The Future Of IMAX 15/70mm Theaters

Brian Dobbs

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I had an email discussion with Dean Fick, Theater Technical Manager of the Washington, D.C. Smithsonian IMAX Theaters and Planetarium.

Here's what I learned, at least as it relates to the 3 D.C. area 15/70mm film-based IMAX projection theaters.
  • A laser-illuminated digital projection system will be installed in tandem with the film-based system. They are to be used interchangeably.
  • The new digital projectors will be 4K and 3D capable, using two interlaced projectors.
  • The new digital projectors will be "as bright or brighter" than the film projectors, and are able to exceed the contrast ratio of film.
  • IMAX film aspect ratio to be preserved with new digital projectors
  • New screens will be installed. Floor to ceiling intact.
  • New IMAX sound system to be installed when screens are replaced. Similar to Dolby Atmos.
He assured me I would not be able to see any pixels from "any paying seat," like I sometimes do at my multiplex.

We can expect these changes to come around 2015, after IMAX has fully developed the system. They've allotted 50 million dollars for development.

Sounds promising.

If they can retain the film quality, might this allow more films to be shot in the native IMAX aspect ratio ala TDK, TDKR and STID?
 

Bobby Henderson

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I'm not going to get up my hopes too high.

Regarding the claim: "not being able to see any pixels from any paying seat": take a 70' wide cinema screen, throw a 4K image onto it: A 4096 X 2160 image will have a resolution of 4.87 pixels per inch. If the image is home theater 4K (3840 X 2160) then it comes out to 4.57 pixels per inch. 4K resolution (showing native 4K produced material) will be a huge improvement over 2K. But it won't be immune from viewers seeing flaws, such as the pixel grid, from the nearest rows, especially if great projection lenses are used and they are focused properly.

I've been to a few IMAX Digital theaters and found the 2K projection to be pretty underwhelming. It's not so bad on a modest sized multiplex theater size screen, but it's pretty awful on a giant sized screen originally made for 15-perf 70mm projection.

4K is generally seen as an acceptable standard to replace 4-perf 35mm film prints (particularly if the color bandwidth is deep enough). 4K isn't equal to any 70mm film format, much less 15-perf 70mm. Unfortunately, film is dying as so many people worship the "digital" buzzword. Once film negative and print production dies off we'll be stuck with whatever electronic replacement is available. And it will be a step down from the best of what analog could deliver.

IMAX definitely needs to do something with the sound systems used in IMAX branded theaters. I can't stand the surround speaker setups in those auditoriums. A pair of speakers in the upper rear corners of the room might work well in someone's home, but it's not acceptable in a movie theater. IMHO, IMAX needs to work out a deal with Dolby and put Atmos in its IMAX Digital theaters. Atmos is a pretty revolutionary sound format. Dolby has been getting Atmos installed in the most important post production facilities in the world. Atmos is becoming a creative part of the movie-making process.

With digital technology IMAX is really out of the creative loop. How is anyone going to shoot a movie in IMAX using video cameras? IMAX doesn't have a specific sound format that can be used in movie post production. Dolby already has an object oriented format with Atmos and is rapidly getting it embedded in the movie making infrastructure. Barco has the next runner up with Auro 3D 11.1 (which isn't really a full 11.1 audio format, but it's more than straight 5.1 or 7.1). Those two "next-gen" formats are being supported in some part. Is there really room for something else? Does IMAX expect to muscle Dolby and Barco out of post production suites when they got there first?

IMAX has been rapidly growing its brand among multiplex theaters over the past few years, but I think it's all been something of a brand worship mirage. I think the company has been setting itself up in the same way THX did back in the late 1990s. Go for the fast buck, but cheapen out the brand so much that the people who really know the details stop caring about it.

I loved IMAX when it was all about 15-perf 70mm giant format film and screens the size of several storey tall buildings. Now, when I see an IMAX logo stuck on the side of an ordinary multiplex theater, with its biggest screen being fairly modest in size and projector resolution not much better than the HDTV screen in my home, it makes me sick. But I guess you gotta do what you have to do to stay in business.
 

Brian Dobbs

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Hey Bobby, I actually share the same feelings. I think you have a well-written response to the details I posted.

I think I still remain skeptical towards the pixel visibility issue.
Bobby Henderson said:
How is anyone going to shoot a movie in IMAX using video cameras?
I think I remember seeing an article recently about how IMAX is developing a digital camera. I do not know for sure, but suspect they will be phasing out film perhaps?

What will Christopher Nolan do?

FWIW, at least my contact didn't say they are getting rid of the film projection system.
 

Bobby Henderson

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The thing really endangering the 15-perf 70mm projectors is companies like Kodak making a rapidly declining number of film prints. That's making the cost of film prints rise to impractical levels.

So many first run movie theaters have converted to digital projection that there's just not enough demand to make film prints at the scale of production where they run $1000 to $3000 per print. Now a 35mm print costs a lot more. An IMAX 15/70 print costs several times what 4/35 costs. Double that cost if the movie is in 3D.

One recent development: a lot of movie theaters that specialize in showing repertory shows are no longer able to book 35mm film prints unless they have some kind of special arrangement with the movie studios. The older "catalog" titles are only available on Digital Cinema Package (Motion JPEG 2000 on hard disc). Even if the theater is a prestigious venue with a long history of treating film prints with the utmost of care and "film done right" presentation quality standards that theater's operator is more and more likely to be told "no" when asking for a film print. The existing film prints are becoming irreplaceable.

Once Kodak shuts down film manufacturing lines that's pretty much going to spell the end for movies shot on film and movies projected on film. Every movie will be shot using some type of video camera after that. Studios sure won't be loaning out film prints, be they 35mm or 70mm, to any theater out of interest of protecting those prints from the risk of damage. About the only way anyone is going to see a movie projected on film after that point is if they see a print from a private collection in a non-commercial (private) screening room. And that collector will be putting that valuable print at some risk when showing it.

This is something for people to keep in mind when movies like Interstellar are released next year. I very much plan on seeing that in a film-based IMAX theater.
 

Brian Dobbs

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Bobby Henderson said:
This is something for people to keep in mind when movies like Interstellar are released next year. I very much plan on seeing that in a film-based IMAX theater.
Me too. Good thing we have Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister on our side. Looks like Transcendence is shooting on 35 mm anamorphic. Not IMAX, but it's Pfister's first time directing.
 

Worth

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Bobby Henderson said:
4K is generally seen as an acceptable standard to replace 4-perf 35mm film prints (particularly if the color bandwidth is deep enough). 4K isn't equal to any 70mm film format, much less 15-perf 70mm. Unfortunately, film is dying as so many people worship the "digital" buzzword. Once film negative and print production dies off we'll be stuck with whatever electronic replacement is available. And it will be a step down from the best of what analog could deliver.
There may be 4K of information stored on a 35mm negative, but you're not seeing anything close to 4K on an actual 35mm release print. There was a study on this a few years ago that found real-world 35mm projection typically was somewhere in the 720p range.

http://www.cst.fr/IMG/pdf/35mm_resolution_english.pdf

Apparently, even 70mm IMAX can't crack 4K once the optics of projection are accounted for:

http://library.creativecow.net/galt_john/John_Galt_2K_4K_Truth_About_Pixels/1
4K, IMAX AND FRAME RATES
The 4K system that most people know is IMAX -- and it doesn't quite make 4K, which is a surprise to people. "How can that possibly be?," you say. "It's an enormous big frame." Well, because of what I was talking about earlier: the physics of optics. When you take the entire system into account - from the lens of the camera, to the the movement of the light through the projector, all slightly reducing resolution -- you wind up with less than the full resolution you started with.
A number of years ago some IMAX engineers - and I don't think IMAX ever let these guys out of their lab again -- did this wonderfully elegant experiment at the Large Film Format Seminar at Universal Studios Imax theatre. They showed this film they made that began with 2 rows of 2 squares: black white, white black, as if you had 4 pixels on the screen.
Then they started to double and double and double the squares. Before they got to 4K the screen was gray. Do you know what the means? There was no longer any difference between black and white, which is what allows you to see sharpness. It's the contrast that we see, not the actual information. Technically, the MTF (Modulation Transfer Function) was zero at 4K!
Let's just pretend for a moment that IMAX truly is 4K. You watch IMAX at between one and one and a half picture heights from the screen. But in order to get to appreciate 4K on a regular movie screen, you would have to sit much closer than normal. In other words, when you go to a movie theater, and most of the modern theaters with stadium seating are designed so that the middle of the theater is 2 ½ to 3 picture heights from the screen, for most of us who watch movies, that's pretty where we want to be sitting. Maybe just a little bit closer from some of us who do this for a living, because we're maybe looking for artifacts or issues. If you sit much closer than 2 ½ picture heights, that's what you're seeing, artifacts, not movies!
So if you had true 4K resolution in your local theater, everybody would have to sitting in the first 6 rows. Otherwise they wouldn't see any extra detail. Their eyes wouldn't LET them see it. You know this intuitively from passing by these beautiful new monitors at trade shows. You find yourself getting absolutely as close as possible to see the detail, and to see if there are any visible artifacts. At normal viewing distances, you can't.
So the whole 2K 4K thing is a little bit of a red herring.
 

Bobby Henderson

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I've seen those studies before, as well as responses that question all the variables used to arrive at those numbers. There are numerous variables in a film projection setup that can affect image quality in ways that are good or bad.

35mm movie release film prints, made at high speed, certainly will not have all the detail of the original camera negative. But the claim it's no better than 720p HDTV is ridiculous. For a 35mm print to get that fuzzy I would be calling into question what processes were used to make the print. The Super35 process demands a very well maintained film reproduction setup and very high quality optics for the optical enlargement stage (converting a spherical photographed image into anamorphic 'scope). If things aren't right you're going to get soft image quality.

With so many film labs shutting down and/or shedding employees 35mm release print quality has been dropping in recent years. Most of the best employees already left to do other things.

Digital intermediates are another very important variable. If the movie was produced with a 2K digital intermediate as the final product there is little if any point at all in watching such a movie projected on any film format. Not 35mm. And especially not 15-perf 70mm IMAX. When it comes to IMAX I'm more of a purist. IMAX only means something to me when 15-perf 65mm originated content is involved. If the 15/70 image is a blow up from a video camera or 35mm I'm not very interested in it. I don't have a positive opinion of IMAX' current digital setup.

Another thing to pick apart in the whole "digital versus film" debate is just how much resolution the video cameras are capturing. The effect of the Bayer pattern grid on that electronic image can yield some nasty results (such as moire). Increased gain levels reduce the amount of detail captured, as does the levels of lossy video compression and color sub-sampling techniques. And we sure can't leave out the effect the lenses have on the image. A camera that says "4K" on the side of it may not be delivering anywhere near that, but its user may see those claims about IMAX not being 4K and believe he's shooting something higher in resolution than 15/65mm.
 

Brian Dobbs

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From a Smithsonian e-mail...

"Over the next few months the IMAX Theater at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center will be undergoing renovations to upgrade to the first major technological innovation since the advent of digital projection-the new laser digital projection system!

The IMAX GT (Grand Theater) Laser Digital Projection System is designed to replace IMAX film projection systems, which have long been the most advanced theater projection systems in use. 3D content will fill the six-story IMAX screen with stunning brightness, clarity, and contrast, and will also contain more brilliant colors than have been possible to date with any theater projection system.

Complementing the projection system will be a brand new, multi-channel and multi-dimensional sound system that will allow viewers to hear sounds at specific points in the theater space.

During this transition to the laser digital projection the Airbus IMAX Theater is expected to close towards the end of February with completion and re-opening slated for April. The Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater at the National Air and Space Museum and the Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater at the National Museum of Natural History will be fully operational during this time frame, see whats playing!"
 

Brian Dobbs

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More from the Smithsonian...

"The Airbus IMAX Theater at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is among the first theaters in the world to feature IMAX's new laser projection system. The dual 4K laser projection system with a 12 discrete channel sound system provides audiences with the sharpest, brightest, clearest, and most vivid digital images ever combined with a whole new level of immersive audio. The future of movie technology is here!"
 

Wayne_j

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The new system is already up and running at the TCL Chinese theater.
 

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