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Can IMAX’s New Camera Make Big Movies Worth Big Money?

With its 3D Digital Camera, the company responsible for supersizing the film experience is revolutionizing the film industry yet again.

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, opening next Friday all across the United States, clocks in at 150 minutes jam-packed with rippling muscles, swooping action shots, and earth-shattering explosions. Somewhere within there are 30 minutes shot with an IMAX camera—the first digital 3D IMAX camera the company has yet developed. How will you know which ones they are? They’ll likely be the most vivid, most thrilling, most awesome 30 minutes of the movie.

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IMAX has been prototyping the camera about four years, and now, finally, it’s rolling it out at Hollywood scale. The camera itself–the company’s first digital offering–is a big step forward for IMAX. But bigger still is what it will mean for consumers: more movies with better image quality, and a whole new reason to go to the movie theater.

A New Way to Shoot

IMAX has been making cameras since the 1970s, but even into the 2000s, all of them used film. Film captures images with a more refined level of detail than digital has yet achieved, and so in terms of picture quality, it can’t be beat. Film cameras, however, aren’t perfect: Heavier and clunkier than digital cameras, they can limit the shots a director or a cinematographer is able to achieve. And because an IMAX negative is nearly nine times the size of a standard film frame, their cameras are particularly massive.

Passing film that size through the camera at the standard cinema rate of 24 frames per second creates one hell of a racket, which limits further how and when directors can use them. “They’re not great at close-up or dialogue scenes,” admits Hugh Murray, IMAX’s senior vice president of film production. With The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan became the first Hollywood director to shoot sequences for a feature film with IMAX hardware. Others including J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness), Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), and Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol) followed suit. The noise from the cameras was such that actors were often forced to re-record their dialogue after the fact.

Shooting in 3D only compounds a director’s problems. In that case, they’re dealing with two film reels, two lenses, and a gigantic camera housing. The IMAX 3D Film Camera weighs over 200 pounds, and is “difficult to get into tight spaces or swing on a crane,” says Murray. Doubling the amount of hardware also doubles the noise.

With the 3D Digital Camera, IMAX has solved all of these problems. Switching to digital dulls the camera noise to a subtle “whirrrr.” Engineers built a unique assembly that snaps both lenses onto the camera body at once, cutting the time typically needed to mount and align pairs of lenses for 3D shooting. And the image sensors, which are the same as those in the state-of-the-art high-speed Phantom camera from Vision Research, capture ultra-high-resolution 4K images–as close to the resolution of a piece of IMAX film as is currently possible.

Thanks to its unique build, the 3D Digital Camera weighs about 30 pounds, less than half the weight of any other digital 3D camera setup on the market. Cinematographers will be able to mount the camera on a crane or dolly and move it easily through scenes, squeeze it into tight spaces, and get much closer to the action than they could with a larger rig.

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All this helps shorten the IMAX learning curve for directors. “Our 2D Film Camera is not something you can just pick up and start using,” says IMAX Entertainment CEO Greg Foster. “The digital camera is inherently more user friendly.”

Most directors use a variety of cameras on any given film, but according to Murray and Foster, the relative simplicity of the 3D Digital Camera will free up directors to play with the IMAX format in new ways. (Director Michael Bay wound up shooting more of Transformers in IMAX than he’d originally intended, for example.)

The IMAX® 3D Digital CameraImage courtesy of IMAX Corporation

Not More Movies, But Better Ones

While we won’t see more IMAX movies than we do right now–anywhere from 35 to 40 a year–the amount of native footage that makes it into movies will be greater than it has been in the past.

A frame of IMAX footage is 70mm wide and 52mm tall, roughly the size of two frames of 35mm camera film turned on their side and stitched together, which means that there’s a big difference in aspect ration between IMAX footage and footage shot with a standard camera. A regular theater projection is a squat rectangle, but the IMAX format is more square. That’s why, in a true IMAX theater, you get a wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling screen that takes up your entire field of vision.

Most Hollywood films you see in an IMAX theater, therefore, are converted into the format after filming. And though IMAX’s conversion process does a great job retrofitting the movie for the format–the Matrix sequels, for example, were among the first films to go through the process in the early 2000s and did well at the box office–in the end there just isn’t enough image data to take over all that screen real estate, and customers can see the difference.

“Your average moviegoer isn’t as uneducated as they’re made out to be,” says Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “They know what they want to see on a big screen; they know what a good visual looks like.”

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The 3D Digital Camera is an opportunity for IMAX to reinforce the fact that it does big-screen images better than anyone else. And right now, it’s more important for them to do that than it’s ever been. Premium large-format (PLF) theaters, which up-scale film prints to create an overwhelming on-screen experience, are one of the hottest trends among theater chains. And Real D, purveyor of theater 3D systems, recently launched a “Luxe” certification program, which demands specific projector hardware and sound in addition to a floor-to-ceiling screen. With more and more customers consuming movies through on-demand and streaming services, it’s projected that box office sales will hit about $10.2 billion in 2014, a $700 million dip from last year.

While theater chains are PLF formatting to draw in moviegoers, IMAX is out to further cement releases in their format as events that are worth an up-to-$10 premium for admission. “When IMAX is part of a movie, it’s almost a conditioned response that it’s a blockbuster,” says Foster. “We turn down three, four, even five times the movies we say ‘yes’ to.”

“There’s a certain type of customer out there who’s very drawn to [IMAX],” says David Ownby, CFO of Regal Cinemas, the country’s largest theater chain, which currently operates 82 IMAX screens. “They’re avid moviegoers, and they want to perceive that what they’re getting is the biggest and best representation of a film.”

Regal doesn’t release breakdowns of its box office profits, but Ownby won’t contradict the assumption that IMAX films have higher grosses, and thinks that trend will continue as more IMAX footage becomes available. “As IMAX improves the customer experience–even if the customer doesn’t care about the camera–that enhances the value for us. Things like having more native footage are important, because it reinforces the IMAX brand in the marketplace.”

IMAX will continue to make decisions about its future releases judiciously. There are only two 3D Digital Cameras right now–though Murray and Foster confirm that they’re making a handful more–and Murray says they’re already in high demand. The company hasn’t revealed who’s next in the 3D Digital Camera queue, but we’ll likely be see more IMAX-native flicks hit theaters later on this year.

In the end, what this will all boil down to is how much and how quickly filmmakers embrace this new tool. “The more that filmmakers create visual spectacles in IMAX, the more hits you’ll have,” says Contrino. “Just because it’s easier, though, doesn’t mean everybody should be doing it. People know that Chris Nolan is making movies for IMAX, and they will seek out films from directors like him–the ones who make the effort.”