While a good many people experienced flight delays around Memorial Day and onward, at least one guy had a clear shot on the highway to the danger zone. Top Gun: Maverick, finally debuting after a nearly three-year delay, has kept Brinks drivers working overtime by dominating the early summer cinema box office. The long-awaited sequel to Top Gun (thirty-six years…but who’s counting) during heavy release promotion, urged theatrical viewing in an IMAX theater. I admit an eager desire in attending however, what for me has to be one of the most inexplicable Hollywood decisions since United Artists and Universal both turned down Star Wars, IMAX theaters run a movie a mere two weeks, only to then change features. As of this writing, Top Gun: Maverick has grossed over $1Billion dollars…that’s a lot of folks feeling the need for speed. Perhaps an epiphany of sorts, I noticed the IMAX cinema local to the AVPro St. Petersburg office once again has the film booked. Nonetheless, film aficionados continue making the pilgrimage to IMAX cinemas for a first-hand experience they cannot duplicate in the home. Or is that in the process of changing in a big way? Let’s follow Mav for a few clues.
Worldwide, there are approximately 1,600 IMAX-capable cinema facilities licensed by the Canadian firm, with most differing substantially from the original IMAX concept of near-total audience envelopment in their “Classic Design” dome and Omnimax theaters, both contributing to establish the concept at exhibitions and world fairs since the 1960’s. As purpose built structures, these theaters featured steep row angles placing the audience much closer to the screen in comparison to conventional movie theaters, this capability due to 12K resolution delivered by the 70mm film format exclusively utilized at the time (technically, 65mm film in the camera, printed on 70mm film for projection). Today, the majority of IMAX-specific theaters are in retrofitted auditoriums reflecting the “Multiplex Design” concept, presenting studio theatrical releases which have undergone the IMAX DMR process (more on that below). These facilities tout laser projection and 1.91:1 screens (compared to the Classic Design, 1.43:1 aspect ratio suited for IMAX film cameras and their unconventional application of the 70mm film format) which better accommodate Hollywood’s offerings. One difference readily noticed by those who’ve previously visited an original Classic Design venue is the resolution drop to one third that of 70mm film, from the present use of 4K laser-based digital projectors.
Though not pertaining to IMAX Enhanced for the home, it merits mention that IMAX 70mm is, literally, a 90 degree departure from Hollywood’s initial attempt, that being Fox Film Corporation’s 1929 introduction of Fox Grandeur, the original 70mm film format. The film path for the Fox method was vertically through the projector, identical to the 35mm Academy Format. Referred to as 15/70 film, derived from the 15 parallel sprocket perforations per frame, IMAX film is projected horizontally from a platter designed to support the substantial weight of a full length feature. Differing also from traditional Hollywood formats where film is unspooled from the outer circumference inward, IMAX uniquely is the complete opposite, travelling outward from the inside circumference at 6 feet per second. IMAX raw film has a cost of $3.00 per foot, or $18.00 per second of viewing time. Today, nearly all IMAX theaters use proprietary laser-based digital projectors supplied by Barco, with filmmakers utilizing IMAX certified digital cameras from Arri, Panavision, Red Digital Cinema, and Sony. None have the 12K resolution of 70MM film, but those days are approaching as fast as an F/A-18 Super Hornet. Black Magic introduced a 12K digital camera at 2022 NAB this past spring, which awaits certification.
BIG PICTURE + BIG SOUND
Some years back on September 4th, 2018, IMAX and DTS announced their coming together with, as worded in the press release, the creation of the first single certification for both home theater video and audio gear called IMAX Enhanced (IE). The partnership aims to capture the heightened cinematic experience IMAX visually delivers, coupled with the visceral impact of a DTS soundfield, converting your viewing room into Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre. Leading consumer electronics manufacturers quickly adopted the format, introducing AVR’s, surround processors, televisions and some speakers earning IMAX Enhanced certification (speakers weren’t required to do anything different, such as THX with directionality and frequency response control, just be able to adequately handle the full-range signal). But as the fanfare subsided and content thinned, so it seems did demand. It just may be that Top Gun: Maverick, sure to be released on IMAX Enhanced UHD Blu-ray, will rekindle a keener interest in this largely dormant, um… well, what do you call it? It isn’t a format per se. For Audio, IE uses DTS:X, an existing surround format onboard nearly all modern AVRs.
Video-wise, theatrical content undergoes improvement during a process called Digital Media Remastering, though on the consumer side nothing more than an HDR requirement prohibits viewing IMAX Enhanced streaming or discs on suitable displays. Nothing is overly-demanded of IMAX Enhanced video hardware, apart from confirmed, superb performance manufacturers design into top-tier displays, which in turn are certified by IMAX. IE stipulates a 4K HDR10 display, capable of proper calibration and correctly calibrated, will likely pass IE’s certification process. Certification assures the display will recognize the IMAX Enhanced flag, intended to launch video displays into the most appropriate viewing mode for 24fps content, disabling all processing features that allege image fidelity improvement. As any accomplished calibrator can tell you, as well as demonstrate, these features largely do the opposite. Typically, “movie” or “cinema” mode from most manufacturers – certainly in their best offerings – also turns such things off. IMAX and DTS are counting on the cumulative employ of an IE certified chain of products, working in unison, to exhibit the declared strengths of the DMR process in the consumer’s home.
IMAX DMR and What It Does
Xperi, owner of DTS since 2016, indicates the audio track for IMAX Enhanced is specifically remixed from the IMAX theatrical file for playback on consumer equipment. Metadata includes an encoded flag which signals a certified DTS-X equipped processor to playback the mix as prescribed by the IE DMR process. The unidentified crossover frequency used is roll-off specific to IMAX Enhanced sound tailoring, and only used with IMAX Enhanced program material on certified audio products. Metadata does not perform channel steering, nor does it contain objective audio enhancements for the main channels. All content below the crossover point is diverted to the LFE channel, with the IE mode performing additional enhancement to the LFE channel through the certified AVR or processor, compared to when IMAX Enhanced is disabled. In IMAX theaters, the sound system can be as much as 12.0 full range channels (no dedicated LFE, all channels encompass the entire audio spectrum, just as a pair of floor-standing, full-range, hi-end stereo speakers like Wilson Audio Specialties or MBL might).
The video signal is less “hands-on” with specifics than DTS. That is to mean, the TV performs no special decoding. Any 4K, HDR10 TV, properly calibrated with post-processing features such as contrast enhancements, noise reduction and exaggerated motion handling defeated (or having an IMAX Enhanced flag-enabled pre-set) will make an IMAX Enhanced movie look its possible best on that display. The more technically advanced a particular display is from a high-profile manufacturer, the better image fidelity is anticipated to be. The intent of the certification, and manufacturers’ adopting the process by including an IMAX Enhanced mode, is to prevent enhanced content resulting in a poor visual experience on less competent, or simply inferior, displays. IMAX hints that competitors (you fill in the blank) license technologies which become implemented regardless of a particular display’s acumen, often incapable of faithfully delivering the director’s intent. IE certification assures content will be reproduced accurately by top-performing displays in the flag-selected mode dictating what post-processing may be left active or de-activated. Working with display manufacturers, IMAX Enhanced makes certain default settings for the IE certified pre-set mode, such as black level, saturation, etc. are correct.
Where IMAX Enhanced draws a distinct delineation to other processes lies squarely on the content side of the equation, especially in comparison with non-Enhanced versions of identical content. Theatrically, the DRM process is intended to remove film “grain” or general video noise. Noise reduction may be necessary from the perspective of the image being enlarged for IMAX Multiplex Design auditoriums where some noise, otherwise masked, is revealed. DMR is said to brighten the image, which is necessary when the screen real estate is more expansive than those found in the 48-theater mega-plex. IMAX makes the point those who created the film participate alongside IMAX engineers, supervising and authorizing any changes during the DRM process which differ from the original master file. This can include the director, director of photography, the original colorists, plus the original audio engineers. They also make decisions pertaining to how scenes are formatted into the taller IMAX frame. Most Hollywood features are shown in a 2.39:1aspect ratio. IMAX is 1.91:1, roughly the same in width, but approximately 26% more in height. During movie production capture, far more image is acquired than often is displayed. The content provider dictates to IMAX how to take advantage of this additional height. It isn’t quite spelled out how the theatrical changes in brightness, clarity and noise reduction are addressed for, and translate to, IMAX Enhanced for home viewing, but previously released IE UHD Blu-rays are amongst the best the medium has seen.
While IMAX Enhanced has signed agreements with streaming services, most prominently Disney Plus+ for the Marvel franchise, many movie lovers may lament having put their UHD Blu-ray machines on eBay in favor of streaming. Theatrically, films currently in production captured with IMAX-certified cameras include a raft of Marvel sequels, Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, and Dune: Part Two. Christopher Nolan, an ardent supporter of 70mm and IMAX, is filming Oppenheimer for 70mm. Theatrically, momentum is building, inevitably propelling the popularity for IMAX Enhanced for home use.
Momentum is building theatrically, inevitably to propel the popularity for IMAX Enhanced for home use. When it arrives on disc, Top Gun: Maverick just might make Oppo think about re-opening shop. A safe guess is Top Gun: Maverick will dominate CEDIA demonstrations this September.
What in 2018 seemed more like IMAX and DTS merely pondering ways to get the sharp elbows out for Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, may soon level the home theater playing field. No doubt streaming is convenient and internet providers are constantly improving infrastructure to ensure bandwidth is plentiful, but those of us who still have UHD Blu-ray machines (perhaps a bit dusty) may find those shiny discs aren’t quite extinct just yet. No matter which method is selected to deliver IMAX Enhanced content into end-user homes, an uptick in requests for certified products may be right around the corner.