The Endurance of IMAX

Under the Sea 3D is the latest co-venture between IMAX and Warner Bros., and furthers director Howard Hall and editor/producer Toni Myers’ ongoing interest in filming exotic and endangered pockets of the world in the internationally renowned large film format.

I’ll have a film review of Under the Sea as well as its predecessor, Deep Sea 3D (2006) uploaded shortly, but in the meantime here's an interview with Toni Myers, who discusses aspects of the film, as well as the first IMAX movie, North of Superior (1971), which is still beloved by several generations of school kids, particularly aging grammar school brats (like myself) who were taken on class trips to the Cinesphere at Ontario Place, and had no idea what the heck was in store.

The opening credit sequence is still one of the most memorable film-going experiences of my childhood, with the canted camera gliding and swooping all over classic Ontario terrain. I do get seasick and motion sickness and can’t deal with an IMAX camera strapped to the head of a rollercoaster or snowmobile, but I still yearn to re-experience the film because it’s been probably 25-30 years since I saw it.

Myers also directed Blue Planet (1990), one of the best space-themed IMAX films, and perhaps her most overt statement on environmental changes that are wreaking serious damage on the earth. The film’s tone is straightforward, and it’s supported by large, elegant footage of the Earth as shot from space shuttle missions, capturing massive forest fires, deforestation, and other trauma visible from the shuttle windows.

The reason that film also stands out is because of the elegant music score by Maribeth Solomon and Micky Erbe (see archived interview HERE) and one simple shot – the blackness of space, and the Earth rising from the depths of the IMAX screen until it fills the multi-storey panorama, with you feeling like you’re hovering in space and descending slowly to the Earth on some big glass spaceship.

It’s adventurism and edification (learning a bit about the planet’s uniqueness) on film, and a sublime movie moment. It’s also a sample of Myers’ heavy experience in directing, cutting, and producing a movie in 70mm – a film format that may one day be overtaken by digital technology.

Soon after catching an advance screening of Under the Sea, I also caught The Dark Knight (2008) in IMAX, and it was memorable experience in part because director Christopher Nolan proved you could make a kinetic feature-length film in IMAX. The movie was primarily shot in standard 35mm, and contains a few sequences and shots in IMAX, but there were very little differences in the editing styles of the IMAX and 35mm footage.

The formal thinking is that IMAX is too big, and the aggressive editing style of standard 35mm is too overwhelming for audiences – and that may be true for a substantial chunk of moviegoers – but that’s also been a complaint levied against certain films shot in standard 35mm (1.85:1 or 2.35:1) where the directors went bonkers with cuts and gave audiences some massive headaches.

Nolan’s own Batman Begins (2005) has clumsily staged action scenes, with the camera too close to the actors and their motions, and edits deliberately designed to disorient; Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy (2004) has chase sequences with cuts and camera setups that go beyond frenetic and fuzzy, and literally waste the fancy locations used to stage the action scenes; and Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996) is still a fine example of ego and excess, and where every actor's movement is seemingly captured from 45 different camera angles and edits.

Even Tony Scott showed signs of losing his mind when, early into Spy Game (2001), Robert Redford’s entrance into his office was covered by multiple cuts of variable angles – a totally blah character movement with zero thematic undercurrent constructed to resemble something seriously imperative when it seriously wasn’t.

And yet that indulgent editing style has become more refined and acceptable, and that’s perhaps due to our own visual evolution; we got used to the fast visuals over time, and we’re better able to assemble meaning from what was previously just a mass of visual clutter.

Astute directors know how to be more selective (which is why The Rock will always be an unintentionally campy goof-fest, and the tongue-in-cheek Crank will remain deliberately campy fun), and that’s evident in Nolan’s own evolution as a filmmaker: his action sequences are better staged in Dark Knight, and the edits more selective, and to compensate for a less crazy editing style, he uses a dense aural mix that slams audiences where a mass of cuts and blurry footage were applied.

The integration of IMAX (1.44:1) within Dark Knight’s 2.35:1 framework is also notable because it’s not in your face: IMAX pops up in establishing shots (Bruce Wayne in Hong Kong), as movement motifs (Bruce driving his fancy schmancy Lamborghini), and as portions of stellar action sequences.

You could call it as gimmicky as donning 3D glasses for select sequences (like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns) but then the gimmick is used well – and it opens the door to whether IMAX has a future in a technological hybrid like Dark Knight, or for the entirety of a feature-length film.

It’s been done before: the original theatrical version of Titanica (1995) ran over 90 mins. (the DVD features an edited version), but it was screened with an intermission to give audiences pause - a ploy also used for House of Wax, back in 1953 by Warner Bros., because the feeling was that a feature-length 3D film would be too hard on audiences. (In anaglyph, sure, but IMAX 3D, maybe not, since the gray glasses aren’t as headache-inducing as the old red-blue ones from the fifties and eighties.)

So whether Nolan’s clever hybrid will be followed by another, if not a feature-length action film in IMAX is the big quandary. As Toni Myers opines in our interview, 70mm film is expensive, and whether it’s a three or two hour film, that’s a lot of money on such a big acquisition and distribution format.

Dark Knight was a financial and critical blockbuster, and it may well be a rare one-off if digital exceeds the creative latitude inherent to 35mm film, but whenever Nolan cuts to an IMAX shot, the image clarity and richness of colours are noticeably substantial – and that alone may ensure IMAX’ stature for a while longer.



Oikos Nomos said...

Nice article! Can you believe I haven't been in IMAX yet? I was only in some science and historic museum, with 3D projection (some stupid animated movie about Greek history...) and I felt pretty sick :)

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