IMAX Shows Off Its First U.S. Laser-Projection System

Two weeks after its U.S. debut at the Furious 7 premiere at the TCL Chinese Theater IMAX in Hollywood, the company behind the theater’s new razor-sharp laser projectors and overwhelming sound system gathered all its top brass to put the system through its paces before a critical group of media and exhibitors from as far away as Australia.

With CinemaCon, the big exhibitors convention, next week in Las Vegas, it was a good chance to show what the IMAX with Laser system can do for people who might spend (or influence others to spend) millions to acquire and install one. Accordingly, IMAX trotted out CEO Richard Gelfond,  SEVP and IMAX Entertainment CEO Greg Foster, CTO Brian J. Bonnick and EVP David Keighley, who works closely with filmmakers on production and post-production issues.

Simply put, the system looked pretty impressive even to a tech-friendly non-specialist. It represents another step forward in extraordinary, absorbing theater experiences. After three years and $60 million in development fees, plus millions more to install one at the Chinese, it better be, and it is.

A series of 2D and 3D trailers featured blacker blacks (2X higher contrast ratio for tech types) and higher-than-ever resolution (executives would only say it’s “higher than 4K” because it blends the images of twinned 4K-resolution projectors). The twinned projectors also improve image brightness, a huge issue for 3D films. The system also has sharper images and better equipment longevity because a radical new equipment design avoids the heat problems that plague older laser-based projectors.

In a moment many cineastes might consider sacrilege, one exec even said the digital version is better than IMAX’s high-end film offering, one of the industry’s best. Execs then also repeatedly cautioned that film and digital each have virtues and the company offers both to accommodate whatever approach a filmmaker prefers.

“We’re not in an arms race,” Bonnick said. “You pick which (technologies) you want.”

The company also showed off its new sound system, which places speakers to the side and above audiences as well as in the more typical three-front/two-back setups of recent times. They called that immersive audio. It very much is, almost too much so with something like the intense blare of the score from Interstellar. 

Both the video and audio are designed to fill the biggest theaters (the Chinese has a four-story-high, 91-foot-wide screen, but others are even bigger, some more than 120 feet wide) with bright, sharp, view-filling images that won’t simultaneously burn out a projector bulb in no time.

“We really have a game changer here,” Keighley said. “The laser really offers a lot of opportunities for more immersive viewing.”

Interestingly, the system may not be a good fit for theaters with screens smaller than 70 feet wide, given cost and limits to the physical impacts created by a smaller image, the execs said. They’re still researching that.

For the theaters that can best take advantage of IMAX with Laser, however, top-of-the-line experiences are both what filmmakers have in mind when they’re creating their latest blockbuster, the IMAX execs said, and also what the exhibition business will need to entice people away from their increasingly competent home-theater systems and even mobile devices.

IMAX’s systems, from capture to post-production to exhibition, were used for significant chunks of Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar (his name was frequently invoked) and will have key roles in J.J. Abrams‘ new Star Wars film and Brad Bird‘s upcoming TomorrowlandKeighley said. Clips were shown from all three. Among other capabilities, the digital system allows directors to play with different aspect ratios throughout a film to frame different kinds of shots.

The Chinese Theater installation is IMAX’s first in the U.S., and after one in Toronto, second in the world, but IMAX execs said they plan to install as many as 20 this year, including in IMAX facilities in New York, San Francisco, London and Seattle. Asked about the Universal City IMAX in Los Angeles, they said it’s coming later in the year (but one also interjected, “What you’re really asking is will it be before Dec. 18” when Star Wars debuts. Yes, they said, it will). Oh, happy day.


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