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Wednesday, September 9, 2009
"Since the inception of the moving picture, filmmakers have long searched for ways in which to enhance the movie going experience. Whether it be the advent of color, surround sound, stadium seating, computer graphics, stereoscopic 3D, or the yet to be perfected “smell-o-vision”, film technicians have pioneered new and exciting ways to immerse audiences into their stories. However, the most powerful medium that best utilizes these elements is what has come to be called the “IMAX Experience”, and an experience is exactly what it is. Unfortunately, although the IMAX format was invented over 40 years ago, it has not been until just 2008 that we have seen the first two, full length, feature films incorporating it's technology; The Dark Knight and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Prior to this, the only films captured using IMAX cameras have been short, documentary type films usually screened in science museums. Feature films such as I Am Legend and 300 have been screened in IMAX theaters for many years, but they weren't actually photographed with its cameras; only “stretched” to fit its screen. The directors of The Dark Knight and Transformers, Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay, respectively, each had the unique challenge of incorporating about 20 minutes of IMAX footage into their movies, which were otherwise photographed in standard 35 mm. This prompts the question, which director was more effective and made better use of the IMAX format? My answer is undoubtedly Christopher Nolan, and the reasons why will soon become apparent.
Before we begin, however, I think it is important to explain what makes IMAX such a brilliant medium. It is an extraordinary, large scale film format that contains the highest resolution picture of any other medium today, providing the sharpest, most crystal clear imagery in existence. The IMAX screen is over 50 ft tall and 70ft wide, massively dwarfing those of conventional theaters. The screen encapsulates the audiences entire peripheral vision, creating a highly immersive experience. The IMAX theater sound system is unparalleled in quality, producing intensely powerful, lifelike soundscapes. The format also contains the widest lighting latitude of any format available today (the lightbulb in an IMAX projector is so bright, it can be seen on the moon with the naked eye). This means that it reaches the brightest of brights and the darkest of darks, providing a rich, vibrant tapestry for which a film to play out in. The seating is also specially built into these theaters, which is ergonomically designed in an arc-like shape, with a stadium arrangement, maximizing ease and comfort of viewing. It is the culmination of all of these attributes that creates a vivid, totally immersive, and truly unforgettable film going experience; an experience worth analyzing.
My first comparison is where, in the films, the directors chose to place their IMAX shots. Christopher Nolan chose to begin, and end, The Dark Knight with sequences shot in IMAX, with other sequences dispersed throughout. This was a highly effective approach because it set the tone for the whole movie. I saw The Dark Knight on opening night, and when the first frame of the movie was projected on screen (a shot gliding over buildings in Gotham), dozens of members from the audience gasped in awe of the spectacle. One patron, I recall, stated that the shot gave her vertigo. Likewise, the movie ends on a powerful note, leaving the audience stunned and elated. Conversely, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which I also saw on opening night) the first IMAX sequence doesn't appear until halfway through the movie. Michael Bay chose to neither begin nor end his film with IMAX shots, creating an underwhelming experience for the viewer. Transformers begins on a low note, and ends on a low note; the exact opposite of Christopher Nolan's approach.
Another way in which Christopher Nolan more effectively used IMAX was in the length of each sequence. Several of the IMAX scenes, including the opening bank heist, the Batman/Joker chase sequence, the Hong Kong kidnapping, and the closing sequence, are each several minutes in length. In particular, the opening bank heist is about 6 minutes of continuous IMAX photography and the chase sequence is about 8 ½ minutes. This allows the audience to enjoy long, uninterrupted scenes of IMAX photography without splices of distracting, 35 mm footage in between. Contrarily, the scenes in Transformers constantly jumped back and forth between IMAX and 35 mm. To further explain, when 35 mm shots are projected onto an IMAX screen, they only occupy about 65% of it's surface. It is only scenes shot with IMAX cameras that occupy the entire screen. Consequently, when a film jumps back and forth between the two formats, the projected image is never a consistent size or resolution, and is consequently jarring and distracting.
Finally, Christopher Nolan also employed what he called “establishing shots”, which were aerial IMAX shots of Gotham and Hong Kong that were interjected throughout the movie. These were used to “establish” the scope and scale of the film. These shots were absolutely breathtaking and were highly effective in instilling a sense of impending danger and consequence, as well as creating an epic, larger-than-life atmosphere. Michael Bay, on the other hand, never used any establishing shots. As a matter of fact, when asked about them in an interview, he had no idea what they even were. Consequently, Transformers feels like an uneven, lopsided film in the way it utilizes IMAX photography.
In conclusion, Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be a more mature, sophisticated and intelligent filmmaker than Michael Bay. He has effectively and economically used IMAX photography as a storytelling device in the unprecedented production of The Dark Knight. He used it to set tone, establish scope and scale, create atmosphere, and to amplify the impeding consequences of criminal behavior. Christopher Nolan stated that, when creating the sequel to Batman Begins, he wanted to use IMAX as a way to make the film “bigger and better, not just bigger and louder.” Ironically, Michael Bay has accomplished just the opposite. "