IMAX talks the future of cinema, laser projection, doubling up 4K, camera tech and more
IMAX is often cited as the pinnacle of cinema. The giant-screen cinema format has been undergoing something of a renaissance of late. Hollywood's embrace of IMAX's cameras in established movies such as Chris Nolan's Batman sequels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, as well as upcoming summer blockbusters such as JJ Abram's Star Trek: Into Darkness have bolstered an already strong brand into something even cooler.
A moderate hindrance, then, that Pocket-lint's echoey, delay-ridden phone line from Canada via London is showering down technical glitches the likes of which IMAX chief technical officer Brian Bonnick probably isn't used to.
"Our equipment's all customised," Bonnick tells us in our exclusive interview. "We have a patent-pending solution where we have microphones permanently mounted within our venues that listen as if they were your own ears as to what's going on. It will give us an alert if something's not right and we can remotely tweak the tuning in the theatre [from IMAX headquarters]."
Right now we could do with the same level of remote technical support to fix up the poor UK service provider's line. But we soldier on in our chatter with an eager and knowledgeable Bonnick, who joined IMAX in 1999 as vice-president, research & technology, and was appointed to the executive vice-president position in 2006. It only seems apt to kick off discussing audio.
With the likes of Dolby Atmos rolling out in cinemas - but not IMAX - where does IMAX fit into the equation?
"The first point to make about Dolby Atmos is that they developed a new mixing standard whereby through what they call 'objects' they can originate a source of the sound from a specific location within the theatre by adding more loud speakers into the theatre. And that concept works. It's a good concept. It provides the film maker with the creativity to do a little bit of 'special effects'. So that's all a good thing. But that's really all that they have done."
"Where they've missed the boat - and I'm quite pleased about it - is that all of the equipment in the theatre is still standard grade materials. The way that they've tuned the theatre, which is very critical, is still following standard industry practice. So they have created for themselves a gain in one area which is great - it's a great idea - but they haven't followed through the rest of the equation.
"That bodes well for us [IMAX] because we have followed through from the point of capture right through to the point of presentation - our equipment's all customised. You want every loudspeaker to sound identical to the next loudspeaker in that room and if they don't the frequency would be just marginally off and your brain's very good at picking that up. So those are the sort of things that we focus on; providing the complete clarity of sound if you will."
Bonnick's years of experience fuel an almost prescribed verse of information to roll off his tongue: he is clearly passionate about IMAX's role in cinema. But we can't help but press him on where not only cinema technology is headed but how the rise of home cinema technology - in particular Ultra-High Definition 4K consumer tech - might affect the future of cinema.
"My personal feeling is that over the years as home theatre systems get larger and more cost-effective they will present a greater competitive threat to your conventional theatre. This is where I think IMAX has some fantastic opportunity: given that IMAX is non-conventional and extremely immersive [I think] you're going to have a hard time creating the same immersive experience in a home."
With both screen technology and source capture escalating in resolution where does IMAX intend to go from here?
"We are presently undertaking our largest R&D investment that this company has ever had in the development of a laser projection system. We're going about this from ground up saying 'What are the benefits that laser can bring?' Brightness is one. High-contrast is another. A higher colour gamut - meaning, if you think about Avatar, actually being able to display a true fluorescent blue or green on the screen; so a broader range of colours if you will.
"Lasers lend themselves to all those and numerous other benefits, but to take advantage of all those things you're going to be hard pressed to do it with the existing projector technology of today. You've really got to start ground up and create a completely new system. So that's the approach that we're taking.
"Obviously it's more expensive but we firmly believe that the gains at the end of the process are going to be quite notable and differentiated."
And what about resolution?
"Our laser solution will be 4K but it's actually even better than that because - and we're the only company that does this [for 2D display] - we use dual projectors. We're, so to speak, superimposing double the pixels on the screen and creating a much higher perceived resolution on screen; a greater level of sharpness. The 'screen-door effect', as we refer to it - when you see those little black lines in between the pixels on screen - IMAX cuts that visibility [of the lines] down by 50 per cent."
In 2011 IMAX was granted an exclusive license to use since-bankrupt Kodak's next-generation laser projection technology, a product the company's had in development for years. The ins and outs of what sets this technology apart from other competitors' is very much under wraps, bar that it's ideal - according to Kodak's original October 2011 press release - for "the illumination of IMAX 80 to 100-ft screens and domes [for] a brightness and clarity not currently attainable in these formats". We press further to see just how much better and brighter we can expect the experience to be.
Amid rustling sounds we hear Bonnick ask, "Have we made it public what we've been telling people?"
"You can use approximate figures, yeah," comes a booming reply down the line from his - until this point - unknown present colleague. The door has opened and we've got a foot in, so it's back to Bonnick:
"Okay, so here's your reference. Today most digital projectors out there are around 1800-2000:1 [contrast ratio], or in that range. IMAX, through what we're doing today [in 2013], is at around 2500-2800:1, so we're higher than everybody else. IMAX projection film is in and around - you know, there are always variables that play into how well the system has been set up - the 4000:1 range, give or take. IMAX laser is going to be double that, at around 8000:1.
"That is like the holy grail for the film maker. They love it. We did a demo last year [in 2012], a closed demo [where] we brought some filmmakers in [to see] our prototype laser system and they absolutely loved what they saw on screen. More so than I thought they would because, you know, when you have a prototype you always get this little artefact here or there. But they said, 'Ugh, forget those, we just love what we're seeing'."
Will this new-fangled laser technology have a particular name; do you think that the average punter is going to understand exactly what this technology is and what it will bring to their experience?
"Well, we don't really try and sell our technology. Our technology is the enabler behind the important thing which is the experience; the immersive experience. So generally when we sell systems we'll take a prospective client and say, 'Come with me I'm going to take you to an IMAX theatre.' And when they see the image and hear the sound that's kind of what brings them in, you know? Kind of like how a lot of people look at a Ferrari and go, 'Wow, that looks so nice,' and yet they have no idea what's really under the hood, they just like what they see."
And when can we expect to see the new laser technology rolled out in IMAX venues?
"We're looking to launch to start out in the middle of next year . Any R&D (research and development) always has a little bit of variance in it, but that's the target that we're working to."
IMAX cameras' distinctive 1.43:1 aspect ratio is derived from scans of its large 70mm film negatives which make for an explosive, all-encompassing view. Pocket-lint was treated to an early show of the opening 30-minutes of Star Trek: Intro Darkness at IMAX London Waterloo. When that screen expands into near-square format it really does immerse; it's like a visual theme park ride. But such capture technology is a pricey solution that requires chemical film processes, development and then digital conversion.
What of the future - will we see a digital equivalent IMAX camera any time soon?
"We've developed the world's first integrated 3D digital camera which Hollywood is very actively looking at - it's been used in some films already, such as Born To Be Wild. My standard line is that I challenge people. I go, 'I want you to go and watch that movie and you tell me which scenes were shot with our digital 3D camera and which scenes were shot with our film-based 3D camera. I'll give you 10 bucks if you can tell me.' And the reason I say that is because I know I'm going to win. The quality of the product is great."
And what of resolution, will that continue to rise? Companies such as Red are producing 4K or even 8K cameras.
"There's a lot of play in the market place. The chips that they [Red] use have what we call a bayer pattern and it means that there's a certain number of pixels but they're sharing them between red green and blue colours. So when you whittle it all back down to what is real resolution you cut those numbers down quite a bit.
"You get to a point where people talk a lot about resolution but you can't ignore all the other variables. The reason film makers love IMAX is partly because we can digitally remaster and enhance and bring all the pristine imagery out of their creative craft, but we provide a higher level of brightness, a higher level of contrast and these are things that are really important to them. You don't get a washed-out image and you get really black blacks. That's what they want and that's why they're working with us - because we're the only company that can get them as close to what they would consider the perfect image with today's technology."
What about film scans in your analogue-to-digital conversion; does IMAX scan higher than 4K and at what resolution?
We usually scan at the highest possible resolution, so yes we're scanning at higher levels than 4K. We're not - well, we are - scanning for future use, but we're scanning for existing use because we know that if you provide our digital mastering technology with a higher resolution input - even though your display is not at that high a resolution - you're oversampling and getting more information to work with. We can do a better job in the output product, so that's the primary reason. It costs more to do it, but we get a better product out at the end."
Does that have any impact on the home consumer? Will there be a new content standard delivered by IMAX for example?
"I'll answer that question in this way: theatre has always been our core business and as a company now we recognise that we have great brand power; great brand recognition. We also have some fantastic technologies and these lend themselves well into many alternate applications beyond that of just in the cinema. I think our intention is to take advantage of some of these alternate opportunities. In 10 years' time you're going to see IMAX in many other market places, I think that goes without question."
Professional, yet ultimately coy in his answer. We further discuss the way new digital camera technologies are already obtaining sharper images with greater colour-accuracy than ever before, through from Foveon's three-chip stacked sensor, to Fujifilm's proprietary colour array allowing for the removal of the low-pass anti-aliasing filter from a number of its cameras. We get a sixth sense kind of feeling that Bonnick's lighting up at the other end of the line, but as enthusiastically as he continues to speak, he's somewhat general about the future of IMAX's capture process:
"We've had over 10 years of image enhancement expertise including quite a few PHDs and engineers [working on IMAX capture]. Think about now: we're able to take the data right out of the camera, pull that [low-pass] filter that you talked about out and do some really cool image enhancement things to an image. We've got the talent here to do these types of things - these are all the sort of things that we're looking at in terms of camera technology and projection technology."
And what of 3D? Is that still a significant factor to IMAX's business and future direction?
"We have always taken the stance that there's a place for 3D and there's a place for 2D. Personally, I'm a 2D guy, I really like a good quality movie in 2D. I do not see 3D becoming the standard and taking over from 2D. It's very much an artistic decision made by a film maker, so we support it. Film-makers and production houses are getting better at both capturing and converting content into 3D and reducing the number of artefacts that they used to have. I have no complaints about 3D, it's just a personal opinion."
So film critics Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode were right all along? With or without the those passive 3D glasses in tow, it looks as though IMAX is on a path of continued growth.
"I often refer to IMAX as being the first-class airline flight and the others being business. And there are markets for both. People are willing to pay for first class - not necessarily everybody, but there's a lot that will do, and as long as enough are willing to do so then it's a thriving business."
We're 35-minutes deep and have overstretched our interview window's welcome. In wrapping up, Bonnick delivers a sign-off one-liner which not only echoes down our glitchy line, but also resonates around our minds:
"As technology expands, IMAX intends to take full advantage of what it brings us."
Here's the the future: it's not only big, it's bright too, and there's yet more to come that, for now, we can still only speculate about.