Disclaimer: Everwhere, LLC provided me with compensation for this post. However, all thoughts and opinions expressed herein are my own.
A few weeks ago, Michael Cieply wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Movies Try to Escape Cultural Irrelevance.” It was only the latest in a series of high-profile articles that have recently appeared in print and online (the most prominent of which is probably Andrew O’Hehir’s notorious piece for Salon in September) pondering if “film culture” is dying or dead. Cieply, like O’Hehir and most recent commentators, explicitly contrasts what he sees as the decay of cinephilia with what he perceives as the concurrent rise in the artistic quality of shows on cable television – you know, smart, well-written fare targeted at adults like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which have allegedly usurped the movies as a buzz-worthy topic of conversation at those mythical cocktail parties where people only seem to talk about buzz-worthy things. Cieply’s article quotes George Stevens, Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, who blames the supposed decline in the cultural importance of movies on the industry’s “steady push” towards making them available to view on phones, tablets and other tiny electronic devices. Stevens has a point; when Norma Desmond spoke of the pictures getting smaller in Sunset Boulevard, she meant it figuratively. In the 21st century, that reduction in grandeur has become literally true. Yet, while the motion picture industry is undoubtedly undergoing radical change, is there validity to the latest round of doom and gloom cries from the cognoscenti? And, if so, can new technology be used to lure viewers back to the big screen in order to restore the medium’s importance?
As someone with a vested interested in film culture (not just the movies themselves but how they are distributed, exhibited and disseminated), I recently jumped at the chance to see a couple of films at Chicago’s Navy Pier IMAX theater for the preparation of this article. Building on earlier innovations like Cinerama and Cinemiracle, IMAX auditoriums exhibit large-format films that promise an “immersive” experience due to the unprecedented clarity and size of their images, which are projected onto a giant, curved screen, as well as their pioneering use of “surround sound” audio. Prior to my recent adventures in IMAX, my only experience with the format was a single documentary short from 1994 titled Into the Deep, made in an IMAX 3-D process very different from the one they use today (and which I saw, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, under the influence of something stronger than oregano). My recent experience with IMAX included seeing two films that utilized very different technology in how they were produced as well as exhibited – The Dark Knight Rises, which was mostly shot on 35mm film (with a little over an hour being shot on IMAX’s 70mm cameras) and projected on film, and Skyfall, which was shot and projected digitally, but with image and sound that have been reconfigured especially for IMAX theaters. The difference in technical quality between the films offers instructive lessons in what specific changes the industry is presently undergoing and what this might mean for film culture in the future.
IMAX’s 70mm film cameras differ from the once-common 35mm motion picture cameras (not to mention the now ubiquitous digital cameras) in that the large size of the IMAX 70mm film itself renders images of exceptional detail and depth. IMAX 70mm even differs from traditional 70mm film (which made something of a welcome and unexpected comeback in the past year with the releases of The Master and Samsara) in significant ways. Traditional 70mm has five perforations per film frame and is literally twice the size of standard 35mm film. It runs through cameras and projectors vertically but at a faster rate than 35mm, yielding a super-sharp image that is typically in a widescreen aspect ratio (i.e., one where the image is much wider than it is long). IMAX 70mm film has 15 perforations per frame and runs through cameras and projectors horizontally and at a faster rate still, yielding images of almost supernatural clarity. The IMAX film is also presented in what is closer to a square aspect ratio that consumes a viewer’s entire field of vision when seen in an IMAX theater. Because The Dark Knight Rises was shot in multiple formats (the noise generated by IMAX’s 70mm cameras makes shooting an entire feature in that format difficult, much as the loudness of 35mm cameras in the days of early talkies did), to watch the film in IMAX is to witness the jarring spectacle of a film with an aspect ratio that continually changes throughout its presentation – from 1.43:1 to 2.4:1 and back again. Unsurprisingly, director Christopher Nolan used the IMAX 70mm cameras mostly for action scenes and landscape shots and resorted to 35mm for the dialogue scenes that take up the bulk of the film. Still, however unwieldy, IMAX is truly the way this movie was “meant to be seen.”
Fortunately, the scenes in The Dark Knight Rises shot in IMAX 70mm are also the most impressive in the film and, if you’re a fan of the Nolan franchise, they justify seeking it out in that format. For me, the best moments were the breathtaking aerial shots of Gotham City, which seemed almost three-dimensional in their depth. During several such shots, Nolan and D.P. Wally Pfister’s use of deep-focus cinematography had a vertigo-inducing effect that made me feel as though I might somehow fall into the screen. The action set pieces, such as the one on the plane that opens the film as well as the two fistfights between Batman and Bane, also pack a wallop. This is in part due to the sense that they have been edited in a more spatially coherent manner than the previous Nolan Batman movies but also due to the eardrum-bursting sound design, which is even more responsible than the curved IMAX screen in making viewers feel immersed in the action. The Dark Knight Rises is an exceptionally loud movie and, in IMAX, that sound is dispersed throughout the theater via a 6-channel digital sound system. There are speakers placed directly behind the screen, which is perforated with millions of tiny holes, as well as in strategic places around the theater, including a “top center” speaker that corresponds to the screen’s enormous height. IMAX’s sound mix engineers, working with Christopher Nolan’s production team, are able to literally place viewers in the middle of the action as far as the sound is concerned. This means that, in the action scenes, every punch lands with a bone-crunching immediacy and, in the dialogue scenes, every word is crystal clear. While Bane’s mask may have unfortunately inhibited the expressiveness of Tom Hardy’s performance as an actor, I had no problem understanding the character’s dialogue (as was the complaint of many viewers who saw the film in regular theaters).
Skyfall was shot digitally in 2K resolution on the Arri Alexa camera and then “up-resed” to 4K for IMAX projection. The resulting image is of a lower resolution than the 70mm sections of The Dark Knight Rises and therefore not as impressive in terms of clarity. In fact, Skyfall should not look much different in IMAX than how it looks at a regular theater equipped with 4K digital projection. The primary difference between seeing Skyfall in a regular theater versus seeing it in IMAX lies in IMAX’s patented “DMR” digital remastering process. This involved IMAX engineers working with director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins in post-production to “optimize” Skyfall‘s aspect ratio for IMAX screens. The result is that viewers who see Skyfall in IMAX are seeing it in a 1:9 aspect ratio, not nearly as “high” of an image as the 1.43:1 ratio of The Dark Knight Rises but considerably higher than the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in which Skyfall appears at regular theaters. In other words, viewers who see Skyfall in IMAX are literally seeing more visual information (26% more to be exact) in the top and bottom portions of the frame. This, however, begs the question: how much of that information is valuable or even necessary? Roger Deakins is a great cinematographer but he surely knew when shooting the movie that the vast majority of the people who see it in theaters are going to see it in the 2.35:1 ratio (i.e., not in IMAX theaters). Therefore, 2.35:1 should probably be seen as the true aspect ratio in which Deakins framed his compositions. While watching Skyfall in IMAX, I noticed how impressively high the image stretched across the giant IMAX screen but I couldn’t also help but notice a lot of “dead air” in the top and bottom portions of the frame.
Still, while Skyfall may not be as impressive as The Dark Knight Rises as an “IMAX experience” because of the technology used in its creation and exhibition, I must also admit that I found it to be a more satisfying one overall simply because I enjoyed it more as a movie – regardless of how it may have been shot or projected. In other words, technical quality is not synonymous with artistic quality; I believe that Roger Deakins is a greater artist with a camera than Wally Pfister, and there was nothing in The Dark Knight Rises that thrilled me as much as what Deakins did with the neon lights, primary colors and reflective surfaces (not to mention a Modigliani painting) in the Shanghai sections of Skyfall – even if the latter was shot in a lower image resolution. Then there is the matter of Skyfall‘s astonishing Macao casino scene, which bears an uncanny and startling resemblance to Josef Von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (right down to Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s “dragon lady” make-up), but I digress. More importantly, while both films are franchise entries centered on iconic action heroes, Skyfall is the one that offers a more refreshingly original spin on its formulaic story material. For these reasons, I would have preferred Skyfall to The Dark Knight Rises even if the Bond film had been shot on VHS tape.
There will always be something magical to me about seeing movies on the big screen, whether they are projected digitally or on film, and I don’t think the big screen experience will ever die. I am grateful to IMAX for pioneering technology that has made such theater-going experiences special in the 21st century and I also believe that they will continue to make improvements that should make their digital projection superior to that of regular theaters. However, to truly inspire the kind of movie love that the likes of Michael Cieply worry is evaporating, I think IMAX would benefit from offering more diversity in terms of the kinds of films it exhibits. While PG-13 rated action movies aimed at teenage boys serve a purpose, is there not something disheartening about the possibility of living in a world where they are our primary option? The breakout hit of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was Holy Motors, a truly wild movie whose tone unpredictably and exhilaratingly shifts from the jubilant to the elegiac and back again. It is an unmitigated masterpiece that rocked both the festival’s jury (it took the prizes for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director) and the lucky sold out audiences who saw it. While Holy Motors fortunately returned to Chicago recently for a regular run at the Music Box Theatre, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to experience such a movie with IMAX quality image and sound. Though even ardent admirers of Holy Motors are likely to see that film’s non-narrative elements as a hard sell for the kind of “general audiences” that tend to populate IMAX theaters, I’m not so sure; if audiences can be conditioned to see something as overstuffed and curiously mirthless as The Dark Knight Rises as “popcorn entertainment,” I see no reason why they couldn’t also be wowed by something as undeniably joyous as Holy Motors‘ accordion jam entr’acte on a screen six-stories high and in glorious surround sound audio.
You can learn more about IMAX on the web at:
Holy Motors Rating: 10
Skyfall Rating: 6.5
The Dark Knight Rises Rating: 5.3