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Space Invasion: APOLLO 13 - The IMAX Experience

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Written by: Herb Lash
Date: September 2002

With IMAX Corporation releasing the first "IMAX(R) film" that originated as a live-action 35mm "Hollywood film," BMZ writer Herb Lash asks, "What does 'The IMAX Experience' really mean?"

  

Category: Columns

Never mind reviewing the merits of a seven year old film with an already proven box office popularity. Instead, let us review only new things here. Viewers of APOLLO 13 - THE IMAX EXPERIENCE (main film page) are being told and sold on the novelty of "The Imax Experience." Inevitably, we face the question that is the curious trademark: "The Imax Experience." What does it mean?

Once, in Berlin, I drank in a hotel bar for as many hours as I was standing and finished the night with a bad doner kebab from a street vendor. The next morning after no sleep I went to see LEWIS & CLARK with a blinding headache and a swollen tongue. My seat was excellent. The same theater Stadium Sound and six-story images that were no doubt transporting some viewers to another time and place brought on sensory overload, and had me running through the back streets of Berlin where I was reintroduced to my old friend, der wienerschnitzel. I was unable to return to the theater.

This was certainly a rare "Imax Experience" and not the sort the Imax Corporation has in mind for most of its customers. But it does point to the problems inherent in trying to define and trademark "experience." It has been my experience that Stand Alone Theaters as architectural spaces are major contributors to the "Imax Experience." Large Format Filmmakers (some using nothing patented by Imax) are partners in creating the "Imax Experience." The theatergoer – hopefully, in most cases, not stone-blind and hung-over drunk - contributes to the "Imax Experience." And importantly, technologies from Imax Corporation have played a crucial role in conjuring up the "Imax Experience." So what exactly is this new/old film "APOLLO-13 - The Imax Experience?"

For this viewer, it is an entertaining and fine looking movie full of images never intended for the Giant Screen. Not a single image in APOLLO 13 was conceived, composed or shot with a 70mm framework in mind. The film is a triumph for Imax's DMR process, it represents state of the art blow up technology. But you can't blow up a picture of your house cat and then call it a lion. Ron Howard has been quoted as saying, "I always wanted to make an Imax movie, who knew I already made one!" In claiming to have "accidentally" made a Large Format film, Ron Howard misunderstands what Large Format film is. APOLLO 13 has a few coincidental "Imax moments" - but they are anemic in comparison to authentic 15/70 moments. There is a scene in APOLLO 13 – THE IMAX EXPERIENCE where Tom Hanks jettisons a splashy constellation of urine across open space and the expanse of the Giant Screen. Another astronaut looks on and exclaims, "What a beautiful sight!" The Imax Corporation, once famously sensitive to preserving the pure, family nature of their brand is now calling this an "Imax Moment?" Visions of DMR-meets-Hollywood dollars make corporations do the darndest things.

So again, what is a true "Large Format-Giant Screen-Big Movie-IMAX or Whatever Experience?" It is an experience that begins before the film is made. It begins when a filmmaker discovers an image that can only be recreated through 70mm photography. You can tell the story of wildebeest migration with Polaroid snapshots if you want to. But to understand what thundering wildebeests on the move feel like, you need to experience a film like AFRICA: THE SERENGHETTI. You could be standing with the pit crew at the Indie 500 and you still wouldn't know what it's like to look over Michael Andretti's shoulder as he pushes 200mph down the straightaway - for this, you need to go see SUPERSPEEDWAY. Scope, richness of color and clarity of image matter absolutely within a true Large Format moment - some things cannot be faked.

The most interesting aspects of APOLLO 13 - THE IMAX EXPERIENCE have to do with proving and debunking some of the conjecture, theories and myths attached to live action drama on the Giant Screen. A few of the edits were uncomfortable to watch and there was the occasional close-up that had characters looking more colossal than humans should be allowed (I seat hopped for four different vantage points.) But all in all, the dramatic sensibility of the film was only minimally affected by size increase and image deterioration. Story and suspense are involving enough to keep issues of image quality far from the minds of all but Large Format purists.

The IMAX Corporation has created a new sort of middle ground with the DMR technology - you get a film that is arguably more than standard 35mm and definitely less than 70mm. The Imax Corporation may very well go-a-hunting for old and new Hollywood movies readymade for their DMR technology. APOLLO 13, TWISTER, TITANIC, BARBARELLA (we hope) and the latest installments of STAR WARS and STAR TREK all have what it takes to impersonate an "Imax" movie. This will of course lead to a great deal of hand wringing on the part of Large Format purists and filmmakers. Will the public perception of Large Format films be cheapened/confused? Will authentic 70mm films be squeezed out of the marketplace by Hollywood marketed DMR films? Here is another question: Which has a greater cheapening/confusing effect on Large Format audiences, the invasion of Hollywood blow-ups or the large number of mediocre and uninspired authentic Large Format films now playing on the Giant Screen?

And now, some wild conjecture... Excepting the occasional art house, the only place in the world to go and see a theatrical showing of a documentary film is a Giant Screen theater. Museum film bookers and audiences will never confuse APOLLO 13 with SOLARMAX or THE HUMAN BODY - extinction of the traditional Big Movie seems unlikely. If Hollywood blow-ups claim a permanent share of the Giant Screen pie, perhaps only the best and most innovative (3-D) Large Format films will survive the increased competition for multiplex LF theater bookings. The Large Format moviegoer will benefit from this state of affairs and the production side of the Large Format industry will suffer - except for those clever technicians behind the Imax DMR process.

The proprietary DMR technology is presumably not akin to unraveling the human genome, and other labs/companies will hopefully enter the blow-up market and prevent the Imax Corporation from continuing to define and thereby own the Giant Screen Experience. I would estimate that only about 25% of the images in even the very best Large Format films need to be photographed for 70mm presentation. Maybe we are entering a new era of Hybrid Large Format filmmaking - where DMR type technologies, 70mm cinematography, good editing/matching, good directing and well chosen subject matter will combine to create a new Large Format language that kills off the legendary dragon of Large Format limitations. As always, the market and Imax Corp.'s relentless self-interest will bear things out. . .

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