IMAX Is Innovating With Remote Theatrical Quality Control, Laser Projection And A Commitment To Film

By now you've probably heard that the world famous Grauman's Chinese Theater has not only been renamed, but renovated into one of the biggest IMAX theaters in the world. The TCL IMAX Chinese Theatre is a thing of beauty, sporting the third largest IMAX screen in North America and biggest IMAX capacity in the world.

What's even more amazing about the theater is how IMAX is using it as a testing ground for some of its more groundbreaking technology. For example, to make sure everything is up to the IMAX standard, the theater is equipped with special microphones and cameras that feed into an internal server. There, IMAX employees can monitor picture and sound quality remotely. If the sound isn't balanced or picture is too dark, they can fix it online.

Plus, in the coming months, the TCL IMAX Chinese Theatre will be one of the first venues in the world to have a revolutionary laser projection system that will be capable of a contrast ratio of almost 9,000:1, which is almost double the clarity of even the best film projectors.

After the jump, Brian J. Bonnick, the Chief Technology Officer of IMAX, talks about those innovations as well as how film projectors and film cameras are still part of IMAX's plans.

Below are Bonnick's quotes from this week's press event at the TCL Chinese Theatre. First, he talks about how IMAX can remotely control your theatrical experience using some of their new technologies.

We have a device in [the projector] called an "image enhancer," which is like a super computer that's got the power of about a hundred desktop computers. This device takes the content and manipulates the data to the two projectors to insure we have a pristine image on screen. And just like how we used microphones in the theater to monitor the sound, there is an industrial camera mounted between the two projectors just inside [the theater]. It looks to the screen as your eyes. Again, it's patent pending and nobody else in the world does this.We are looking and what you're looking at and it provides data back to the image enhancer, so we can constantly optimize what's going on the screen. It all goes back to this concept of preserving quality of presentation and trying to take it a notch higher. We are really excited with this technology. It's helping us really to take projection technology to the next level.

He elaborated with a few examples:

The image enhancing super computer is inside [a computer standing next to the projector] and it's collecting data through the image enhancer. We are then connected, via the internet, to these devices. We can do simple things.... We are the only integrated... Sound projection, show automation, show control, are all tied together. So when an operator is having a problem, we can actually dial in. I've had a couple of cases where somebody will phone and say, "Well, I tried this and it didn't work." Here's a guy at our end going "Well that's not quite true. You pushed this button, then you pushed that button, then this button." The whole point is you want to give your operator the assistance they need if they run into a problem. In addition, we want to know if there's a problem with a system. So as an example, we are now monitoring the fans of the system. What we've recently discovered is as a fan starts to fail, the current starts to go up. So now we are looking at monitoring current in a fan on a preventive basis. So if a current starts going up, we are going to replace it at the next service for that fan even though it has not yet failed. That's a big difference between what we do and what other companies out there do.

Next, here's what Bonnick had to say about the revolutionary laser projector they're developing for (hopefully) late 2014:

I want to talk a little about laser technology. IMAX is undertaking our largest R&D steps that we've taken in forty years. We are developing a laser-based projection system based off some Kodak intellectual properties that we have been sold rights to in addition to access to all ten thousand Kodak patterns. That, coupled with our own IT and a partnership with Barco, is allowing us to do a ground up development of a new technology. To give you an example, every digital projector for the last twenty years has chips mounted on a fancy piece of glass that creates the red, green, and blue. When you're moving to lasers, you already have red, green, and blue, so you don't need this piece of glass. We are throwing it away. There are ten other reasons for why we should do that, but that is a very radical departure from existing technology.One of the most important thing a filmmaker is concerned about with projection is contrast. Film projectors can give you, on a good day, 3,500 and 4,000 to one contrast. This is the Achilles' heel of digital projectors as others in the marketplace right now are maybe 2,000. The IMAX one is around 2,600 or 2,800 on a good day, so we are a lot better, but we are not where we want to be. IMAX film is around 4,000. The IMAX laser system will get at least 6,000. The prototype system right now is running at 8-9,000 and the whole point is this is something that's important to the filmmaker. For the consumer, we will be able to give you an extended color gap. And again, we are the only company that uses dual projectors in both 2D and 3D modes, so we are getting more light on the screen, more pixels on the screen.

Finally, I asked him with this push towards digital, how IMAX could still accommodate any filmmakers who still want to shoot IMAX film.

In IMAX we are, funny enough, building more film cameras as there is that demand for them. We also have the world's only 3D integrated camera, which is being used right now on Transformers 4. So for Chris Nolan, he loves shooting on film. It still is the best medium to capture. The difference for IMAX is when it's captured in film we scan it and convert it into the digital, but the way in which we do it is substantially slower than everybody else. We want that piece of film to come across, where digital devices would be, we want it to settle down and be perfectly still before we take that snapshot. So we are running at maybe three frames a second whereas everybody else is maybe ten to twelve. So again, we also capture the highest possible resolution even though there are no digital projectors in the world that present it that crisply. We take advantage of that in our digital mastering process in that way using a technique called "over sampling." So if you have more data to start with, even though your output is at the same resolution, you can make it look better by utilizing that data through your development process.

But won't that be impossible if there are no film projectors? I asked if IMAX has any deadline on when they would totally phase out film projectors:

No, we don't have a date. Obviously the market is going to dictate, and thats a combination of what studios decide to do, what Kodak and others decide to do in terms of film stock. The thing we're going to find is 65mm film will be around to continue capture, we're actually building more cameras, but I think film stock to actually present with is going to come down, your guess is as good as mine. We are obviously actively transitioning clients over to digital who would like to, those who want to stay with film, we're fine with that. We're still getting film. We have the likes of Chris Nolan, he loves to capture and present in film. As long as we can support it we will.

To summarize, IMAX is currently using software that allows them to monitor, and correct, problems with the theatrical experience from outside the theater. They're developing a new type of projection that'll be much clearer than anything out there now and they're still encouraging filmmakers to shoot on film, because certain IMAX theaters still have film projection and the one that don't will scan in the film at a quality level beyond what's possible to project. Got all that?