“Interstellar”: My Take on IMAX vs. 35mm

I’ve now seen “Interstellar” projected digitally in a multiplex as well as in 70mm OmniMax.
They were very different experiences. Here’s what I noticed…

by Art AdamsIt’s a weird thing to sit in a theater and think, “This may be the last time I see film projected like this.” Adam Wilt said this very thing as we sat together in the San Jose Tech Museum’s OmniMax dome theater waiting for “Interstellar” to start. I’d already seen it in a conventional theater, and I thought it was an okay movie: the photography was very nice, but there were more than a couple of plot holes and obvious twists that kept me from being excited about seeing it again. Still, I’d not been in a real (non-digital) IMAX theater in a long time and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see a contemporary movie in one again.

I probably should have seen the film in standard flat IMAX instead, as OmniMax is a kluge. It’s impossible to avoid edge distortions in dome projection, and the wide angle lens used to spread the image across 160 degrees or so reduces resolution considerably. I was completely unable to see a resolution difference between 35mm scope and 70mm IMAX. I’m told the difference between formats is both obvious and spectacular when viewed on a flat screen, but the only change I noticed between formats on an OmniMax screen was that the 65mm image was a lot larger.

Sadly that didn’t make a huge difference to my viewing experience as the IMAX screen is meant to be overwhelming. There’s no way to see it all at once, so when the top of the frame expands by ten feet you really have to be looking in the right direction to notice it. Most of the time I felt like I was watching 4:3 extraction from a scope print, as I could only see the center of the screen comfortably without twisting my head side to side. At some point I stopped paying attention to the sides of the frame as doing so made my neck hurt.

I habitually avoid sitting in the front rows at movie theaters. I have friends who don’t want to sit anywhere else as they want an “immersive” experience, but I don’t want an experience that’s so immersive that I can’t experience all of it. I find live stage events much less interesting than movies because I like having a frame around the action: camera placement and the arrangement of objects within the frame is, for me, an integral part of the storytelling process. I lose that impact when I can’t see the edges of the frame, or when I can’t see the entire frame at once.

Still, I’ve heard plenty of fellow DPs say that the flat screen IMAX experience was stunning–but primarily because of the image size, not necessarily because of increased resolution. The most interesting OmniMax shot was, for me, when the Ranger rode up the crest of a massive wave. The screen was filled with the wave’s rippling surface and the amount of detail filling my entire view was staggering. It was a similar experience to viewing a 4K image on a 4K monitor, where there’s so much detail that I almost don’t know where to look. That one shot demonstrated the true power of a large frame presentation. Most of the rest of the shots were pretty, but I didn’t get that sense of scale simply from a large image whose edges I couldn’t see. It took a lot of detailed texture and a small focal point to really bring the IMAX effect home.

The problem, as I see it, is that Interstellar was shot primarily for display on a standard sized screen while also protecting for presentation in a much more immersive format. Here’s a Youtube video that shows what it’s like to view the video tap of an IMAX film camera:

Notice how the ground glass markings direct the operator to place important information in the center of the frame and away from the edges. Notice, also, the horizontal dotted lines denoting the “sweet spot” for action: this is the most comfortable place for the audience to look when seated in an IMAX theater, which puts the top of the screen in their peripheral vision to create a sense of total immersion.

Based on what I saw in my OmniMax experience the filmmakers didn’t really keep any of this in mind. There are otherwise beautiful shots in space where the spaceship is way off to the right side of frame, to the point where the audience could actually miss seeing it if they didn’t look around the entire screen. Most of the action was centered top to bottom in the frame, forcing me to tilt my head back uncomfortably for the entire movie. (One member of our group, who’d had several vertebrae in their neck fused together, couldn’t see enough of the image to warrant staying. After five minutes they left and asked for a refund.)

There were a number of shots that were clearly not designed for IMAX or OmniMax. Most of them are visual effects shots, where the frame is filled with a planetary background but the spacecraft is so far off to one side of the screen that you’ll miss it unless you actively scan every frame by turning your head left and right.

I did find the use of lens flares in space to be intriguing. Once considered a defect, they’ve become a great way to add a dose of both realism and dimensionality to the frame. The light source that creates the flare is generally a great distance away, while the near point of the flare or the veiling flare itself defines the screen, so this one lens defect essentially defines the depth of the frame. All the action that takes place is clearly bounded by the light source and the lens flare itself, and breaking the flare by interfering with the light source helps further define the placement of objects in the frame. I don’t think all lens flares work in this way—I don’t think J.J. Abrams uses them for any other reason than that he’s easily bored visually—but in this case they worked really well.

I’m all for creating spectacular cinematic experiences, and there are a couple of IMAX shots in Interstellar that caused my jaw to drop. Unfortunately I wish there were more of them, and I wish that there was a better way to present films like this in both 35mm and IMAX without compromising either experience. Maybe someone will find a way to replace the IMAX experience digitally now that film is nearly dead. I hope so; but I also hope they find a way to make it presentable in a number of venues. IMAX is a great treat, but it’s not really designed as a storytelling format. It’s an amusement park ride that doesn’t insist that you pay attention to dramatic elements appearing at the edges of the frame. It’s all about visual immersion, whereas a normal feature film is about spiritual immersion: we lose ourselves in the story because it resonates with us, not because it’s the only thing we can see at the moment.

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About The Author

Art Adams

Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects.   When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. His clients have included Sony, Arri, Canon, Tiffen, Schneider Optics, PRG, Cineo Lighting, Element Labs, Sound Devices and DSC Labs.   His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE.

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