Why We Need IMAX: A Pilgrimage to the Mothership

Illustration for article titled Why We Need IMAX: A Pilgrimage to the Mothership

In my lifetime, a cellphone will beam 20 megapixel images right into my brain while transmitting to a surround sound track that requires no speakers. But until that day comes, IMAX is our best bet.


Earlier this month, I stepped off a plane in Toronto, Canada, to make my way to a large suburban sprawl outside of the city called Mississauga. I was on my way to IMAX's production headquarters, where they do everything from upscaling 35mm movies like Star Trek for IMAX release to meticulously rebuilding IMAX cameras, one part at a time.

So why did I take this trip?

Atonement. After a century of refining motion picture techniques—alchemists perfecting ink-stamped celluloid, stunt coordinators and CG artists bending believability and producers raising enough capital for their projects that they could instead fund small armies—we spat in the industry's face. We told them we didn't care about their perfectionist principles, the quest for the perfect close-up or explosion or landscape. And we adopted VHS, YouTube…even jiggly handheld pirated DivX bookended by some lame pirate's splash screen.

For all the flaws in the Hollywood system, they figured out how to give us the biggest, most beautiful pictures that money and ingenuity can render. We figured out how to compress this image to fit in a small space to play on a small screen.

While consumers scraped the barrel and Hollywood fell into a comfortable (but effective) rhythm with their 35mm industry standard, a big fat dark horse approached documentary filmmakers, museums and planetariums. It was a flavor of 70mm film called IMAX. And for the last 40 years, the format has survived despite being expensive, proprietary and ridiculously difficult to share with the public.

IMAX is the anti-YouTube, a quality-obsessed celebration of overstimulation. The screen is too big, the speakers are too loud. Yet in 2009, it's the quintessential antibody to all those viral videos that fill our days, rotting our taste. That's why it survived—it had the guts to stake its turf knowing that it could continually wow an audience.

We saw it in the '80s in outer space, in the '90s with Everest and maybe a Rolling Stones concert, and later still, deep under the sea, with monsters in 3D. Then, last year, for 20 glorious minutes of the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan captured cityscapes in a way never before seen on film, a move that drove the public to buy $64.8 million in Dark Knight IMAX tickets alone.


IMAX continues to send cameras into remote locales on earth and up into orbit, where they just captured the Hubble repair in 3D. But they've also grown more aggressive at convincing Hollywood of their importance, upscaling 35mm films like Star Trek, and signing James Cameron's upcoming film Avatar for a purported 3-month run.

The typical standalone IMAX screen spans nearly 4,000 square feet while the largest have reached triple that figure. The IMAX film frame itself is nine times larger than Academy 35mm, equating a digital resolution of about 18K. (You've never heard of 18K? After 1080P comes 2K, then 4K...you can figure out the rest from there.)


And we haven't even approached the subject of sound—6 channels of uncompressed audio, none of that Dolby Digital compressed crap you get on DVDs—or what the implications of this setup are for 3D (quite simple, bigger images can get closer to your face on a bigger screen that takes up more of your range of view).

Even the modified IMAX-branded multiplex theaters we discussed last week get the benefit of a larger picture and better sound, and a guaranteed quality movie-going experience, even though it's not the same as the one you get in a freestanding IMAX.


So just what is IMAX? Is it film? Is it theaters? Is it a bold logo? A corporate spokesperson said: "IMAX takes you to places that you normally can't go. We do that by the quality of the image and the quality of the sound and the relationship between the audience and the screen...It's that perfect quality combined with our theater geometry that removes the clues that you are watching a movie."


Our definition is a bit different. IMAX is a proprietary combination of filming, post processing and upscaling, and theater tech—some digital, some film. We've already given you the background on IMAX theaters and digital projection—the in-seat experience, so to speak. Now the mission is to fill in the rest: Where does this experience come from? The answer involves huge film, gloriously complicated cameras, meticulous post-processing techniques—the science of making your jaw agape.

If you think Lawrence of Arabia looks just as good on your iPhone as it does on a 70mm print, stop reading now. This article, and the rest of this visit, weren't intended for you. But if you routinely pay too much to see a movie in a theater because you find the experience unmatched by streaming HD, fancy plasmas and even Blu-ray, then you'll appreciate our attempts to offer you the biggest, loudest glimpse into IMAX technologies that we know how.


Maybe Wally Pfister, the DP on The Dark Knight said it best when describing IMAX to Wired: "It's more of a visceral thing," he said. "You can see something way off on the horizon…a little glint of light, a reflection in Batman's eye."

Gizmodo Goes to IMAX is about celebrating that reflection. It's film's last stand in a digital world. And IMAX is putting up a serious fight.


Read more from Gizmodo Goes to IMAX


Do you suppose that, much like THX, they eventually they will succumb to the desire to make even more money and start endorsing products for home systems? Maybe IMAX could license "i" products to a major technology vendor of some kind and they could have MP3 players and phones and music programs that use it?

I agree that IMAX is an "experience", although I have to admit that at my age the experience becomes less exciting every year. As my father would say if he knew how, "why go IMAX when I barely have NTSC eyes?"