Friday, 21 August 2015

IMAX: The Last Picture Palace

IMAX Melbourne, Nikon F100, Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4, Fujifilm Natura 1600

When Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar returns to IMAX Melbourne for one last night this Sunday, it’ll be the end of an era. At the end of the screening, the massive IMAX GT 1570 film projector will be switched off for the last time; the 272kg platter of 1570 film Interstellar occupies packed up never to be seen on these shores again. As part of the third stage of the cinema’s “upgrade”, IMAX Melbourne is removing the film projector, along with the inferior twin-digital projection system, and replacing them both with the new 4K IMAX Laser projection system.

IMAX claims the new Laser (must...resist...urge...to “finger air quote”) system is a “quantum leap in cinema technology” that provides audiences with “the sharpest, brightest, clearest and most vivid digital images ever”. This is all, of course, marketing guff. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t. As a film and film aficionado, my customary position is to be skeptical of IMAX’s lofty claims for the new system. After all, technology companies have been promising to make film obsolete since 1981’s Sony Mavica and its video floppy disk system (as if you'll ever need more than 490 lines of horizontal resolution!). It has taken three long decades for digital projection and capture to live up to its own rhetoric and even then, the resolution of 70mm IMAX film exceeds virtually all commercially-available digital capture devices. But I will resist the urge to critique the new system until I see it in action.

Interstellar, one of the boldest and most impressive science-fiction films this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is also likely to be the final feature film (partially) shot and projected in 70mm IMAX. The past few years have seen a number of films, particularly those of Christopher Nolan, utilise the format for key sequences. J.J. Abrams is continuing this trend, shooting at least one segment of Star Wars Episode VII on 70mm IMAX. Whether or not the film is released in 70mm IMAX for suitable screens is moot, Melbourne audiences will be seeing it projected via the new Laser system come December.

If there is to be a future for film, digital projection seems to be an inevitable part of it. Perhaps, for the multiplex, this is the best of both worlds: the organic nature of film capture paired with the adequate consistency of most digital projection. But for the world of IMAX and epic event cinema, the removal of capacity to project 1570 film will leave audiences all the poorer. I understand the practicalities of the situation – a projection system is only as good as the films available to present and there is a dwindling number of drawcard movies being shot and projected on 70mm IMAX film – but I still can't help feeling like something truly great is being lost.

So here's to IMAX and the crazy people who made it possible including inventors Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and William C. Shaw; IMAX cinematographers James Neihouse, David Breashears; IMAX director and developer Greg MacGillivray and more recent notables such as Christopher Nolan. The cinema is far richer and more powerful for your efforts and I can't wait to sit down, strap myself in and watch the fruits of your labours one last time.

ELCAN (Ernst Leitz Canada) IMAX projection lens. German-born know-how made in Canada – optics without compromise. Source: For the Love of Film – Interstellar IMAX® Featurette 

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