By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Nowadays, affordable big-screen 4K TVs can display a multitude of films and series in high resolution and with superb sound via streaming, cable and satellite TV (with Blu-ray discs filling in catalog gaps), yet the 8K writing is on the wall (Samsung released an 85-inch 8K television at the end of 2018). If one has a high-resolution smart TV at home and a seemingly endless supply of programming, why fight traffic to visit a movie theater?
The answer may lie in “Immersive Cinema,” which is on the rise. Laser projection, sound technology improvements, large-format screens and cameras, HFR (High Frame Rates) and 4D moving seats and multi-sensory stimuli are making movies more immersive. Among those leading the charge are IMAX, Dolby, THX, RealD, Red 8K, Ang Lee, the 4DX format and Douglas Trumbull, VES. 3D in theaters is an immersive factor that has grown tremendously worldwide (99,639 digital 3D screens at the end of 2017, according to IHS Markit), but lost some steam in the U.S. since its 2010 peak.
Meanwhile, PLF (Premium Large Format) theaters – which have luxury, big-screen venues with cutting-edge sound and projection – rose by 21.3% in 2017 to surpass 3,100 screens globally, according to IHS Markit. The AMC chain has invested heavily in IMAX and Dolby Cinema locations (Dolby’s proprietary technologies for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos improve image and sound quality), and has its own AMC Prime PLF locations. Cinemark has the XD line of PLF theaters, over 200 of which have been approved by THX’s Certified Cinema program. RealD, which sells the RealD 3D system, has launched its own LUXE line of PLF theaters. And CJ 4DPLEX offers ScreenX, with 270-degree visuals.
IMAX is the leader in PLF, though the company does not include itself in that category. “We’ve definitely seen a shift towards more premium cinema offerings over the last few years and that has helped to fuel our network expansion, particularly on the international front. IMAX now has more than 1,443 theaters open across 79 countries with another 635 in backlog,” comments IMAX’s Chief Technology Officer, Brian Bonnick.
“At IMAX, our mission for 50 years has been to change the way people experience movies. We look at every aspect of the cinema experience, from how the film content is shot and remastered in post-production using our cameras and DMR process, to the design of the theater and our proprietary projection and sound technology powering the experience. By taking this holistic approach, we can optimize the audience experience so that when the lights go down, you feel like you are part of the movie.”
Earlier this year, IMAX launched its next-generation “IMAX with Laser” projection system, which represents the largest R&D project in the company’s history. “The system incorporates a radical new optical engine featuring an open frame design, eliminating the prism that has been used in projectors for the last 25 years,” says Bonnick. “IMAX with Laser delivers substantially greater contrast, brightness, sharpness and an expanded color gamut. The system also comes with an upgraded 12-channel sound system, adding new side and ceiling speakers to take sound immersion to the next level.”
IMAX’s profile has also shifted. “While IMAX started out playing documentary films, over the last 15 years our business has shifted to predominantly focus on blockbuster event films. We now play approximately 40 blockbuster films a year – including Hollywood films as well as local-language films in certain parts of the world such as China and India,” says Bonnick. “We partner with all of the major studios and look to program the biggest and most-anticipated films that will excite our fans and take advantage of our scale and scope.”
“The filmmakers we work with, such as Christopher Nolan, the Russo Brothers and J.J. Abrams, are designing their films for the big-screen experience, and we are working hard to help deliver them the tools to achieve their creative visions.”
—Brian Bonnick, Chief Technology Officer, IMAX
In addition, IMAX is changing the way many studio movies are shot. A major shift occurred with The Dark Knight (2008), which featured 28 minutes filmed using IMAX, the first time that a major feature film was partially shot using IMAX cameras. Bonnick adds, “In 2018 we had several films that featured IMAX differentiation, or what we like to call IMAX DNA, meaning it was filmed with our cameras.” This included Avengers: Infinity War (filmed entirely with IMAX cameras), First Man (lunar sequences filmed with IMAX cameras) and Aquaman (approximately 90 minutes of footage specially formatted for IMAX).
“For 2019, we expect to continue this trend,” says Bonnick. “IMAX DNA” titles this year include Captain Marvel (select scenes specially formatted), Avengers: Endgame (entirely shot with IMAX cameras) and The Lion King (specially formatted), with additional titles to be announced. Bonnick adds, “The filmmakers we work with, such as Christopher Nolan, the Russo Brothers and J.J. Abrams, are designing their films for the big-screen experience, and we are working hard to help deliver them the tools to achieve their creative visions.”
Universal’s First Man includes a dramatic use of IMAX in its finale. “Director Damien Chazelle shot the moon sequences of the film using our 15 perf/65mm film cameras. During those sequences, the audience in an IMAX theater saw a dramatic increase in clarity as well as the image expand to fill the entire screen, which helped to immerse the audience in that pivotal sequence of the film,” says Bonnick.
The lunar scenes of First Man illustrate how IMAX can impact VFX artists. “There is extra work to do because you get such incredible detail in an IMAX frame,” says Paul Lambert, VFX Supervisor, DNEG. “In First Man, we actually transition from 16mm, when we’re inside the capsule, to [IMAX] when Neil opens the portal door. You’ve been accustomed for the past two hours to be in this shaky, gritty documentary-style world and suddenly you’re in this clean, pristine silent environment.
“4DX was launched with the desire to bring moviegoers back to the cinema in the age of streaming by providing an immersive experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere.”
—Yohan Song, Senior Manager of Strategic Initiatives, CJ 4DPLEX
“You get to see the incredible detail that the IMAX frame gives you, and with that you also have to inspect the frame very well because basically you’re seeing everything. Once you get the scanned frames back, which are so incredibly huge, you start to see lines in there. We had to meticulously go through each frame, take out additional footsteps, stray lines, anything that seems to be man-made.”
Lambert adds, “I think watching a bigger format is far more immersive than traditional cinema, and there are more and more productions choosing to use [larger formats].” He notes that working with IMAX and larger formats can be a challenge in terms of computation power and storage. “Frames are getting bigger and bigger. Which means it is more firepower, more storage to be able to deal with this imagery. You need faster computers as well to be able to do the effects on this. Just when you think things are starting to get to a good speed, suddenly you’ll get a bigger format to deal with, and then you’re chasing again to try to get things to [run] quicker. It’s a constant cycle.”
HFR also may upgrade the film-going experience. Peter Jackson and Ang Lee boldly employed HFRs in The Hobbit series (48 frames per second) and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (120fps), respectively. James Cameron will reportedly be filming his Avatar sequels with high frame rates. And Douglas Trumbull, VES has developed the Magi system, which can shoot and project films in 4K 3D at 120fps (or other frame rates).
South Korea’s CJ 4DPLEX seeks to increase immersion with 4DX theaters, which add seat motion, wind, snow, mist and smells to blockbuster movies. “In Jurassic Park, when little Tim notices the ripples in the glass of water, the chairs subtly emit vibrations, alerting the audience of impending danger,” notes Yohan Song, CJ 4DPLEX Senior Manager of Strategic Initiatives. And, he adds, “In Doctor Strange, when the Ancient One takes Stephen Strange on a psychedelic foray into the astral plane, the 4DX motion and wind effects synchronize to the scene in play, creating a visceral experience.”
“4DX was launched with the desire to bring moviegoers back to the cinema in the age of streaming by providing an immersive experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere,” Song adds. CJ 4DPLEX is a subsidiary of CJ CGV, the fifth-largest cinema exhibition firm in the world. “The idea derived from 4D theme park rides. 4DX harnessed the technology and developed it further to provide a more immersive experience” that was complementary to films. The first 4DX theater bowed in 2009, the 100th debuted in 2014 and the 600th auditorium was slated to launch last December, according to Song.
4DX movies have received strong support from both the “studio and exhibition” sides, as “4DX provides a new revenue stream that benefits the industry as a whole,” says Song. At major flagship sites such as Regal L.A. Live, “the 4DX upcharge is $8 (USD) from the regular ticket price. However, regardless of the price difference, 4DX is capable of generating far more revenue compared to a regular 2D auditorium.”
Song adds that the 4DX version of Avengers: Infinity War was “the highest-grossing film from all Disney/Marvel films we’ve screened during our nine years of operation. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was the highest-grossing film in 4DX history, which earned more than $32 million at the box office.”
Are filmmakers adding visual elements specifically designed for 4DX screenings? “Not yet,” says Song. “This is our ultimate goal, to collaborate with studios and producers starting from the creative phase to production and post-production to better reflect the endless possibilities that the technology can offer.”
CJ 4DPLEX’s ScreenX is a “270-degree panoramic experience that extends the center image of the film to the left and right, all the way up to the end of the auditorium, providing a sense of being wrapped or being inside a movie,” says Song. “We started showcasing Hollywood films last year, and in 2018 alone we released eight Hollywood films: Black Panther, Rampage, The Meg, Ant-Man and the Wasp, The Nun, Bohemian Rhapsody, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Aquaman. CJ 4DPLEX brought its two immersive formats together last year in “4DX with ScreenX” theaters.
IMAX’s Bonnick feels that the push towards immersive cinema is good for everyone. “Consumers want a reason to get off their couch, and it is important that we, as an industry, are consistently innovating and improving the cinema experience to deliver that reason. We believe people are social by nature, and there is something magical about that communal movie-going experience and being immersed in the film that you just can’t recreate at home. We’ve seen cinema chains adding new technology and improved seating and amenities, and I think that is all in an effort to raise the bar, which is a good thing for everyone involved.”