Now Showing: The Future
By Antony Stevens
In the back corner of the projection booth at IMAX Victoria is a rack of 70mm film reels, each weighing between 250 and 500 pounds. The largest is Interstellar which, at eight-feet wide, touches the brim of the platter it rests on. There are nearly 30 of these films, collected over the span of 10 years, sitting idle in this dim room at the Royal BC Museum. Through the projection window, I can see a picture so clear that at first I don’t realize it’s a movie.
Jordan Batchelor, the IMAX services manager in Victoria, hands me a small, metallic rectangle about the size of a paperback novel. I flip it over in my hands until I find a sticker telling me what it is: A hard drive containing the IMAX version of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movie on the other side of the window, America Wild, a documentary showcasing some of the United States’ greatest national parks, came in this same deceptively compact form.
That means no more hauling around the mammoth reels. “Two-hundred and fifty pounds, as you can imagine, the shipping is astronomical,” Batchelor says. He indicates the hard drive. “We can get one of these guys Fed-ex’d overnight from anywhere in the world.”
The version of Star Wars on the hard drive isn’t the same as your 3.5 gigabyte, 1080p Blu-ray version. This one is for the new IMAX 4K 3D laser projector, which means the movie needs to fill the biggest screen in BC — 18 metres tall by 25 metres wide. What’s more, when a 3D movie is showing, it has to fill it twice over.
Canada currently has just five of the projectors. The Royal BC Museum IMAX is the only one in BC, and the only one west of Ontario that plays Hollywood films. At the time of my visit, Star Wars had sold out every night for the three weeks since the theatre received its upgrade, and IMAX Victoria was in talks with Disney to get it extended again.
IMAX spent more than $60 million researching, producing, and pioneering the projectors over the last 10 years. The new systems are capable of beaming more than a hundred tiny class-four lasers into hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors to project eight million pixels onto the screen. One of the hurdles during development was to find a way to deal with the halo of light that surrounds each laser point. The solution was to place 88 low-frequency speakers (called transducers) behind the screen. The transducers emit sound waves which vibrate at the same frequency as the laser and negate the ring of light to ensure a perfect image.
“There was no way to illuminate these [large] kinds of screens with a traditional xenon lamp system,” Batchelor says. “Laser light is pure; you’re only getting that red spectrum, that green spectrum, that blue spectrum.
“We did a special event with David Keighley [one of the IMAX development officers overseeing the system], and he put a checkerboard pattern up on the screen. Usually when you see a checkerboard, because it goes from black to white, you’ll see a very faint red-green-blue line from the black to the white. But with laser, it was completely crisp.”
The “upgrade” to laser IMAX wasn’t as much an upgrade as a complete overhaul. The old system was replaced by two 4K-resolution dual projectors, employing left and right “eyes” which, used together, project images that overlap and create a 3D picture (although IMAX can, and still does, play films in 2D by projecting with only a single eye). The projectors and their air-cooling systems arrived in crates to replace the traditional prism-based projector; six new speakers were added to create 12.1 channel surround sound; and the auditorium seats were replaced with new ones designed for comfort during full-length movies. New laser 3D-glasses, required to watch a film in 3D, cost IMAX $40USD a pair, and replace the old polarized 3D-glasses. The old projection system, like its 70mm reels, now sits cold against the back wall of the projection booth.
“Directors like Christopher Nolan want to be able to deploy [70mm] film at a moment’s notice, so they pretty much gave a memo saying ‘if you have a film system and upgrade to laser, do everything you can to keep the film system online so we can switch it back in.” The reels are in a similar state of standby; they can be taken by forklift and shipped to a different theatre upon request.
While purists like Nolan stick to film for now, Batchelor is sure digital will be the standard technology for the next 30 years. “I was very much a film fan from day one. Film is lovely, just the quality and the warmth. I thought digital would be pretty, but, when they turned these projectors on, I was blown away.”
Currently, Batchelor says America Wild is the film to see: “When you get those sunsets, it’s just so crisp and vibrant, and there’s one scene where they’re just in a cave of ice and there’s millions of icicles, and you can just see the drops of water on each and every icicle. It’s just stunning.”
Later this month, IMAX will start to show A Beautiful Planet, which uses footage captured after leaving an IMAX camera on the International Space Station for a year. In the summer, Living in the Age of Airplanes — narrated by Harrison Ford — will be released by National Geographic.
Batchelor says this is only the start — stand by for virtual reality, holograms — but what I’m seeing is already amazing. Through the port window, I can count the hairs on a polar bear. Water shimmers. The quality is crisp as a photograph, but it’s a moving picture. It’s a film, but not film. It’s life like, but not quite.
It’s the future, only now.