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Searching for the Ultimate BIG Screen

I settled into my seat for yet another media screening of a new movie – something I do as often as four times a week. But this one had me waiting in rapt anticipation because it was the IMAX movie – MacGillivray Freeman’s Coral Reef Adventure.

No, I’m not an avid marine biologist… I just love documentaries, and in the IMAX format, almost any subject becomes an engaging adventure.

But the other thing I realized while watching schools of florescent fish swim through my peripheral vision, is that IMAX – at least up until now – may be the ultimate “Family Friendly” film theater.

For those who haven’t had “The IMAX Experience,” it differs from a conventional theater in the basic way that bigger is better. (In fact, writing about IMAX requires a good thesaurus so that I can use every synonym for “big” that is available in the English language!)

It begins with the film itself. Each frame is the size of a small snapshot – 10 times larger than standard 35 mm film -- requiring an enormous projector to zip the film past a massive lens at 24 frames per second. The resulting image is projected on a towering eight-story high screen that allows the view of the film to encompass your entire range of vision, providing a near-virtual experience.

On the other end of the IMAX production chain is a specially built camera – actually several of them. Of course, these too are larger than most conventional movie cameras, although the IMAX Corporation has made them in smaller versions for toting up Mount Everest and strapping onto astronauts. The largest is used for IMAX’s 3D format, and weighs well over 200 pounds.

The idea for a giant movie format originated in Canada during Expo ’67 where many exhibits featured films playing on expanded screens with multiple projectors running at the same time. A small group of Canadians who had made some of those films felt it would be possible to do the same thing with one single projector. The result debuted in Osaka Japan at EXPO ’70.

Presently over 220 IMAX theaters exist, with the majority in North America. Most are located in educational venues like museums, which has been both a blessing and a curse for the IMAX format.

Originally, an IMAX movie was seen as more of a thrill ride. Most filmmakers concentrated on giving the audience the physical sensation of flying, falling, or just feeling queasy. Along with these themes, many movies concentrated on scientific concepts and experiences, which made them a perfect match for a trip to an aquarium or planetarium.

However, with the high costs of producing these films, the relatively small audiences available to view an IMAX movie stunted the economic growth of the oversized movie sibling. Thus a new marketing plan was required, which saw IMAX cinema’s starting to appear in large theater complexes. The idea was to bring IMAX to the massive audiences who were already attending movies.

There was just one small problem – most people headed for a night at the movies aren’t likely to pick a 50-minute documentary about coral reefs over a regular star-studded film. That has led to the experiment of “blowing up” a few select traditional movies like Apollo 13 and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones to bring a wider clientele into the cavernous IMAX auditoriums.

While these movies weren’t ever intended for the IMAX screen, the novelty of seeing Anakin Skywalker’s face the size of a Death Star was enough to make audiences and Hollywood sit up and take notice.

In the future, expect to see major movie releases in both standard and IMAX theaters.
If this comes to pass, IMAX will turn a new corner.

But the blessing of the current state of affairs in IMAX theaters is that most movies made to this point have had wide audience and age appeal and can make for a fun evening at the movies with your family. In fact, titles shot especially for the monster venue make full use of its unique capabilities, allowing you to really “look around” at the picture and focus on various points of interest.

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