IMAX, which stands for Image Maximum, is a motion picture format with the capacity for greater size and clearer resolution than standard movie systems. It was developed by the Canadian IMAX Corporation. It dramatically enhances image resolution by making use of larger film stock (70mm with 15 perforations per frame – 10 times larger than standard). This results in a movie with incredible clarity, even on huge screens that are the hallmark of IMAX theaters worldwide. This, combined with a six-channel sound system, results in an extraordinary movie-going experience.
The key to the IMAX experience lies in several elements working together in combination:
- The large film format which allows for much better resolutions and higher clarity (the dinosaurs in the IMAX movie T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous have five times the detail compared to Jurassic Park);
- A six-channel sound system that is separate from the film (conventional movies have the soundtrack integrated within the film strip). IMAX soundtracks are run on a Digital Theater Audio Control (DTAC) system which uses IMAX’s proprietary software. The soundtrack is a single uncompressed audio file containing the six channels which are distributed directly to amplifiers, unlike other systems like Dolby Digital which requires a decoder;
- A unique projection system that is specifically designed and custom-built to accommodate the 70mm film stock – and “run” it at the standard 24 frames-per-second. This required a huge machine with a different approach to the conventional 35mm format, as well as more powerful lights to be able to project the film correctly;
- The theater itself which is designed in such a way that viewers are looking at the screen directly so their entire field of vision is engaged.
The large film size poses a challenge to producers and directors of IMAX films – an IMAX camera is a huge piece of equipment that is expensive to run and maintain. If ten setups or shots a day was standard when shooting with conventional film, three to four shots a day is going fast for IMAX.
Combine this slowness with higher quality computer-generated (CG) special effects (as noted, the IMAX T-Rex movie required five times more detail than Jurassic Park – which means five times more work and computer storage to get things right) and one has a very expensive movie.
The cost of producing an IMAX movie is the main reason it has never been seriously considered as a pure entertainment medium; most IMAX movies have been documentaries, although there have been efforts made in the past (T-Rex in 1998, Haunted Castle in 2001, both of which are IMAX 3-D films), The Old Man and the Sea, an Oscar winner in 1999, which is the first fully-animated film released on IMAX.
Feature films “in IMAX” are actually conventional movies (shot in 35mm) which were digitally blown-up using IMAX’s proprietary Digital Re-Mastering (DRM) technology. Its first use was in 2002 with the conversion of Warner Brothers Apollo 13, followed by Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions in 2003.