Pics undergo big changes for giant-screen format

Auds have learned to be wary of movies converted to 3D, as some pics have failed to deliver the premium experience paid for.

But conversions for the other popular premium format in the marketplace, Imax, have so far faced no such resistance. In fact, gross box office for films converted for Imax exhibition using the company’s DMR process doubled in 2010 to $546 million, and those conversions go largely unremarked upon.

But converted they are, in ways that can alter a movie fairly drastically — and not always in ways filmmakers like.

Morphing a movie to Imax involves several steps that can vary from pic to pic. David Keighley, the company’s executive veep and overall post-production guru, says Imax spent a lot of time and money developing its proprietary conversion DMR process to remaster a picture.

The company uses complex, expensive software to de-grain or “smooth out” the picture.

“We make the film brighter, we change the color saturation and we also have to deal with any visual noise in the film when we make the picture larger, because we’re asking you to sit closer to the screen,” Keighley says.

Following the DMR process, filmmakers can also choose to convert the aspect ratio of their film for exhibition in the Imax format.

The Imax aspect ratio is 1.43:1, not far from the traditional “Academy” ratio of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But most movies today are released in widescreen formats, either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1.

Some movies are shown letterboxed in Imax, but the filmmaker has the option to change the aspect ratio to fit the squarer screen, which can change the look and feel of a widescreen picture.

The movie’s sound also gets an overhaul. It’s remastered uncompressed to make it as visceral as possible. It’s then pumped out into the theater using DSL-4D sub-bass 15,000-watt speakers. (Some viewers complain that means cranking up the bass to ear-splitting levels.)

The conversion can involve a lot of tampering with the movie, but Keighley says Imax works closely with filmmakers in the process.

“Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, all those guys have been in our hallways for days and weeks during the time we’re getting their films ready for an Imax release,” says Greg Foster, president of filmed entertainment for Imax. “We work with them to make sure they feel their original intent is honored and that they’re satisfied with how the film looks.”

Nolan in particular has embraced the format. He specifically shot sequences of “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” in 65mm large-format film that were then projected in “native” Imax in Imax theaters.

“You get incredible things from Imax as a filmmaker,” Nolan says. “The screen shape and size makes the experience more immersive and the resolution of the image is simply the gold standard in exhibition.”

But some filmmakers have expressed reservations about Imax.

Cameron, in a 2006 interview with Variety, said he didn’t care for the giant-screen format for narrative filmmaking.

“Yes, they have more resolution, but they also have too much screen. It’s too in-your-face, and it fills too much of your peripheral field,” he said.

He objected that the giantscreen format undermines the director’s ability to use framing and composition to guide the viewer’s eye.

(Nonetheless, a few years later, Cameron’s epic “Avatar” was released in Imax twice, including an extended edition released only in Imax.)

In the end, there’s one main reason that Imax conversions have been noncontroversial, compared with 3D conversions.

Those 3D conversions are done by producers and studios who may are more interested in a quick buck than quality.

All Imax conversions, by contrast, are done by a company that has every reason to maintain quality and protect the its proprietary format: Imax itself.

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