/Film Interview: IMAX Executives Talk 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' And IMAX Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about IMAX. What films are shot in the format? What films are exhibited in the format? Why are some screens certain sizes and others so much smaller? One fact is, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire now in theaters, it's officially the first time two studio features shot in IMAX have been released in the same year. To mark the occasion, we spoke to Hugh Murray, the SVP of Film Production at IMAX as well as Adam Davis, the Executive Director of Corporate Communications at IMAX, to discuss some of these misconceptions and talk about the innovations and choices being made, both in Catching Fire, and at IMAX in general.

How was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire shot?

Director Francis Lawrence and his crew used three IMAX film cameras to film the final 50 minutes of the film in IMAX. They wanted the arena battle to look larger than life and IMAX does that, both in picture quality and size. Here's Murray:

There are IMAX film cameras that use 65mm negative running horizontally. Every frame is almost three inches wide. The detail you get is unparalleled. Kodak says that 35mm film has 6K resolution horizontally if you've got it off a 35mm negative, but our negative is three times larger than that, so you're looking at potentially 18,000 pixels across as your starting point before you do anything else with it. It's captured in the camera. So it's an amazing capture medium and a lot of the forest shots and the wide shots in the arena sequence, it's the perfect camera for all of those details.

How does IMAX make footage shot on 35mm and 65mm look and sound the same in one movie?

If one third of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was shot with IMAX cameras, something has to happen to the rest of the footage to play in IMAX. IMAX called this their "DMR Process" (which stands for Digital Media Remastering) where footage captured with either a digital camera, or 35mm film camera, is transferred digitally to their company and then enhanced. Again, here's Murray:

However the film is shot, it arrives to us in digital form and we run it through a proprietary DMR process, a process that reduces the visible noise when you blow an image up to a really large size and fills out detail as well, so that the image looks terrific when you get it on larger screens. We also adapt the soundtrack as well, so that it plays to IMAX's proprietary audio system.

This is the process most films released in IMAX go through to screen in IMAX. Which raises the question...

Why do some films shot with traditional cameras look different in IMAX and others do not?

There's a big difference between when you see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in IMAX versus something not shot in IMAX. And most of that is the aspect ratio and shape of the frame. However, what IMAX has discovered on a few recent films – Sam Mendes' Skyfall and Ridley Scott's Prometheus being two examples – that if a filmmaker shoots their movie digitally, that capture creates a slightly bigger frame than traditional 35mm, allowing for an almost IMAX/35mm hybrid size. Murray explains:

They shot [Skyfall] with the ARRI Alexa, which has got a taller native aspect ratio on the chip. We did some tests just about a year before we started shooting to let them see. I've been canvasing filmmakers to do something special for IMAX and so we did a bunch of tests with Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins with an expanded ratio. Roger wanted to continue to shoot with the ARRI Alexa, but it had enough head room to allow them to create a special tall aspect ratio version just for us.

Is the Alexa the only camera that can do that?

No. Ridley Scott's Prometheus was shot on the Red camera, which offered a similar options. But Murray said this:

If you've got something that's very well shot with a standard lens rather than an anamorphic lens, you can certainly make a taller aspect ratio if you choose. We can run that through DMR and enhance the quality quite a bit. That has happened in other films or movies where some things we didn't set out or didn't plan that way at the beginning.

What are the different IMAX cameras?

Up until now, every feature film shot in full IMAX (of which there have been only a handful – The Dark Knight, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Dark Knight Rises, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Star Trek Into Darkness and now The Hunger Games Catching Fire) has filmed with a 65mm 2D IMAX film camera. IMAX has a 3D film camera available, but most filmmakers find it too big and loud to actually use. (Star Trek Into Darkness is the only of those films to be exhibited in IMAX 3D, but it was post-converted.) It wasn't until recently that IMAX created a 3D digital camera, which will allow 3D capture in full IMAX. The first filmmaker to use that is Michael Bay on Transformers: Age of Extinction. That camera is much smaller and lighter than the other IMAX 3D cameras and will be used quite a bit in the future. There is no 2D digital IMAX camera, but one is being developed. Murray explains some more:

[The 3D digital camera] offers the full height aspect ratio. Our camera is based on a digital camera called Phantom. It's a 3D camera, so we used two of their sensors and the reason we picked them was they were the closest sensor size to IMAX film frames. They're not quite as big as IMAX film frames, but they are very close. They allow us to use the same lenses that we developed for our 3D film camera, which is much bigger and heavier.  This 3D digital camera is very light and compact and easy to use.

What are filmmakers curious about when they come to IMAX?

Filmmakers aren't beholden to just one option when it comes to IMAX. While the camera formats are largely one of three things (2D Film, 3D Film, 3D Digital) they offer a ton of different options after that. Murray described a typical early meeting:

What often happens is a filmmaker who's thinking about [IMAX] will come into IMAX's offices and we will set up some of the choices of cameras from our rental inventory and the lens packages and so on. And they will come in and get hands on and look at them and look at some footage that were shot by them and just have a free ranging discussion. Often they have questions. They want to know "How easy is it going to be to use? How fast is the reload? How heavy is it? Can you fit in a steadicam?" You know, all of the different kinds of things they would want to know before they commit to that particular package.

Will IMAX allow just any film to use their brand name?

No. The company picks and chooses which films they work on very carefully. Adam Davis explains:

We don't want it to get to a point where it's not special anymore and I think we also want to be very selective. If you look at the films that have used these cameras, there's a lot of things that go into the criteria of making sure they are the right film and it's the right filmmaker. So I think we do want to be careful about that. You're probably not going to see a romantic comedy featuring IMAX cameras. As we call it here internally, it's about IMAX differentiation. That's really important for us. We have this great technology in the theater, but it's really up to the filmmaker and how can we get the filmmaker to take more advantage of what that technology can do in the theater. Whether it's specially formatting films in IMAX, we are definitely pushing these conversations.

Why does IMAX have so many smaller-screen venues? Aren't they primarily a large format company?

Well, it's simple adaptation. While IMAX started as the place to see a movie several stories tall, as the brand expanded, they found less and less physical space for those theaters. Davis continues:

There was a transition in the industry where there were these giant movie palaces, these large cool institutions at museums and science centers and for IMAX at least, if you look domestically, we are in all the big venues. If you look at the museums, the science centers, the aquarium, Lincoln Square, we were in all of them and it became this conversation of "Okay, well everyone is building multiplexes and we want to be able to bring our experience to more people and we want filmmakers to work in IMAX more, but the only way that they would work in IMAX more is if we had more theaters." So it was sort of this chicken and egg situation, so Toronto and Houston, our R&D facilities are all there, and they had to go back to scratch and figure out "Okay, well what can we do with a smaller auditorium knowing people aren't building these massive screens like in Lincoln Square." That's actually where they developed the patented theater design. When you started to see stadium seating, that came out of our patented design and they went back and developed a calculated way of "How do we increase the viewing angles?"In some ways it was the way your brain perceives an image, it's like "How do we extend that, so it tricks your brain to think you're there and you feel like you're part of the experience?" That's really what we got into. "How do we distill that immersive experience knowing that we are not always going to be able to build this giant ninety foot screen?" We love those theaters as well. We would love to see more of those theaters. It's funny, with the Chinese Theater [in Los Angeles] we are seeing some movie palaces now that IMAX technology is becoming easier and more digital and with laser coming out, with TVs in the home getting bigger, exhibitors are starting to realize "Okay, maybe there is something again about this sort of movie palace that's this big experience" and we are starting to see visitors coming back towards our direction and starting to work with us to do some cooler stuff again.

What's next for IMAX?

While IMAX is developing more and more film cameras, and will always be improving existing technologies, their primary focus in the next year or so is laser projection. We wrote a huge article about it in the past, which you can read at this link. But to summarize, IMAX has created a brand new projection system that's better than film or digital ever was. They've signed up almost two dozen iconic movie houses across the world to transition to this by the end of next year and they feel it's going to revolutionize the industry.

Oh, and 2014 will be the second year two films shot in IMAX will be released. They are the aforementioned Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

How is Christopher Nolan shooting Interstellar?

Earlier this month, photos leaked of IMAX cameras structurally encased in LearJets on the set of Nolan's latest. When I asked the IMAX brass about this, they wouldn't comment, but Murray did say the following:

Christopher is using our cameras and he's a film guy, so he's using IMAX film cameras, but we can't comment on his process.

Rats. Still, IMAX will continue to push filmmakers and film technology to make the theatrical experience one that's impossible to duplicate in homes, and you can catch a glimpse of it right now as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now playing in IMAX theaters.