The IMAX Conondrum: Is it really worth it?

Posted on 14 May 2009 by Quaid

Yesterday I came across this blog.  It’s the ramblings of one Aziz Ansari.  He’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore.  The target of his disdain?  IMAX.

imax2See, apparently IMAX theaters have been shrinking for some time now.  What used to be a 76-foot-tall screen is now, in some multiplexes, only a 28-foot-tall screen.  Aziz argues that even though these theaters capture “the unparalleled sound and  picture quality of IMAX,” they are, by their very definition, not IMAX theaters.

I tend to agree.  What surprises me, though, is how long this “scam” has been going on.  

I remember when the IMAX screen came to my local multiplex.  It was years ago, and when I walked in, I was surprised.  This screen was only slightly larger than the other theaters in the building.  

I got over it and moved on.  Aziz did not.

But his blog stops with size.  With this article, I’d like to delve just a little further.  The running comment from the IMAX higher-ups is that “IMAX” is about sound and picture quality, not only screen size.  And five years ago I would have bought the party line.  Now, though, I really do feel like the company is preying on the ignorance of the movie-going audience.

imax1It used to be that, while many multiplexes left much to be desired,  IMAX represented the latest in surround sound technology and quality projection.  When you walked into a normal theater, you would get a fuzzy 35mm projection on a dirty screen and a stereo (or, God help you, mono) audio track.  Even with the advent of surround sound, there was something IMAX had that no traditional theater could, and it wasn’t just size.  All IMAX movies were shot and projected in 70mm film, more than twice the resolution (for lack of a better word) of 35mm film.  

These were reserved for documentaries and specialty films.

Then IMAX made the leap to the mainstream, deciding to show big tentpole films on their screens.  They moved into multiplexes–buildings where it simply wasn’t feasible to install their multi-stories-tall screens.  Instead they installed really big screens, and hoped nobody would notice the difference.

Besides, these IMAX theaters had better video and audio quality than any traditional theater, right?  Not really.

Let’s take this one at a time, starting with audio.  With THX clearing the way for more and more advanced surround sound systems, I would dare any person to really hear a difference between an IMAX theater and a good multiplex theater.  And because the same movies that play on traditional screens now play on IMAX screens as well, they both get basically the same sound mix.  Sure, some audiophiles might argue with me, but most of us simply can’t hear a difference.

So sound is a non-issue.  But what about picture?

That one gets a little muddier.  IMAX projectors are 70mm projectors, and the image has the capacity to far exceed any digital theater.  But the potential is rarely realized.  I’ll explain…

imax3Most movies are shot on 35mm film.  So when they are shown in IMAX, there is an artificial up-rezzing process that occurs.  While IMAX will tell you a 70mm print blown up from 35mm looks better than native 35mm, I don’t buy it.  You can’t just create picture information from nothing.  And when I went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the first up-rezzed 35mm film to be offered on our local IMAX screen, I was unimpressed.  The image was jumpy, the film was grainy as hell (much more than you’d notice in a 35mm theater), and every flaw was painfully apparent.

Films like The Dark Knight, though, do a better job of taking advantage of the IMAX resolution, shooting some of their scenes in 70mm.  But those movies are few and far between.  And while I was blown away by the native IMAX 70mm sequences in Dark Knight, most of the buddies around me didn’t even register the difference until I pointed it out to them.

To add insult to injury, digital theaters have come along and blown away the competition.  Sitting in a large, 4k (4000 lines of horizontal resolution) theater, I am blown away in a way I never was by IMAX.  It’s not just the sharpness and clarity, it’s also the color reproduction and the steadiness.  All projection systems, 35mm or 70mm, have a jumpiness to them that is the result of the physical film running through the projector.  Digital theaters, though, don’t have this.  It’s most apparent when the green “preview” boxes come up.  Instead of jumping around slightly, they are completely sharp and look almost painted on the wall.  Traditional IMAX still cannot mimic that steadfastness.

Then you get the IMAX 3D argument.  I reject this completely.  When it comes to a movie that is dealing in depth perception, the most important thing is that the image is steady and sharp.  Digital theaters run circles around IMAX when it comes to this.

But there are arguments to be made that 3D movies are better in IMAX.  The real issue, then, is when IMAX takes movies shot on 35mm, artificially blows them up to 70mm, projects them on a screen that is only slightly larger than a normal theater screen, and charges five bucks more for a ticket.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a ripoff.

I’m still excited about IMAX.  If more digital IMAX screens can get made, and if filmmakers will start shooting in native 70mm digital 3D, IMAX will be king.  For now, though, the IMAX technology is better, resolution wise, than the movies being produced.  When this changes, IMAX will be the best way to see big summer movies.

Until then, best to stick with a great digital theater.  If the screen is a little too small for you, sit a couple of rows closer.  Save yourself some cash.                           

Categorized | Commentary, Featured

4 Comments For This Post

  1. Rachel Says:

    Man I wish you would have told me that a loooong time ago!

  2. projector screens Says:

    This is my second visit to your blog. We are starting a brand new initiative in the same niche as this blog. Your blog provided us with important information to work with. You have done a marvellous job.

  3. Projectors Says:

    I just spent ages writing a nice comprehensive response about this and then my pc to crash…so I’ve given up and will just say nice article lol

  4. Luke Says:

    The problem I have with IMAX is that the room is too big. Smaller theaters have better audio because the sound has less air to cross.

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  1. Batman Begins 3/The Dark Knight 2 entirely in IMAX? | MovieChopShop Says:

    [...] again, is there really that much of a difference between 35mm and 70mm when movies are shown on the more lame “smaller” IMAX screens? Probably [...]

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