As Hollywood has gone 3D crazy, some filmmakers are embracing an entirely different experience — IMAX. Brad Bird‘s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, in theaters now, features 23-minutes shot with 15-perf 70mm IMAX cameras. The much anticipated The Dark Knight Rises will feature nearly 50 minutes of full IMAX footage.  There is no denying that the IMAX shot footage looks breathtaking, and having the image expand to the full IMAX screen results in an experience unlike anything else.

So the question is: Do you know where to experience these films in full 70mm IMAX? Or have you been watching Digital IMAX, known to most film geeks as “LIEmax”? Because the difference can be EVERYTHING. We will explain the difference, chronicle the history, and answer the question in this week’s edition of Q&A!

A Brief History of 70mm Feature Films

You might recall that classic movies like Lawrence of Arabia and West Side Story were shot in 70mm on the Super Panavision 70 camera and projected in 70mm at special roadshow screenings. In the 1970’s, the IMAX corporation developed a new way to shoot and project 70mm film run through the projector horizontally, so that the width of the film is the height of the frame. The result is a much MUCH larger resolution, from both 35mm film and even the old school “70mm”.

With IMAX format, each frame is 15 perforations wide, and the area of the frame is about 52mm high by 70mm wide — almost 9 times larger than the conventional 35mm frame used in traditional movie theaters. While the aspect ratio of traditional movies is a widescreen (usually 1.85:1 or 2.35:1), IMAX is closer to that of a rectangle at 1.43:1. The IMAX format was originally found in museums and sometimes dome theaters. IMAX theaters began to expand in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s around the time that they developed the IMAX 3D format — it was something unlike what most people had even seen at their local movie theater.

IMAX Goes Hollywood

Around this time, in 2002, Hollywood began releasing up-conversions of movies in IMAX theaters. These up-conversions do not look anywhere as good as a movie shot in 15perf 70mm IMAX, but the argument is made that making a 70mm copy of the 35mm original looks better than a 35mm copy of a 35mm original as it loses less in the transfer and gains from IMAX’s Digital Media Remastering system. Early IMAX up-conversions like The Matrix sequels and a rerelease of Apollo 13 were considered successful, but the 2004 computer animated film The Polar Express in IMAX 3D was a game-winning grand slam (at least a quarter of the film’s gross of $302 million came from less than 100 IMAX screens).

Warner Bros converted scenes from the Harry Potter films and Superman Returns into IMAX 3D, which proved very profitable. But Nolan’s The Dark Knight was a game-changer, and the film’s large format 33-week run grossed $49.9 million from IMAX venues alone — nearly 10% of the film’s gross. The film premiered on 46 times that many standard screens (4,366 domestically).

Mission: Impossible had an exclusive release in IMAX theatres, grossing an amazing $13 million from only 425 screens. Hollywood is taking note, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing a couple more tentpole films each year employ IMAX cameras in their production.

Enter IMAX Digital

The Hollywood success of IMAX resulted in even more expansion. But the 70mm projectors and huge box screens were found to be way too expensive to build in mass quantities. In 2008 the company began the rollout of its solution — a new IMAX Digital theater.

The 70mm projector has been replaced with two Christie 2K projectors which use proprietary image processing. The two 2k images are projected over each other. The resolution is estimated to be about 12,000 × 8,700 theoretical pixels or 6,120 × 4,500 actually discernible pixels. The resulting image is said to be brighter than the standard 2K digital cinema projectors in most cinemas. While IMAX believe their IMAX Digital system offers a sub-pixel accuracy that looks better than Sony’s 4K projectors, there are a lot of vocal critics. The sound system is also much improved from a standard cinema set-up, able to reach up to 14,000W, and offers 117db of uncompressed digital sound without distortion. IMAX also claims that they have devised a way to provide better surround sound to all areas of the theater, including the very back, but critics have not found that to be true.

The system was designed to be installed in existing multiplex auditoriums — moving the screen 30 feet closer to the audience, covering more space from ceiling to ground and left to right, which is said to be perceived as 75 feet wider than before. So while the screen seems much much larger than your normal multiplex screen, it still doesn’t compare to that or a “real” 70mm 15 perf IMAX theater (see the image at the top of this article to see a size comparison).

Also the aspect ratio, 1.9:1, is much closer to that or a traditional movie theater (1.85:1) than a 70mm 15perf IMAX screen (1.44:1). So while the image on the screen should expand some during the IMAX sequences in films like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, it is nowhere near as dramatic as a real IMAX theater. More subjectively, the lower resolution is not quite as breathtaking.

The Problem With IMAX Digital

The big issue is that IMAX and theaters don’t distinguish Digital IMAX theaters from the 70mm 15perf HUGE IMAX theaters. The ticket prices are the same, an estimated $5 more than a traditional screening. If this surcharge is worth it to you is debatable, but the fact that IMAX does not even let consumers know the difference is a travesty. They are completely different technologies, entirely different experiences, but they are marketed as the same thing — IMAX. In the past I have suggested that IMAX market and label the two types of theaters as IMAX Digital and IMAX Huge, but the company refuses to do anything about it. They’re making tons of money? Why be honest to their customers? Most of them probably don’t and won’t know any better, right?

For me the choice comes down to if the film features footage shot in 70mm 15 perf IMAX. Films like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Dark Knight Rises are a must-see in real 70mm IMAX. If you are not seeing the film on a real IMAX screen, you are missing a good chunk of the intended experience. I would never choose to see these films in a traditional theater or an IMAX Digital theater. I would strongly recommend driving to a real 70mm IMAX theater if it’s even within an hour’s driving distance as opposed to a Digital IMAX theater down the street. For these movies the difference is huge, and it is worth it to seek out a real IMAX theater. There is a reason Christopher Nolan ONLY released The Dark Knight Rises prologue in real IMAX theaters. At a press event, he urged journalists to tell their readers to seek out the 70mm presentation as it provides an experience like no other.

Warning: Some Huge 70mm IMAX Theaters Have Gone/Are Going Digital

Whats worse is that some of the older Huge screen 70mm IMAX theaters are converting over to digital projection. Some Batman fans were surprised not to see their real IMAX theater on the list of 70mm screens showing The Dark Knight Rises prologue. This is the reason why. You can no longer guarantee that your movie screening will be projected in 70 mm by the size of the IMAX theater these days. While I haven’t experienced one of these converted theaters, I can’t imagine that the 2x2k digital projection on a huge old school IMAX screen would look bright enough to rival a normal cinema theatre.

Disclaimer: IMAX Digital is NOT The Devil, It’s Actually… (Sometimes) Great

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think IMAX Digital is evil. The IMAX digital image and sound presentation is better than your traditional multiplex screen. I would see movies in IMAX Digital over a standard 2k digital movie screen if I were presented with those two choices. Especially with 3D movies, you will get a brighter, more immersive 3D experience.

How Do You Find A Real 70mm IMAX Theater? Keep Reading >>

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