You've probably seen the new phenomenon with your own eyes: A cineplex IMAX that doesn't have the monster screen you grew up with in science-museum IMAX theaters. Here's the what, the how and the why.
Just last night, comedian Aziz Ansari (from Parks and Recreation) published this piece describing the conspiracy of paying an extra $5 to see an "IMAX" movie that really wasn't much bigger than a normal screen.
I actually visited IMAX HQ a few weeks back, and a major point of discussion was the retrofitting process so lovingly described by Aziz. Basically, IMAX used to build their own massive theaters in their own buildings. But now, in order to expand, the company has made a deals with major theater chains like AMC in which they'll provide and install their proprietary mix of projectors, screens, speakers and hardware if the theater will foot the bill for the necessary structural renovations.
This plan, for better or worse, is IMAX's only current design for expansion in the US.
This conversion process, which has a patented geometry, includes installing a screen that's only slightly bigger (as little as 10 feet wider than before), but this screen is coupled with the removal of several rows of seats which allows it to be scooted roughly 30 feet closer to the audience, creating a sort of sitting too close the TV effect with a screen that, I was told, is perceived as 75 feet wider than before.
When the process was described to me, I thought it all sounded a bit hokey. But walking into IMAX's test multiplex, an otherwise typical AMC located in a Canada, I was shown a side-by-side of the same theater before and after the retrofitting process.
I will say, the new screen looked much bigger and far more imposing—"night and day" would make for a fair analogy. My mind wasn't mentally prepped for such a tangible difference, though I'd agree that it still fell short of, say, the unbelievable, multi-story beast of a screen that I watched Star Trek on several days later at a classic, standalone IMAX.
But the change I didn't expect (and I can't pretend to have perceived this tidbit up on my own) was a remarkable difference from acoustic paneling. Clapping in the original theater revealed a very live environment with a frightening amount of echo. The retrofit, however, absorbed the sound in a pleasant way, reminiscent of more than one acoustically-planned stage I performed on back in my band days.
There are other improvements as well, including a specifically non-THX-certified sound system, reaching up to 14,000W, that offers 117db of uncompressed digital sound without distortion. Engineers claimed that in a normal theater, the sweet spot for audio is in the dead center, and technicians make no effort to tend to those sitting in the back. Meanwhile, IMAX's system promised the same surround experience anywhere in the theater.
I tested that theory during a screening of some Rolling Stones at the Max footage by moving from the center of the theater to the back right corner. And there's absolutely no doubt, I lost a good deal of the side channels while the rear channel (in this case, it was the lead guitar, I believe), dominated the audio spectrum. I wouldn't have expected IMAX to have achieved the impossible unless, you know, they claimed that they had.
The other chief part of this retrofitting process is the new digital IMAX projector. Since its debut in the 70s, the Xenon-lamp-powered projector has stayed mostly unchanged. But with film prints reaching around $40,000 apiece, IMAX has embraced the digital revolution in their theaters (the cameras are still film with no plans mentioned to change that).
With the digital installations, films arrive on a standard hard drive, encrypted with DRM provisions that state just when a theater is authorized to play a film…errr…video.
Their projector is actually two, 2K Christie projectors that spit out the same image at the same time. A camera is positioned in between the projector lenses, tracking screen brightness in real time. An integrated server aggregates this and other data, adjusting both projectors for thermal shift, making sure the images don't change as they play. There are also a slew of other, top secret proprietary imaging adjustments going on at all times.
I know what you're thinking: Why didn't IMAX just use a 4K projector and save the hassle, especially with AMC announcing that all of their theaters would be equipped with 4K Sony projectors by 2012? IMAX does believe their projector offers a sub-pixel accuracy that, when combined with some extra imaging processing, looks better than Sony's 4K.
You can see imperfections in their digital projection system just like any digital system. The screen door effect, while minimized, can be noticed in bright spots of the image—if you're looking as closely and skeptically as I was. And you only need to move back in the theater to realize that the picture does appear sharper as you step away from the screen. In other words, it's not hitting some theoretical maximum perceived resolution…or even the best of what IMAX film can show. (As IMAX archives their own film into 8K and 12K prints, you can assume that the company feels the resolution of their product is much higher that their digital projectors may show).
The good news is that IMAX's digital projection system is "projector agnostic," meaning if a more suitable base projector comes around (be it 2K, 4K or higher), the realtime syncing and adjustment system can scale accordingly. In other words, when every AMC is stocked with 4K projectors in a few years, hopefully IMAX will be upping the ante as necessary by dual wielding 4K+ projectors instead.
So is this new IMAX, with smaller screens, with digital projection, still IMAX? Honestly, there are probably only a small handful of technicians—who aren't exactly sharing proprietary knowledge and decisions—capable of answering that question with complete scientific earnestness. To my eyes and my gut, it's more IMAX Lite or Normal Theater Enhanced—which makes sense, given that IMAX film has been estimated at a theoretical 18K resolution.
Is a retrofitted theater worth your extra $5? For the movies most likely to make it to the screen (big budget action), I think so...though maybe not for a family of four.
The price probably shouldn't be the same as a standalone IMAX theater, but I think that the point Ansari misses is that cineplexes are already benefiting from a pricing structure that makes viewers pay the same amount no matter what screen they see a movie on (how many times do beautiful art films get shunned to a broom closet of a theater while summer blockbusters are played on a plex's largest screen?). At minimum, the $5 IMAX premium ensures you see a movie on a screen that's better than the best AMC or whoever has in their building.
Personally, I hate to know that we will probably never see another 12,700sqft foot IMAX screen built (like that found in Mumbai), and that 70mm film projection is being traded for digital before digital is undeniable image perfection. But if the compromise is that more people will be seeing movies in theaters with bigger pictures and tighter quality control, then maybe it's a compromise worth making.
Look for lots more on our IMAX visit in the coming weeks.