You've seen an IMAX movie, but do you understand the ultimate viewing experience?
What is the ultimate theatrical experience? For me, it's going to see a movie you love on a giant IMAX screen. The deep colors, explosive sound, and captivating images suck you in all over again. I went to see Jaws in true IMAX last week, and it was an experience I'll not soon forget.
There's just something more magical about these kinds of movies, but what do these projection systems offer that others do not? How is IMAX different from the standard, and is it worth it?
Well, today we're going to learn all about these theaters, cameras, and what makes them so special. We'll define IMAX and dive into its specifics.
Ready? Let's roll.
Table of Contents
What Is IMAX? And What Is the Difference Between IMAX and Standard?
What was your favorite IMAX cinema experience? Is there one that stands out? The first time I was aware of the format was when The Dark Knight released their teaser footage. I had never seen anything that crisp. And it made me want to see that movie on opening night.
At the time, I wasn't quite sure how to quantify what was different about that showing.
What Is IMAX? The IMAX Definition
IMAX is a proprietary system of technically advanced high-resolution cameras, film formats, projectors, and theaters with very large screens taller than the theatrical standard. They project an aspect ratio of either 1.43:1 or 1.90:1.
What Does IMAX Mean?
The name is believed to be derived from “Maximum Image." Co-founder Graeme Ferguson told the story of how the name IMAX originated, saying:
We first called the company Multiscreen Corporation because that, in fact, was what people knew us as. But the main thing is that we called the system Multivision because we saw it as a large–screen way of showing multi–image films. It was with multi–image that we had a great success in, and we thought that was the central thing to do. Not the only thing, but the central thing. After about a year, our attorney informed us that we could never copyright or trademark Multivision. It was too generic. It was a descriptive word. The words that you can copyright are words like Kleenex or Xerox or Coca-Cola. If the name is descriptive, you can’t trademark it so you have to make up a word. So we were sitting at lunch one day in a Hungarian restaurant in Montreal and we worked out a name on a place mat on which we wrote all the possible names we could think of. We kept working with the idea of maximum image. We turned it around and came up with IMAX.
Who Founded IMAX?
Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and William C. Shaw were the co-founders of the corporation. It was founded in September 1967, first known as the Multiscreen Corporation, Limited. This team worked to develop the first IMAX cinema projection standards in the late 1960s in Canada.
The Difference Between IMAX and Standard Theaters
There's a whole list of things that are different between IMAX and standard theaters. So let's go through them one by one and examine how exquisite the experience is and what it means for cinemagoers.
What Makes It an IMAX Movie Theater?
What is an IMAX Theater? Well, when you go to a standard theater, you sit and watch a print delivered by a studio. But when you see something in IMAX, know that the print and the sound have been diligently worked on with the filmmaker and the corporation involved, making sure the exact vision hits the screen. First, they do a complete overhaul of each movie’s audio, which is overseen by the film’s director.
Then, it's time to work on the image. They use a remastering process called DMR, which means Digital Media Remastering. It fully transforms every frame of a film to produce the best possible version of a filmmaker’s vision. Two projectors run simultaneously to provide the perfect image with a balance of warmth and sharpness. The idea is to push the limits of engineering and premium filmmaking tools available.
Every element in these theaters is planned, designed, and positioned with exacting standards. There is even scientific research for theater geometry, making every seat have a great view and sound quality. It also has affected the way they layout their seats, in a steep stadium setting so that the viewer is enveloped in the film.
How Are IMAX Movies Projected?
We talked a lot about the quality, but what makes IMAX stand out is the projection. The standard uses 70 mm film run through the projector horizontally. This technique produces an area that is about 8.3 times as large as the 35mm film, and around 3.4 times as large as 70 mm film run through the projector vertically. Now, many of these movies are broadcast digitally.
In 2008, IMAX introduced Digital IMAX, a lower-cost system that uses two 2K digital projectors to project on a 1.90:1 aspect ratio screen.
What Aspect Ratio Does IMAX 70mm Film Deliver?
70mm has caught back on recently since Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and Paul Thomas Anderson have all elected to have their films projected in the huge format. 70mm boasts an aspect ratio of 2.76:1—twice as large as the standard 35mm film. 70mm was what put Ben-Hur on the map in 1959, and now it's a way that filmmakers are getting people out to see the spectacle. 70mm is often combined with IMAX formats.
The modern IMAX design uses 70mm film that is shown horizontally with a massive 15 perforations per frame, giving it approximately six times the resolution of 35mm film.
How Big Is an IMAX Screen?
The average IMAX screen size is approximately 72' x 50' (22m x 16m), which is significantly larger than traditional movie screens of approximately 50' x 20' (16m x 6.1m).
Is IMAX worth it? Yes, it is absolutely worth the price of admission. It's the biggest screen with the best quality.
Learn About IMAX Cameras
How do they capture the footage for IMAX movies? Well, on specially made cameras. They have to be specially made, because of the size of the film they use. The IMAX format is generically called "15/70" film. It got its name because of the 15 sprocket holes or perforations per frame. The film's bulk and weight require horizontal platters, rather than conventional vertically mounted film reels.
For a long time, these cameras were incredibly bulky and hard to use. They were so loud you couldn't use sync sound on set, so they were used to shoot mostly action sequences where sound would be added later. But those cameras have gotten more nimble as of late.
- spherical lenses
- 70 mm film, 15 perforations per frame
- horizontal rolling loop movement, from right to left (viewed from emulsion side)
- 24 frames per second
- camera aperture: 70.41 mm × 52.63 mm (2.772 in × 2.072 in)
- projection aperture: at least 2 mm (0.079 in) less than camera aperture on the vertical axis and at least 0.41 mm (0.016 in) less on the horizontal axis
- aspect ratio: 1.43:1
- DMR aspect ratio: 1.90:1, 2.39:1
Same as IMAX, plus:
- fisheye lenses
- lens optically centered 9.4 mm (0.37 in) above film horizontal center line
- projected elliptically on a dome screen, 20° below and 110° above perfectly centered viewers
IMAX Digital Cameras
In September 2020, the corporation launched the "Filmed In IMAX" program. The idea was to work with Hollywood, which was shooting way more on digital than on film. They wanted to certify high-quality digital cameras that can be used to create IMAX-format films. An increased scope could give a vast array of filmmakers the ability to shoot in this medium more frequently.
IMAX certified digital cameras:
- ARRI Alexa LF (4K camera)
- ARRI Alexa Mini LF (4K camera)
- Panavision Millennium DXL2 (8K camera)
- Red Ranger Monstro (8K camera)
- Sony's VENICE cameras (6K camera)
- ARRI Alexa 65 IMAX camera (6.5K camera)
Shot with IMAX
“Shot with IMAX” simply means that the film was filmed with IMAX 65mm cameras. There are a small number of “real” IMAX cameras. Y.M. Cinema Magazine states that the reason IMAX initiated the “Filmed in IMAX” program is to allow more productions to fill IMAX theaters, which elevates profit while recognizing highly capable cameras that IMAX certifies.
Until now, when examining the films made for IMAX theaters, a very small portion of IMAX 65mm film cameras were used in productions. For instance, the most used camera in 2021 films screened on IMAX was the ARRI Alexa Mini. The MSM 9802, which was used on Jordan Peele’s NOPE and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, was at the bottom of Y.M. Cinema’s list, clearly justifying the logic behind developing more 65mm film cameras.
Although Peele did not use the next generation of IMAX cameras for NOPE, we are excited to see the upcoming new release of IMAX cameras expand and offer a quieter and less complex camera for filmmakers. This doesn't mean that the IMAX 65mm can't be used to create beautiful images.
NOPE was shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who is often Nolan’s cinematic partner, using Kodak film, including 65mm film in IMAX format. Hoytema is known for specializing in 65mm film cameras and has earned some decent running time shooting on them.
Nolan, who is obsessed with the quality of IMAX cameras, will be using the IMAX 65mm in "new, novel ways" for Oppenheimer, according to IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond at the Screen International in Cannes. Oppenheimer is the first film to shoot sections in IMAX black and white analog photography, introducing a new visual experience to its audience.
Filmed for IMAX
In contrast, Top Gun: Maverick was shot on Sony VENICE, which is IMAX certified, hence why the movie poster states that the film was filmed for IMAX. VENICE is an elite high-end cinema camera that was approved by IMAX to be able to shoot for an IMAX theater.
For the IMAX “Film for IMAX” program, which defines the cinema cameras that can shoot for its theaters, the production is supervised by IMAX, which determines the protocol, best practices, and methodologies for shooting the format.
IMAX Movie Examples
What kinds of movies shot today were specialized for the IMAX screen? Well, you have 3D IMAX movies like Avatar, which revolutionized how people saw IMAX theaters. You also have portions of movies shot in IMAX, like Nolan did for The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and Dunkirk.
In 2000, Disney produced Fantasia 2000, the first full-length animated feature initially released exclusively in the IMAX format. That was a huge success and captivated audiences who were able to be steeped in the visuals.
Hollywood has long taken advantage of these cameras and theaters, having movies with footage shot with these cameras, where the only way to see the complete image is to watch them in a certified theater. Movies like First Man and Top Gun: Maverick each have extended frames affected by what screen you watch them on. In IMAX, you see so much more and really get to build out the world.
Of course, these theaters don't just house Hollywood movies, but also films made around the world. IMAX cameras have been used while orbiting the Earth, there is an amazing film about the Mars Exploration Rovers, titled Roving Mars. Also, shorter 3D films show in museums like T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous and Haunted Castle.
Summing Up "What Is IMAX? And What is the Difference Between IMAX and Standard?"
With their only real competitor being Dolby Cinema with super-vivid images mainly in High Dynamic Range with shadow, it seems like IMAX is here to stay for the long run. So you better get schooled in the way it works and why it is important.
What are some of your favorite titles filmed with these cameras? Is there a director you think uses the medium best?
Let us know in the comments!