Imax Keeps Updating Itself at Breakneck Pace

Imax execs are quick to point out that the company is much more than a large-format movie maker.

“We’re an end-to-end solution,” says Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster. “In everything that we do, we constantly try to up the ante.”

Imax accomplishes that by constantly innovating and updating its technology, from the cameras that capture the images to the systems that monitor the in-theater experience.

The first innovation was the initial Imax camera and projector system, developed in the late ’60s. It took 65mm film stock — a large format generally reserved for epics like “Ben-Hur” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” nearly twice as wide as standard 35mm film — and flipped it on its side, so it runs past the gate horizontally, not vertically, 15 perforations per frame instead of the standard five. This tripled the image area on the 65mm film stock (and its resolution), creating a taller 1.43:1 aspect ratio frame that, when projected on a similarly oversized Imax screen, produced an immersive spectacle that could effectively put viewers in space, deep under water, in far-off lands or up close with exotic creatures. It earned Imax a sci-tech Oscar in 1997.

Over the years, Imax has produced a succession of innovative film, digital and 3D camera and projection systems. But, from a commercial standpoint, Imax’s most significant innovation of the past two decades is its DMR digital remastering technology that reduces the grain and noise in the image, enabling Hollywood films to be blown up for projection on the larger Imax screens. The first DMR conversion was a re-release of “Apollo 13” in 2002, and the technology has evolved over time as the industry has shifted from 35mm film to digital, creating a new array of technical challenges.

For instance, in a sandstorm scene in 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “our technology removed a good portion of the [CGI] sand, so we had to write a new little algorithm to deal with that,” says Brian Bonnick, Imax’s chief technology officer.

Imax came out with its first digital projector in 2008, which not only kept it at pace with technological change in the industry, it allowed huge cost savings, enabling the distribution of films via $150 hard drives instead of Imax celluloid prints, which can cost up to $30,000 each.

More recently, Imax spent $50 million to develop its new dual 4K Imax with Laser projection system, which is 60% brighter than the company’s previous xenon bulb projectors. Based on patents licensed from Kodak, it debuted in 2014 alongside Imax’s new 12-channel sound system.

The dual projector Imax with Laser system is installed in 52 of its larger auditoriums with 1.43:1 aspect ratio. It’s currently preparing to roll out its new single-projector Imax with Laser system, designed for smaller theaters with 1.9:1 aspect ratio screens.

Other digital projectors use a prism to divide light into three separate color streams that bounce off separate chips to create red, green and blue pixels. The Imax with Laser projector eliminates the prism, reducing stray light, which improves the color contrast. It also produces a sharper image and a wider color spectrum than other projectors.

To keep the image accurate, an Imax projection system performs a self-check every morning when it powers up. Using an industrial camera pointed at the screen and an array of microphones around the theater as its eyes and ears, it reads reference images and tones in the auditorium and compares them against known good reference for that specific theater. If there is a minor issue, such as a change in loudspeaker performance due to a shift in temperature and humidity or a misalignment of the dual lenses used for 3D projection (that can cause headaches in viewers), the system corrects itself automatically.

If the system is unable to self-correct, a message is sent to one of its two Network Operation Centers (NOC) in Toronto and Shanghai, where the problems are diagnosed by technicians who can make a manual adjustment remotely or dispatch a crew to the site, if needed, to fix an issue, such as a blown speaker.

With the NOC system, first implemented in 2008, “over 94% of all problems are solved remotely now,” says Bonnick. “It’s good for both the exhibitor and us.”

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