Imax and the Return of 70mm

I saw The Dark Knight in Imax on Monday (read my review). Although once skeptical, I’m now a fan of the giant format as the best way to present the most spectacular of Hollywood entertainments.

Regular Bayflicks readers know that I’m a fan of 70mm. In that format’s second golden age (roughly 1977-1993), the movies I went out of my way and paid extra to see that way included the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, Alien, Apocalypse Now, Gandhi, Amadeus, The Last Emperor, E.T., Ghostbusters, Days of Heaven, Silverado, Remains of the Day, the Lawrence of Arabia restoration, and a whole lot of lesser works I’m trying to forget. Now I’m ready to consider going out of my way and paying extra to see similar movies in Imax.

Technically speaking, Imax is 70mm, using the same film stock as was used for the films mentioned above. But it uses three times as much of that film to create a frame that is not only very wide but also very tall. While a film shot for 2.35×1 35mm scope projection can fit snugly into a conventional 70mm frame with just slight horizontal cropping, it has to be letterboxed to look good in Imax. True Imax movies–mostly documentaries and travelogues–use the full height of the screen and fill it with tremendous detail.

My first Hollywood Imax experience, The Matrix Reloaded, disappointed me, and not just because it was a lousy movie. It looked horrible, although I’ve been told that the 35mm prints also looked bad, and that the look was intentional.

But The Dark Knight really uses the large format. While most action films today are shot in an inferior process confusingly called Super-35, and must be blown up just to fill a standard scope frame, cinematographer Wally Pfister shot most of The Dark Knight in full scope. With more detail in the negative, the images filled the Imax screen’s width (although, since letterboxed, not its height) with a rich, textured image. It looked at least as good as the best 70mm blow-ups of the early 1990’s.

Select scenes, mostly action sequences and establishing shots, were actually filmed in Imax. You can easily identify these shots; they’re not letterboxed and therefore fill the entire screen. They’re also so real you don’t feel like you’re just looking at the real world. I doubt the frequently-changing aspect ratio bothered anyone.

From what I’ve read, the Imax footage is vertically cropped to the wider aspect ratio in the 35mm prints. The movie would hold up on a conventional movie screen, but in Imax, the thrills were bigger, better, and stronger, and the urban landscapes all the more beautiful.

A short trailer for the next Harry Potter movie proceeded the feature, and promised select scenes shot in Imax 3D. I’ve already promised my daughter that we’ll see it that way. At least for some films, I’m a fan.

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