Wednesday, November 4, 2009

IMAX Digital: Just the Facts

Here at Down in Front, we know an awful lot about movies. We spend most of our free time talking about them, and all of our equitable time making them. Big, fancy real ones. Some days, we just sit around and know things about frame formats. It’s actually a hobby for us.

So when alarmist, uninformed people on sites like Digg start talking about what is and is not IMAX, and what qualifies their opinions, we tend to react as we’re used to around alarmist, uninformed people (we call them ‘producers’), and that’s with utmost patience and respect, veiling extreme weariness.

“The bottom line assessment by me and others in the know is that a good IMAX Film presentation beats a new IMAX Digital presentation, which in turn beats a standard 35mm equivalent digital presentation.” – anonymous source, very close to this issue

Historically, “IMAX” has simply referred to the branding of 70 mm (65 mm) film or analogous digital files, not the screens. True enough, IMAX Corporation has made some compromises with the new IMAX Digital system. They’ve reduced the screen-width to 55′, and depending on the aspect ratio of the film, reduced the height as well. For many folks, the impressive size of the screen is a major factor in their understanding of IMAX, and naturally most mainstream theater chains don’t have the behemoth IMAX screens still found in many special theaters. (It’s worth noting that it’s hard to decieve someone into thinking that a visibly small projection theater could contain a traditional IMAX screen. Just saying.)

The IMAX Digital system is based on the use of two projectors, overlaying two instances of slightly different information, resulting in a percieved resolution of far higher than the 2k resolution of either projector. Both projectors display 2k images scaled down from the same 4k file – however, they do not display the same pixels. Each uses a different 2k subset of the original 4k image’s pixels, offset by less than one pixel-width as measured on the screen, resulting in a boost of crispness, brightness, and – yes – resolution. Inherently lossy as it is, this is not the same as watching a 4k projection. It is, however, effectively much higher resolution than 2k – and every other film playing in the multiplex.

When you start qualifying what you are and are not getting when you pay for your ticket to subjectivity like screen size – even when the film is being presented at a much higher quality, often with a much more expansive sound system – you’re walking the edge of a slippery slope. Why not qualify your ticket price based on number of individual scratches on the film? Why not find the percentile of overall image lost to the several inches of projection that wash onto the curtain above and below the screen?

Of course, at the end of the day, what your extra five dollars is worth is completely subjective. If the only thing worth five dollars is a larger screen to watch the movie on – and sure, I understand – then yes, you’re out five bucks. However, your money is certainly not being arbitrarily eaten up due to a branding scheme. IMAX Digital facilitates a quantifiably better film watching experience.

“Been following this today, along with the original comedian who started this firestorm. I tend to agree with him. I don’t care about resolution honestly, it’s the perception of size that matters. If a screen is so big my field of vision has to work to take it all in, to me that’s IMAX. I was in the bathroom before I saw Trek last weekend and I overheard 2 guys who had just come out of the IMAX showing (this was a Regal theater with the 55′ wide “fake IMAX” screen) how hugely disappointed they were and that they too felt ripped off. Doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is technically correct, it’s a function of perception.

People will stop buying tickets to the “fake IMAX” theaters and the system will fail because people will have the sensation of being ripped off.”

I certainly understand the disappointment you can feel when you expect one thing and get another (you need look no further than our Phantom Menace commentary to see proof of that), but it’s only in situations where what you expect is congruent with reality that will I accept disappointment as an argument. I hate to belabor the point, but seriously: IMAX screens are huge. Walking into a small theater expecting a huge screen is perhaps acceptable as a folly of misplaced attention, but that’s not the theater’s fault.

Of all the things I take issue with in this argument, it’s the expression “ripped off” that confounds me the most. Even if you bought a ticket online with no way to see that there was clearly no giant screen at your theater, at any point up to the beginning of the screening – from the parking process up until finding a seat – you could have exchanged your ticket for free, so by no account are you held to your original confusion, and even so: you actually experienced the movie in far higher definition, with a better sound system, than you would have anywhere else. And yet, they owe you something?

In terms of branding, it may be misleading (as previously “IMAX” seemed to be an all-inclusive term that brought together several improvements in traditional film presentation quality, and now it’s a term that still does that minus one), but you didn’t pay for a ticket to an IMAX presentation of the movie, you paid for a ticket to the IMAX Digital presentation of the movie. A new term gets a new definition; that’s why they don’t use the old term.

I’m confused as to why people don’t see this as a good thing: it’s not trying to be the same experience as watching a movie on a screen the size of a building, it’s a new technology like any other technology we didn’t ask for (for instance, 3D releases) that allows us to watch some movies with extra clarity. That’s all. I’m sorry you were confused, but it’s not beneficial to be angry at HD movies because you didn’t know what you were paying for the first time you saw one.

Or, in the words of my grandmother, don’t punch the hooker because she didn’t come with coke.

Thanks to the anonymous source quoted above for his additional help in preparing this article.

Teague Chrystie is a visual FX artist in Hollywood, California. Follow him on Twitter, email him at


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