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When I was thirteen, I went with my father to see The Dark Knight (yes, it was that long ago). My Dad told me a week or so before the release that we’d be seeing it in Manchester. Why Manchester? I asked, it being a two hour journey from our house. Because we’re seeing it on the IMAX, he said. I wasn’t impressed – travelling all that way to see it on something I’d never heard of – the local Vue would do me just fine. But when I stumbled out of the theatre after Commissioner Gordon told us of the ‘hero we deserve’, the medium of film, for me, had changed forever.
“I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented,” says The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar director Christopher Nolan, “It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have.” But let’s just clear something up: The IMAX to which Mr Nolan and myself are referring is not the ‘Imax-lite’ which comprises the majority of fraudulently titled ‘IMAX experience’ films. Most of these films are shot digitally (meaning weaker resolution) and later blown up to fit a larger IMAX screen. This basically means in the expansion of the picture, the image quality isn’t far off your average cinema (and it doesn’t even fill the screen). Still somewhat of an improvement from your local ODEON, but it’s not the real deal.
And unless you’ve seen The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Mission Impossible 4, Star Trek Into Darkness, Catching Fire or Lucy on the IMAX, this is what you’ve seen, duped out of true IMAX and a few extra quid. So what is the real thing? Let’s get into the geek talk. First: shooting on film, actual tangible film reels, rather than on digital cameras just like the ones we use everyday, produces a far higher picture and sound resolution. Secondly: the most common film format still used is 35mm, meaning the celluloid strips of film have frames which are 35 milimetres wide. Thirdly: the best film format, or aspect ratio, to use is 70mm; double the width of 35mm allowing twice the image quality. IMAX uses 70mm, with specially equipped cameras. Bla bla, technobabble, I know. But to put that in perspective, your Blu-ray disc is 3,000 lines of resolution, whereas 70mm IMAX is 18,000 – sharper than Wolverine’s claws (they did film X-Men on standard 35mm after all…).
But filming this way doesn’t come cheap or easy. That’s why no film has yet been entirely filmed in the IMAX format – the ones mentioned above only have sections shot in 70mm. The movie industry disagree, with directors such as Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson who proclaim the superiority of celluloid, so the use of film is rapidly fading. Interstellar could very well be the last film to be shown in full 70mm, rather than compressed to 35mm. Producers don’t want to spend the money on celluloid (nevermind the crème de la crème at 70mm) when people flock in anyway for digital. Similarly, the cumbersome nature of the huge IMAX cameras deter many filmmakers from using them. But it shouldn’t. Don’t take my word for it: JJ Abrams is adopting IMAX cameras for Star Wars: Episode VII, as it is the ‘#bestformatever’. Need more convincing?
These 18,000 pixels are projected onto the biggest screens you’ve ever seen, filling from corner to corner the London BFI, which stands at 26 by 20 metres: about the height of two double-decker buses. But geek-talk and description can’t do it justice. If you love film, pay that extra ticket price, go find the biggest IMAX near you and experience the best way to see a movie before it’s too late.