Editorial: How Immersive is IMAX?

LFX logo

Originally published in the November 2008 issue.

An editorial by James Hyder, Editor/Publisher

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.

Imax 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 45×60-foot (14×18-meter) SR screen as it was on the giant 97×117-foot (30×36-meter) screen in Sydney , Australia , 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 rarely ask.

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.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.