By this point in time, there is a strong chance you have at least heard of IMAX. It’s often sold to potential customers as the most immersive way to watch a movie, featuring a larger-than-average screen and the highest quality imagery and sound. The ticket price is higher, too. But what is IMAX, and how did it go from a speciality format often seen in museums to a common option found at many multiplexes?
IMAX definition and characteristics
If you've followed Christopher Nolan's career, you know that he's a big proponent of IMAX. He started screening his movies in IMAX theaters and then began shooting more and more of his films with IMAX cameras. But why?
Before digging deep into the details, let’s begin with a quick definition.
What is IMAX?
IMAX is a company that has its own line of high-resolution cameras, film formats, projectors, and theaters. Its name often refers to the film format and the experience of watching the film. The differences between a regular movie theater auditorium basically boils down to the size of the screen and the auditorium itself.
Additionally, IMAX tends to use speakers behind the screen and adjust their stadium seating to always be facing the taller screen face-first, no matter where a patron is seated. Finally, IMAX provides the highest quality imagery available, especially in the case of their physical 70mm film prints.
- Massive film stock, cameras, and projectors
- Heavy and noisy cameras
- Screens multiple stories in height
- 12k resolution
- Film runs through the camera and projector horizontally instead of vertically
History and innovations
IMAX was originally founded as Multiscreen Corporation before changing its name to a made up word that the founders created to sum up their ultimate goal: maximum image.
Canadian filmmakers Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and engineer William Shaw, sought to create a new type of large format filmmaking. They were inspired by the making of In the Labyrinth for Expo '67 in Montreal, and earlier film formats like VistaVision,
With a straightforward single-projector and single-camera setup, the company started producing short films that were shown at exhibitions, such as Tiger Child — the first IMAX film — at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan.
Expo ‘74 in Spokane, Washington was the debut of the first IMAX theater that was not affiliated with any other movie theater company, thus making it an independent venue.
An in-depth look at the early history
Prior to the 21st century, IMAX cinemas were essentially relegated to being their own stand-alone auditoriums or part of a museum. Some of these theaters have a dome-shaped screen, while others are, for lack of a better word, square.
The standard screen size in these purpose-built theaters are on average 72 x 53 feet, which is multiple stories high. IMAX screen sizes are therefore well known and recognized for being much taller than they are wide, with a unique IMAX aspect ratio of 1.43:1.
Since the company had to create new technology to realize its vision, innovation was the natural next step. IMAX 70mm film stock is known as 15/70 because, unlike traditional 70mm film, with five perforations (those holes you always see on physical celluloid), IMAX film stock has a whopping 15 perforations at the top and bottom of the strip.
IMAX 70mm film strips are larger than even regular 70mm
This massive film stock is shot vertically on large but noisy cameras that can only ever shoot between 30 seconds to two minutes of 12k resolution footage at a time. This is the main reason that films shot on traditional IMAX film stock are often under an hour in length; non-IMAX films that incorporate the traditional film stock also don’t often shoot more than an hour of footage.
With large film stock and cameras come large projectors, which have their own unique way of projecting the film stock vertically. These projectors use a unique xenon arc lamp that is extremely sensitive and must be handled with extreme care.
The auditoriums that project IMAX films are also large, with a unique style of stadium seating that emphasizes having the audience directly face the screen at all times.
Into the Mainstream
For the first few decades of IMAX, almost every single film they made was documentary in nature and could only be seen at purpose-built theaters. Whether it was space exploration or climbing Mount Everest, these films were very much spectacle-driven but also education focused. Additionally, many were in 3D, providing audiences with even more ways to become immersed in the film.
Everest co-director David Breashears
In the 1990s, IMAX started making some features that were more entertainment oriented, the first of which was Stones at the Max (1991), a concert film covering The Rolling Stones. T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) was a 3D film that combined a fun adventure with some education about dinosaurs, while Michael Jordan to the Max (2000) highlighted the famous basketball player.
The turning point was when Disney decided to make an exclusive engagement out of Fantasia 2000, which meant having it play exclusively at IMAX theaters from January 1st to April 30th, 2000.
This was a big deal: not only was it the first fully-animated feature in IMAX, but it was the first full-length feature in the format, period.
While Disney did their best, IMAX originally didn't believe it could retrofit traditional films onto its large format screens. This all changed with the creation of DMR (Digital Media Remastering), which involves remastering non-IMAX films for exhibition on IMAX screens.
Starting with re-releases of Apollo 13 (1995) and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002), it soon became more common for certain blockbuster films to get the same treatment.
While not every movie in the 2000s was getting the DMR treatment, a few notable films, such as the Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions (2003), Spider-Man 2 and 3 (2004/2007), several Harry Potter films (2004-2011), Batman Begins (2005), and The Dark Knight (2008). The Dark Knight was also the first mainstream film to be partially shot with 70mm IMAX cameras, with other films doing the same afterward.
Into the multiplexes
2008 saw the release of a new digital IMAX projector system that allowed films to be easily shown in more common multiplexes, albeit within their own custom made auditoriums. With a new 1.90:1 aspect ratio, cinemas could show films in 2D or 3D, along with the power of the newer IMAX with Laser projection system.
However, many multiplexes, even those that use IMAX with Laser, are lower resolution than the traditional format with a reduced screen size.
The state-of-the-art IMAX with Laser projection system
Even with some cons, putting a version of IMAX into multiplexes made the brand more known around the world. And while the screens couldn’t be several stories high, they were still bigger than every other screen at the cinema they are housed in.
A few years later, IMAX released their first digital cameras, which could be used on more commercial blockbuster productions. While the quality wasn’t 12k, it was still substantial and allowed for the films to be shown in their full digital IMAX aspect ratio.
In recent years, more films have used these digital cameras, with Marvel movies like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame being completely shot with the Arri Alexa IMAX digital camera. They would go on to be two of the highest grossing movies of all time.
Certain filmmakers became very associated with the brand during this time, most notably Christopher Nolan, who loves physical celluloid so much that he shot most of Dunkirk with IMAX 65mm film stock and the rest of it on regular 65mm film stock.
Dunkirk • Behind the Scenes Featurette
While Nolan is quite the diehard for IMAX and physical celluloid, he has helped bring it into the mainstream in a way other filmmakers had not prior. Not only that, but he did it with major releases, such as The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, and the already mentioned Dunkirk.
If you're familiar with Nolan's directing style, you know he's a "big" filmmaker — big ideas, big budget, big presentation.
Competitors to IMAX
With the rise of IMAX digital auditoriums also came competitors who aimed to provide their own version of "the IMAX experience." Here's a quick recap of all today's biggest exhibition formats and technologies.
Movie Theater Formats Explained
Dolby Cinema vs IMAX
You can often see a Dolby Cinema and digital IMAX auditorium near each other at the same theater. They both provide big screen experiences, but IMAX typically has a larger screen and more seats. That said, Dolby is known for having a sharper, clearer image, along with reclining seats and plenty of rumble.
Cinemark XD vs IMAX
Compared to digital IMAX, Cinemark XD does not appear to be all that different; big screen, loud sound, bright colors. Aside from the auditorium itself that comes with a more traditional seating arrangement, XD has a laxer policy when it comes to what they show on their screens. While digital IMAX films must be processed and approved by IMAX themselves, nearly anything can be shown in Cinemark XD. They also claim their projector is capable of “35 trillion colors.”
RPX vs IMAX
Similar to Dolby, an RPX auditorium has a large screen with a sizable amount of available seats. While it has better sound and picture quality than standard projection, RPX screens are not taller than IMAX screens. Instead, they emphasize the width rather than the height.
D-BOX vs IMAX
Brought to you by Cinemark, D-BOX is more about the seats than the screen. That’s because D-BOX seats move around with the movie, which emulates a 4D type of experience. So if you’re more interested in “feeling” a movie by way of the seats (similar to theme park rides), then D-BOX might be the choice for you.
RealD 3D vs IMAX 3D
In the world of 3D movies, RealD has essentially taken over as the default. Nearly any movie in 3D will be using RealD technology, which accommodates audience head turning to ensure a great experience throughout. IMAX 3D uses similar tech, but it’s made with much larger IMAX screens in mind.
Digital IMAX at your local theater may now be the most common form of IMAX, but their original style cameras and film stock are still around. It’s also been a great success to install digital IMAX cinemas both in North America and around the world. All of which is to say that as cinema has evolved to keep audiences excited to go to the movies, IMAX, whether at a local or purpose-built theater, provides movie goers with an experience they certainly can’t get at home.
Christopher Nolan’s directing style
With an overview now fresh in your mind, take a look at the directing style of IMAX 70mm’s biggest evangelist, Christopher Nolan. Learn about the techniques the filmmaker uses when writing and filming that have helped make him one of the world’s most acclaimed and well known directors.
Up Next: Nolan's Directing Style →
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