This confident pride in the product is inherent throughout our interview with IMAX Chief Technological Officer Brian Bonnick. Before answering our first question the CTO semi-seriously states that he could talk about IMAX for hours, and though we had significantly less time with him he still left us with a wealth of information on the company’s future. Among the talking points were IMAX cameras, changes in aspect ratios, and expansion into home cinemas. Have a read below.
With the likes of Dolby Atmos and others constantly improving cinema technology, what are IMAX doing to stay ahead of the game?
“We’re undertaking the largest R&D development this company has ever had in its existence and it ties into a few areas. First it ties into the recent launch of the world’s most functional 3D integrated camera that the filmmakers can use to capture 3D content. It then moves into our digital remastering technology where we’ve launched the next generation of our image enhancement technologies that have been further enhanced to address digital source content above and beyond that of just addressing film based content.
“Then it moves into our projection system where we are developing a new laser based system literally from the ground up and that is a very big departure to every other manufacturer out there who’s trying to figure out how to use lasers to get more light. They’re using the existing alumination optics that have been around for 25 years. We on the other hand have taken a radical approach, literally from the ground up. There is nothing remotely similar to existing laser technology in our new laser system but the benefit it provides us is substantial increases in contrast and image fidelity and things of this nature.
“On the audio front, while Dolby and companies like 3D are coming up with their multi-speaker systems – which is great and enables them to pinpoint sounds from more locations in the theatre – we’ve taken a somewhat different approach in the fact that we have designed our loudspeakers based on a technology called PPS – Proportional Point Source Sound – and what that allows us to do is create the origin of a sound from some locations between two or three speakers. In other words we don’t have to have as many speakers in our auditorium in order to simulate the eminence of a sound from a particular location.
“The last area that we have focused a great deal on is what I call the preservation of the quality of the experience. The idea being you come into a theatre and you tune it and you set it all up but once you leave, generally speaking nobody ever comes back to that theatre to furbish it again for a year in the industry. And it’s going to degrade over that year, the quality of the brightness, the sound…everything is going to degrade unless you’re doing something. So on the visual front, we have an industrial camera that looks at the screen as if it was your eyes and every single morning we calibrate the system. We have microphones permanently located within the theatres – it’s a patent pending technology – that listens to the sound every morning and we calibrate every single morning so every single day you’re guaranteed a pristine presentation. And if there’s any anomaly it generates an alert to our network operations centre and we can dial into the system and make adjustments or if we can’t do that we can send a guy out to the site. Our whole concept is we want to make sure that the first show and the thousandth show are all the same.”
More and more filmmakers are shooting with an IMAX camera now. For a film which isn’t shot in an IMAX camera what makes it a better experience for the average filmgoer?
“If you can get in at the very front end where image is being captured then you have more control. In this case the filmmakers working with us know the IMAX camera and what it’s capable of doing. He knows what our digital remastering technology can do in phase 2, and he knows what our projections and sound systems are capable of. For most theatrical sound systems, the low end goes down to about 40 hertz. We go an entire octave lower down to 20 hertz. That in itself is the difference you would feel, when you’re at a rock concert and you feel your chest palpitating versus you’re hearing it in your car radio. That difference between 40 and 20 hertz is where all that comes in.
“So the filmmaker will take advantage of that because he knows that the IMAX system hardware is capable of reproducing it, whereas other systems are not, and hence, he’s going to pay attention to how he captures the content because he’s been given an extra dynamic range to play with. This is the benefit that comes with it. Our film cameras are capturing at 18,000:1 resolution. Nobody can project with that but the filmmaker knows that if he can give it our digital remastering process, we can produce even higher resolution content. Even though the output product isn’t that high, we can do a technique called oversampling. More data in gives us better value in our enhancement process.
“If you think about the conventional marketplace, the filmmaker has to worry about the drive-in, he has to worry about the premium theatre, he has to worry about the theatre in between, and they all have varying levels of equipment, so he unfortunately has to be able to accommodate the lowest common denominator. The IMAX system is accommodating the highest common denominator if you will, and the other systems fall out from that without utilising all the additional benefits and bells and whistles that we’re able to provide.”
With so many innovations going on behind the scenes, are there any efforts being made to make audiences understand what they’re getting beyond a much bigger screen?
“We used to do that but it’s like a double edged sword. There’s so many competitors and people out there boasting technical numbers. We’re Y+X. For the consumer, they don’t understand what those numbers mean in an objective manner. We used to put specs out and then we realised it was really confusing the consumer, and more so it’s not about the specs for us because there’s so many specs we can put out there, and we realised that it’s about the experience so what we try and do is promote the experience.
“Absolutely the technology is the enabler underneath, and when people such as yourself call us up and want to understand the technology behind the experience myself and others are more than pleased to walk them through. In my view, it almost confuses the consumer because everybody’s out there claiming we got the Benford 2000 this and that. Consumers don’t really understand all of that. The way we try to sell it is go and watch the movie in IMAX, go and watch the same movie in another theatre, and if you don’t get it then don’t bother going to IMAX anymore, because we believe you will get it. You’ll get what the difference is. You might not be able to verbalise that the contrast was way brighter, the colour saturation was more, the images popped off the screen, the acoustics sounded so real, there wasn’t a rattling sound at the high volume scene and so on and so forth. Unless we have the opportunity to do an education with them it’s very hard to get that information to them in a manner that they’d understand. So it’s the experience we’re promoting.”
Though more filmmakers are using the IMAX camera, they only use it to augment select scenes within their films. At times these changes in aspect ratio are noticeable and distracting, but Bonnick is unconcerned.
“All cameras have what we call a sweet spot in the lens. So if you think about our great big 1:4:3 aspect ratio cameras that are more of a square box image, if you look through the lens you’ll actually see a little line inside that represents a 1:7:8 image. Generally what happens is the filmmaker, he knows what the prime viewing area is, and he will generally always keep the core action that he wants you to see inside that box. So in the event that he had to cut the image down because a screen couldn’t accommodate it all, he’s never losing that core information, he’s not going to cut off a face at your eyes, so it’s just a tool they work with and they do this all the time. Generally speaking when they do film they are typically capturing more surface area than what they ultimately use in the final image.”
Another factor which can also have an effect on an IMAX experience is where you sit. With the screen generally much closer to the seating area than at conventional cinemas, sitting in the front rows – particularly when it comes to a 3D viewing – can be frustrating. When we ask Bonnick about this, he gives us the proverbial response before detailing his own views.
“Any seat in an IMAX theatre is a good seat. The reason I’m going to suggest that to you is unlike conventional theatres that tune the audio to the centre seat, they have 31 band graph equalizers that allow them to adjust the frequencies to each loudspeaker. It sound like a lot but it’s not. Because of the way we have designed our loudspeakers, we design them ourselves specific to that venue so that we can get a very wide dispersion of sound. We determine the positions of the loudspeakers and the angles that they aim at in a program and then on sight we align them using lasers and the whole reason we’re doing all of this is to take that centre seat and blow that sweet spot out to cover literally the majority. The very corners are a little bit off but the rest of the theatre is going to be just as good and that way you don’t have to sit centre, you can sit elsewhere, and you’re still hearing the sound the way it’s supposed to be heard. That is all a factor of how we designed the theatre.
“The other thing we do is that we acoustically treat that theatre to achieve very specific noise control and reverberations characteristics, such that one IMAX theatre has been tuned like the next IMAX theatre like the next. Then we go back to the filmmaker and his recording guys have a 72 page standard that we’ve given them telling them how to mix the soundtrack for IMAX and their recording studio gets decked out with some IMAX equipment to make it sound like an IMAX theatre. So we’re mastering the content right out of the gate in a venue that represents IMAX and then we’re playing it back, whereas in a regular theatre that soundtrack can sound so different from one box to the next and we want consistency. When we’re ready to launch the film, usually the filmmakers comes to an IMAX theatre to hear the final product. That’s when we get the final sound-off for approvals.”
With home cinema technology advancing all the time with 4K TV’s and more, are there any plans for IMAX to expand to that area? We know Seth MacFarlane installed an IMAX at his home last year…
“We’ve already launched a $2.5 million home theatre solution and for another $2.5 I’ll get you a house to put it in. We’re also looking at moving downstream into something that would be a bit more cost-effective than a $2.5 million solution, the whole idea being to bring IMAX technology and IMAX content to the home viewer in a customised solution. Rather than just going and picking things off the shelf like most consumer electronics specialists do, this system is all designed together including the room, the geometry of it to optimise bass and all this sort of stuff, so yes we are entering that and we’re continuing to explore new market opportunities outside of cinema. Obviously we’re not going to jump too quickly because we have our brand at stake and whatever we get into, it has to be the best in that field.”
Be sure to return to the site later this week for the second part of our IMAX feature, where we go behind the scenes at the newly installed IMAX at EMPIRE Leicester Square.