LFX Looks Back: Vol. 1, No. 1, October 1997

Canada Place Vancouver

Canada Place in Vancouver (seen here in 2001), was the site of the 1997 ISTC Conference. The cylindrical structure to the right was the CN IMAX Theatre. (Photo by Nicolas Untz, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As LF Examiner approaches the end of its run, we will look back at our 24 years of publishing with selections from previous issues. The following two pieces were the lead articles from Volume 1, Number 1 of MaxImage! (as LFX was originally known), published in October of 1997.

ISTC 1997

The LF industry’s largest and most important gathering, the International Space Theater Consortium (ISTC) annual conference, was held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada from 19 – 22 September, 1997. Over 900 delegates from 26 countries came to see the newest crop of LF films, hear about projects in the works, and try to discern the future of an industry very much in flux

The conference featured screenings of nine New Films (completed films not seen at a previous ISTC meeting), 22 Films in Progress (films for which some 15/70 footage has been shot), and dozens of New Film Projects (everything else). In addition, seven panel discussions touched on subjects such as “Going Digital” (see page 6), “Selecting a Format,” and “How To Serve Two Masters,” on balancing education and entertainment in LF films.

This year’s trade show was the largest ever, with 28 exhibitors spread over a large convention hall. Imax Corporation had a massive presence that included a Kodak photo studio in which delegates could be electronically inserted into shots of the Rolling Stones onstage, a Tyrannosaurus, or the top of Mt. Everest. The Stephen Low Company brought their Indy car, and had driver/cameraman/legend Mario Andretti available for autographs and photos.

A significant innovation at this conference was the elimination of the “Works in Progress” sessions which previously had given people developing new films five minutes each to show slides or discuss their ideas. The problem was that one often had to sit through a number of dull talks (frequently on projects that later disappeared) in the hope of catching one or two of interest. Despite this, the Works in Progress sessions were always well attended, because no one wanted to miss the chance of getting the first word on the next hot film.

In their place, two hours on Sunday morning and a number of tables on the Trade Show floor were set aside for people with nascent LF projects. This arrangement allowed you to choose the projects you were most interested in, then pick up the literature and meet with the principals for as long you wished. And if you weren’t interested in any of them, you had all Sunday morning to conduct other business or just take it easy, an unheard-of luxury at recent ISTCs. Coming after several days of frenzied activity, it was a welcome breather.

A practical advantage of the Vancouver site was its geography. No, not the surrounding mountains and picturesque bay, although the scenery definitely enhanced the aesthetics of the conference. But the fact that nearly all the sites were in close proximity to one another made the whole week less hectic and demanding. Most of the hotels were only a few blocks’ walk from the Convention Centre in Canada Place, and Science World was an easy 10-minute ride on the pleasant and efficient Sky Train. Significantly less time was spent moving between conference sites than in many previous meetings.

Last but not least, the weather was gorgeous for the entire week. Temps held between 18° and 24° C (that’s 65° – 75° Fahrenheit for you non-metric types) with sunny skies and no hint of the precipitation the region is noted for.

All told, ISTC ‘97 was simply exemplary. Kudos to conference hosts Ruth Heyes of the CN IMAX Theater and Ray Lord of Science World British Columbia, assisted by Joanna Shillington and the staff of Events by Design, for a year of unseen preparation that paid off handsomely. There were no visible technical flubs, due to the considerable exertions of Ingrid Lae, Chief Projectionist of Science World, and James McLeman, CP at the CN IMAX theater, and their respective staffs. Finally, thanks go to Conference Committee Chair Freda Nicholson and the members of her committee for one of the most enjoyable gatherings in recent memory.

“Going Digital” session

by Marty Shindler

The times they are a changin’ could have been the theme for much of this year’s ISTC, but no where is it more appropriate than in the concurrent sessions, where Going Digital, a session chaired by Chris Reyna of Imagica USA, played to an SRO audience.

Seems like only a few years ago that there was not much interest in digital film technologies from the ISTC crowd. The technologies, primarily CGI (computer generated images) were used in only a handful of films and the experiences of the producers and directors were not always favorable. Common complaints included the images costing way too much, were never on time and the results on the screen did not have enough resolution. Doing a composite of CGI and live action or two or more live action shots was hardly possible since there was not enough power in most computers to do the necessary crunching to get the work done. Those WERE the days, but not anymore.

In recent years there has been a remarkable increase in the use of digital film technologies for the large format industry. Now it is possible for producers and directors to have access to all of the tools and tricks of the trade as mainstream filmmakers. This was evident in not only the films that were screened but in the Films in Progress and New Film Projects as well.

This year’s Going Digital session included a number of the preeminent artists and technologists who have incorporated digital into their work, from pure CGI to sophisticated composites to image enhancements and converting video files to large format images. As an aside, the Technical Sessions presented some brilliant computer animation in 3D.

The concurrent session’s participants included Chris Reyna of Imagica USA, Daniel White of Big Films, Inc., Mike Boudry of Computer Film Company, David Keighley of DKP Ltd./70mm Inc., Xavier Nicholas of Ex Machina and Ben Stassen of New Wave International. Most showed representative samples of their work and all discussed the capabilities that their facilities possessed for handling large format images digitally. There was even some discussion on how traditional techniques were still valid for a lot of applications and at a lower cost than digital. All seemed to agree that above all else, the base story must be present in order to engage the audience.

Discussion at the session also included the evolving marketplace, which requires that new and different films be produced in order to feed the growing number of large format theaters. Digital film technologies are certain to be a major ingredient, audience and panel agreed. The number and range of venues is growing from the nucleus of global museums and the location based entertainment projects with signature films to the commercial theaters throughout the world that are getting heavily involved in the format. Economics dictate that more theaters will require more product and that conversely more product will help more theaters evolve.

In the coming issues of MaxImage the digital technology column will report on techniques in use, definitions of key terms and a description of the production process to enable directors and producers to maximize their money.

Marty Shindler is a freelance industry consultant who provides a business perspective to creative and technology companies. His involvement with digital technologies has included work with such organizations as Industrial Light & Magic, Cinesite/Kodak, the Jazz Media Network and ReZ.n8 Productions. Marty may be reached at shindler@aol.com.

MAC Award winners

In 1997 the ISTC marketing Committee launched the first MAC Awards contest, to recognize “Marketing Achievement and Creativity” (hence MAC) by member theaters.

Eligible were marketing materials for LF films released between May 1996 and July 1997. Entries were judged “on the entire marketing plan, including the marketing goals and strategies, the marketing components including advertising, publicity, promotions and sponsorship, and collateral materials.”

Other criteria included creativity in execution, and results. Judging was done by an LF theater marketing director and other marketing professionals.

  • First Prize went to The BMW Pavilion in Capetown, South Africa, for its “Extreme Theme” film festival campaign.
  • Second Prize was awarded to the Houston Museum of Natural Science for its promotion of Alaska.
  • Third Prize was won by IMAX Les Ailes in Brossard, Quebec, for its marketing of L5 and Survival Island.

An Honorable Mention went to the Ft. Lauderdale’s Museum of Discovery and Science for its Into the Deep campaign.

The winning entries were displayed in the Trade Show exhibition hall at the Vancouver Conference.

LFCA 1997

This year’s Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA) confab drew a crowd of more than 150 delegates from over 100 organizations to Whistler, BC, a picturesque ski resort 75 miles north of Vancouver. The September 18 meeting consisted of three panel discussions, a lunch with keynote speech by LF veteran Peter Crane, a general membership meeting, and a meeting of the board of directors.

Terrell Falk of JQH Entertainment led “Marketing Large Format Films and Theaters,” a panel including Steve Bishop of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Todd Mortenson of Destination Cinema, MacGillivray Freeman’s Bill Bennett, and Kasho Furuya of Cinema Japan Company, Ltd.

Bishop asserted that, contrary to conventional wisdom, multiple LF theaters in the same town don’t necessarily lead to conflict. Bennett briefly described MFF’s marketing plan for Everest, and Furuya spoke on the unique character of the Japanese LF market.

Mark Peterson (White Oak Associates)moderated a discussion of “Appropriate Technology for the Large Format Venue.” Participating were Steve Marble of Catalyst Entertainment, Scott Memmott of World Cinemax Productions, Bill Peters from the Calgary Science Center,and Bob Whittingham of Australia’s Maxvision Pty. Ltd.

Peterson detailed the evaluation process White Oak uses to guide their clients to a format selection. Calgary’s Peters called for more LF films shot specifically for the dome to avoid the perspective distortion experienced when a flat screen film is projected on a hemisphere. (MaxImage thought of Steve Judson’s Homeland, made for Singapore.)

Peter Crane’s amusing luncheon keynote was a witty ramble through the history of Large Format, told as only a true veteran can. He likened the growth of LF to geological development, building through successive phases from the creeping “Tectonic Plate Movement” of the early days to the “Full Scale Eruption” currently shaking the industry. Crane wondered whether the future of the industry would bring destruction, like Mt. St. Helens, or the formation of a paradise, like Hawaii.

The most lively session was the afternoon “LF Filmmakers’ Forum.” Bayley Silleck (dir. Cosmic Voyage) appealed for more attention to the art of writing for LF films. He pointed to humor as a tool that has been underused in the medium. “Humor can help to achieve that elusive goal of entertaining and educating all at once.” Silleck pleaded for an alternative to the committee approach to making films, a sentiment that was warmly applauded.

Laurel Ladevich (co-prod. Special Effects)agreed, warning that “quality control” exercised by institutions and sponsors is as likely to keep quality down as to bring it up. “Filmmakers should not be considered as technicians who have to be carefully managed so they don’t go out of control.”

IMAX is essentially a medium trying to tell a short story in a miasma of detail worthy of Tolstoy.

— Dennis Earl Moore

Dennis Earl Moore (dir. Living Planet) suggested that there is a problem with how LF films are made: The current process is to write a loose treatment or detailed script, and then a wish list. Then film what money and time and circumstances allow. Then write a detailed description, called variously a narrative and/or a narration that describes what you wanted to show the audience.”

Filmmakers should “put on film – which is a visual medium – that which they intended to show in the first place, instead of telling you a story about how it was kind of like what you’re seeing. We’re making films that are telling people how to see things that they aren’t really seeing, and I think they feel cheated.”

John Weiley (dir. Antarctica) described some of the difficulties of making 3D films, not the least of which is that “you’re going to lose a huge amount of money.” Although the industry seems not to be admitting it, attendance at theaters is dropping from an average of 200,000 in the early ‘90s to an average of 125,000 today, according to Weiley.

This is brought on by multi-film programming at theaters that formerly booked only one film at a time, and although it is ameliorated somewhat by growth in the number of theaters, Weiley expressed the need for enough theaters to build a market that will make films profitable. The Australian director also echoed the comments of other panel members about the freedom needed to make a high-quality film.

The way to get a great film is to get the right person to make it, then trust him.

And even when it gets really scary, still trust him.

And when the film bombs, then you can kick the shit out of him.

— John Weiley

Kieth Merrill (dir. Amazon) related his confrontation with a number of museums who declined to accept his original version of Amazonbecause the native peoples in the film appear in their natural unclothed state. He was frustrated that museums felt this was inappropriate in the museum context, but relented and produced a “sanitized” version. “After 25 years of making movies, an Academy Award, 12 IMAX projects, all these marvelous experiences, my career is reduced to sitting at an Avid with a grease pencil saying, ‘Wait a minute; there’s a penis.’”

Despite this, Merrill doesn’t believe there are bad guys in this situation. “If [museums] feel that seeing naked Zoë Indian people somehow is offensive to their audiences, certainly it’s their prerogative. They’re the ones that have to answer the telephones.”

In the General Membership meeting that followed the Filmmakers Session, President Chris Reyna discussed the LFCA’s effort to develop international technical standards for 15/70 and 8/70 cameras and projectors, through the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). In November LFCA will submit proposed standards to the SMPTE Film Committee which will review and seek comments on them for one year, as part of its ratification process. Interested parties are invited to make their suggestions on technical standards to Reyna

The General Membership meeting also included the election of new board members and the announcement of the site of the 1998 LFCA conference.

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