The best cinematic experience on Earth
March April 2011

by Courtland Shakespeare

As more and more people install home theatre systems with surround sound and bigger and better, high definition, widescreen televisions and projection systems, they will always remain on approach to the ultimate goal - a personal IMAX« theatre.

It is truly the “max.” It’s as good as it gets and it’s based right here in Mississauga.

Anyone who went to see Avatar in IMAX« 3D last year remembers the long lineups and sold-out shows, but most will admit it was worth the wait. Whenever any great visual carnival comes along, the graphic fanatics will accept no substitute for IMAX«. The name is famous around the world as the absolute best immersive, cinematic experience you can have.

As of last fall there were 445 IMAX theatres in 47 countries, but the tradition of brilliant innovation and audience astonishment actually began with four Canadian men (three from Ontario). One of them (Robert Kerr) served as mayor of both Galt and Cambridge before becoming chairman of IMAX for over 30 years. His high school friend, Graeme Ferguson interned at the National Film Board of Canada before becoming a freelance filmmaker. Graeme was President of IMAX until 1990. William Shaw also went to school with Bob and Graeme, but became an engineer and worked at the Ford Motor Company and later at CCM (Canada Cycle & Motor Co. Ltd.).

The fourth key figure was Roman Kroitor, from Saskatchewan. He worked at the NFB and married Graeme’s sister. It would be his idea (presented to the Film Board) to create an experimental, multi-image project for Canada’s Centennial. Kroitor’s film Labyrinth used ramps, balconies and chambers with multiple points of view to project images five stories high to depict “Man the Hero.”

Ferguson’s film Polar Life was presented to audiences sitting in revolving theatres on a giant turntable with 12 projectors on four screens. The images of the northern lights are considered some of the most stunning shots ever filmed.

The next year Japan’s Fuji group met with Ferguson and Kroitor, because they were looking for a radical film project for their own Expo ‘70 in Osaka. This time, however, it would not be on multi-screens, but instead be shot and projected using film with an image ten times the size of standard 35mm film.

The new company adopted a name suggesting “maximum image” or IMAX. Their first film would be called Tiger Child.

The only trouble was, first they had to invent the technology to shoot it and project it. They managed to get a camera designed by Norwegian inventor, Jan Jacobson, that could shoot 65mm film horizontally. Instead of recording the image vertically the way we see, the image would be captured sideways. 70mm film has been around for over 100 years, but had never been used this way before.

The difficulty in using the film was not with the size, but the size of each frame and the speed at which it had to run through the projector. It kept tearing itself to pieces trying to get up to 24 frames per second.

The company acquired a patent for what is called a “rolling loop projector” from an Australian inventor named Ronald Jones. The film advances like a wave onto registration pins using compressed air to cushion it. Bill Shaw not only adapted the idea and got it to work, but also solved the problems with the projection lamp as well.

Due to the amount of light required to project such a large image in such a short distance, they needed a source equivalent to a military searchlight. The amount of heat the lamp generated could make a block of wood burst into flame. It was Shaw who came up with the combination of a water-cooled metal mirror and a quartz mirror to absorb the heat.

There were also many more issues that had to be dealt with due to the radical new, giant scale. They had to come up with a new seating arrangement for audiences too, now that the screen was going to be six to eight stories high and from 70 to 100 feet wide (depending on the venue). Then there was the film stock itself. The projection print had to be seamless, because edits put together with adhesives tended to come apart.

The solutions culminated here in Ontario with the “Cinesphere” at Exhibition Place. It became the first permanently installed IMAX projection system in 1971. The original projector from Japan was brought over and installed here. Currently playing is Hubble, shot with an IMAX« camera on board the Space Station, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio and produced in cooperation with NASA. Graeme Ferguson is Executive Producer.

In addition to the scientific and documentary aspect of filmmaking, it has also become standard practise for the biggest and best Hollywood blockbusters to open in IMAX theatres. Ferguson always said it was the goal of the company to have a “standardized system that could be used by everybody around the world.” It was their intention to create a standard form of everyday large screen entertainment that would not just be for special, international or world expositions.

Now with IMAX 3D, the commercial side of features has set new box office records. Avatar is just one example. There is a long list of new films lined up to get into theatres this year. Not only that, but the new IMAX 3D digital camera is expected to be available this year as well. Perhaps the biggest innovation and advantage will be the elimination of film. As a digital device the new technology will reduce costs of production and projection and make a whole new level of maximum scale cinema possible.

Most new films also use what IMAX calls DDP (digital disc playback). It was designed by Sonics Associates (an acquired affiliate) specifically for IMAX. There is a six channel audio system with sub bass that is used to compensate and equalize the audio response for optimized playback for each theatre.

Amplifiers deliver more than 2,000 watts per channel to a total of 10,000 to 15,000 watts for the entire system (depending on the location). The speaker array is located to deliver strong directional effects. The subwoofer is enclosed to maximize the lowest pitched sounds including enough power to make the audience literally feel it. Not only is it loud, but for high fidelity enthusiasts, it also allows audiences to hear tiny details.

Perhaps, some day we will get to the point of a projected, ultra-high resolution, seamless 360║ digital dome. With memories of Expo 67, that road will have been paved by the creators of the best large format cinema of all.