, may feel that they have had The IMAX Experience.
Especially if they have never been to a real, giant-screen IMAX theater,
or at least not recently.
But if you were to walk them across the hall, to
a house with a screen nearly as large, showing the same film in 35mm
(with perhaps a slightly dimmer picture) and ask, “Was it worth an
extra $3.00?” I suspect that many, perhaps even most, would say no.
However, this is the kind of question that opinion research companies
Let’s imagine that, in addition to all its
other products, BMW also made the fastest car in the world, a
high-powered, rare, and expensive machine whose performance was
unmatched by any other vehicle. Could they advertise BMWs as “the
fastest cars in the world”? Technically, yes. Would it make sense to
try to market the 3-series cars, the least powerful in their line, that
way? Of course not. It would be a lie.
As I said elsewhere,
as long as Imax claims, explicitly or implicitly, that the IMAX digital
system in a multiplex is the same experience as the 15/70 system in a
purpose-built theater, it is attempting to deceive the ticket-buying
public. If, as many of the institutional operators are urging, the
company were to indicate with some form of brand differentiation that
the multiplex experience has certain qualities of classic IMAX, but is
different, it would preserve the value of the brand while continuing to
expand its market.