Imax takes LF to the stars

Like most any developing entity, the growth of large-format production is measured not in years, but rather in milestones. That the medium is far from its infancy - more than 30 years - is irrelevant. It only began its emergence this...

Like most any developing entity, the growth of large-format production is measured not in years, but rather in milestones. That the medium is far from its infancy – more than 30 years – is irrelevant. It only began its emergence this decade, and producers and analysts agree lf has yet to near its prime.

To be sure, the milestones are coming more quickly nowadays. The last landmark came in 1998 with the release of Everest, and we already know that the next one, the release of Disney’s Fantasia 2000, will likely change the business dramatically. The question now is how?

But while the public’s attention has been drawn to the fantastic potential of the reworked Disney classic for the giant screen, engineers at Imax Corp. in Mississauga, Ont., have been quietly finishing a new technology for a production that, when the stars align, may shine brighter than any other.

Early next year, Imax plans to launch into space two new 3D cameras specially designed to document the building of the International Space Station. The IMAX 3D Space Camera, developed in association with nasa and Lockheed Martin Corp., will accompany missions to the space station through 2000.

Former Imax film production executive Jonathan Barker says it is exactly this kind of cooperation between filmmaker and technician that has marked the evolution of lf from its early days. These landmarks, he says, open the eyes of people and suddenly interest multiplies in the medium.

‘It doesn’t happen because one more year has gone by. It happens because somebody makes a film that causes everybody to go, ‘Oh my God,” says Barker, whose Toronto production company, Shaftesbury Films, is set to begin a $16-million 3D project with the working title Journey to the Centre of the Brain. Director Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) is helming.

Space camera, a landmark development

nasa and Imax have a long working relationship, the fruits of which have seen five films shot in outer space. Yet while 3D cameras have been in use since 1985, their bulk has kept them earthbound despite the obvious and exciting potential for a large-format 3D exploration of space.

The reason for the bulk is that the standard imax 3D camera needs to run two 15 perforation/70mm filmstrips simultaneously, capturing left- and right-eye images through a double lens. This requires two magazines as opposed to one for every shot.

To meet the mass and volume constraints for space payloads, Imax developed a camera for shooting in space which will capture left- and right-eye images on a single strip of film through a reconfigured to 30/70 film frame. The film is then separated in processing into two strips for projection.

One camera was designed to mount in an environmental container in the space shuttle cargo bay and will be operated from Earth by remote control; the second will be operated by mission astronauts.

The space shoot is a long way from the beginnings of the medium when Imax’s Canadian founders Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor and Robert Kerr along with a handful of like-minded innovators found themselves at the 1967 Montreal Expo using multiple projectors to simulate what would become large format.

For most of the last 30 years, Imax was large format. It owned the projectors, it owned the cameras and it made many of the movies, which were usually commissioned by museums or science centres.

While companies such as California-based Iwerks Entertainment have come along to create competition – it projects films using 8/70 film frame and controls 50 lf venues worldwide – Imax still carries the name synonymous with large format.

That won’t likely change soon.

It was an imax camera, specially modified, that scaled the heights of Everest and it will be Imax that brings back the first 3D images from the shuttle.

The new space camera is a landmark development for another reason as well. It is a major advancement toward simplifying a cumbersome filmmaking process back here on Earth.

At the best of times, large-format filmmaking in 2D can be complicated and time-consuming. Technical constraints include camera size, strobing effects if you pan too quickly, the necessity for more lighting because you must shoot wide shots, and bigger sets. ‘It slows down the shoot, for sure,’ says producer Bernard Lajoie, whose Montreal company Productions Pascal Blais recently released the animated imax feature The Old Man and the Sea.

Lajoie also completed a live-action prologue to the film Hemingway: A Portrait. ‘With that format, you don’t do what you do in 35mm. It’s so different, the approach, directing a film, or developing a storyline through that medium requires you to relearn the medium. You don’t edit the same way, you don’t direct the comedian the same way, you don’t shoot the same way. You cannot get the same pace,’ he says.

3D comes into its own

While making a 2D film in lf can be time consuming and costly, making a 3D film can be prohibitively expensive. For example, prints can cost five to eight times as much as those for conventional films, and when filmmakers launch a 3D production they must double such expenses because they need to run two strips simultaneously.

Add to that the fact that 3D cameras weigh 240 pounds and can take up to 15 minutes to reload with three minutes worth of film, and one can see how production expenses tend to inflate.

But now, with the development of better equipment, many filmmakers see 3D as a medium coming into its own.

To be sure, exhibitors believe in 3D. Nearly every new multiplex with an lf theatre being built today is set up for 3D.

Imax has released a 3D sr projector which is smaller and can fit into the tighter confines of a standard multiplex. It’s brought the costs down as well. Traditional 3D imax theatres cost us$8 million ($11.8 million) to build; with the new sr and a scaled-down screen size those costs are half, which means smaller markets can now afford lf.

Theatres that install 8/70 projectors and smaller than standard imax screens can set up for considerably less.

It is projected there will be 345 lf screens operating around the world by the end of 1999, up from 287 last year.

Stephen Low, a veteran lf filmmaker, sees the future of large format in the emergence of dramatic 3D movies produced for the giant screen.

‘The history of cinema absolutely guarantees, in my opinion, 3D on a giant scale. That it hasn’t happened has always been a technical thing,’ he says.

‘Now the big question for everyone is will we have to wait another generation to get the cost down to a reasonable level?’

Low says the 3D medium is particularly suited for dramatic cinema because filmmakers can create scenes on a human scale and bring viewers into the action. Now with the emergence cgi and other digital rendering and compositing techniques, which can be melded with on-set action, costs should be brought in line soon, he says.

Examples of this approach include last year’s T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous and the soon-to-be-released Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box.

One of the heaviest burdens on lf filmmakers is the standard split between exhibitor and distributor which weighs heavily in favor of the movie house – often to the tune of an 80:20 split. Once distribution costs are factored in, a filmmaker may only get 5% to 10% of the gate.

It can take a long time to recoup a $6-million investment at that rate.

Fortunately, lf, more than any other medium, has staying power. Everest, which has earned in excess of $71 million, remains on the Variety box-office top-60 list after more than 560 days. The next two longest films on the list are Africa’s Elephant Kingdom and Mysteries of Egypt – also lf releases – at more than 500 and 400 days, respectively.

‘That’s changing as well,’ says Calgary-based filmmaker Jon Long, director of the recent large-format release Extreme, ‘because there are a lot more films being made and a lot more competition. So five years ago, you’d see movies that were made 10 or 15 years earlier and continued to play…it’s going to be a lot harder on the producers than it used to be.’

Disney’s watershed deal

There are 25 new lf films on the slate for next year as opposed to five or six in any one year during the early ’90s.

Which brings us back to Fantasia 2000.

In the case of Fantasia 2000, which is to be released next year in a distribution deal with Imax, industry observers expect Disney to strike a blow to the current distributor-exhibitor split. Aside from being the first feature-length dramatic film to be released on the large screen, it is reported that Disney is demanding 100% of the schedule for four months, 50% of the box office and no non-Disney trailers.

If it makes money, it could also pave the way for more dramatic releases.

Here in Canada, the handful of filmmakers who work in lf are waiting for the fallout to see if they will be able to negotiate more favorable conditions on their next projects.

Long, whose film cost $5 million to make, says a deal like that would mean he has to raise advertising money and that would increase his budget. Exhibitors currently advertise in their own markets.

To Daniel White, a Toronto-based businessman who does everything from building lf theatres to directing animated features in the medium to creating simulator rides, the Disney deal is a watershed.

‘Now maybe, finally, the large-format theatre owners are going to get a look at what that model can do for you. They’ve never experienced a major studio doing the advertising for their museum or their theatre,’ he says.

‘Then we may find ourselves in a model where a hit is a hit. It’s not just a hit in one city and they’re not even showing it in Ottawa.’