When it comes to watching expensive cars tumble through the stratosphere, arguably no film format does it better than IMAX. The company's 70mm projectors have offered better resolution than its competitors for the last 45 years—even amidst the digital revolution, and since long before the view from space needed a skydiving Maserati or Vin Diesel's all-knowing smirk to look cool.
But with the launch of its new laser projector, IMAX has created a digital system that the company believes can beat even its own reining analog format. Not one to pass on a laser light show (especially if it must also somehow explain itself with a lot of heartfelt Hollywood moralizing), I made my way to the opening of Furious 7 to test that claim out. The release of Furious 7 marked the first time a blockbuster film has premiered using the new technology, and I caught the latest instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise on a giant screen in Toronto. It's one of a handful around the world now equipped with the laser technology.
Most digital projectors use a powerful Xenon bulb and a prism that splits the light into red, green and blue. Those separated beams get fed to three different chips that are covered with thousands of tiny mirrors, which then superimpose the colors back together to make, say, Vin Diesel's shimmery club shirt or a sprawling desert panorama full of nothing but actors' asses visible on-screen. Depending on how those mirrors are angled, different amounts of light are let through, creating all the different saturation levels and hues.
But not IMAX. "We went radical," chief technology officer Brian Bonnick told me. "We completely threw out the architecture that every digital projector's been built with since the dawn of man." In other words, they got rid of the prism.
IMAX's laser projectors were $60 million dollars in the making, Bonnick said. They buy existing laser projectors from the imaging company Barco but then rip out the insides, installing many of their own custom parts that they build in a hermetically sealed "clean room," which banishes any spec of dust larger than 1/1000th of an inch. Tens of thousands of hours went into developing the custom lenses and other elements that make the system better than the competition, he told me on a recent tour of the company's R&D and production facility in Mississauga, Ontario.
IMAX isn't the only company hawking laser projectors, of course, but according to Bonnick, their competitors simply "pulled the Xenon bulb out of a projector and shoved a laser light source in." There's just one problem with that approach: lasers don't technically need prisms since they already have the three separate colors, and so other laser projectors have to do two conversions, first to white light and then back to red, green and blue.
IMAX doesn't like all that interference. "I want to get each of these colors directly to that chip," said Bonnick. "I don't want any glass in the way, because that's going to affect my contrast." And, of course, low contrast might compromise the gleam on Dwayne Johnson's enormous teeth, or wash out the shading on Kurt Russell's moist, salt-and-pepper locks.
IMAX believes those improvements to colour and contrast makes it an ideal partner for the release of Furious 7. It's a movie so over the top that, when paired with IMAX's top-of-the-line laser projectors, the cars, guns and bodies glisten like they never have before. And the company hopes it will help studios like Universal Pictures convince moviegoers they need to see it in a high-end theatre, rather than at home. (It may be working. The film grossed $384 million worldwide on its opening weekend, breaking April box office records.)
Watching a movie screened with the best projection technology in existence, the impulse is to look for detail. I scrutinized the contours of every mole and pore on Vin Diesel's face, and contemplated the tones of the shadows in the fold of flesh under his chin—truly, he is a luscious meatbag. For dude-loving carnivores, Furious 7 never skimps on the beef: Dwayne Johnson keeps his scenes double-jacked, and the other man-cakes fill in whatever gaps remain with their stacks of sizzling brawn. Eat it up, laser-style.
But while lasers do offer a shapelier plate of man-ham (i.e. better image, higher contrast) than even 70mm film, enhancing the fine-grain details for ultimate realism doesn't necessarily make the movie look better. Remember how Peter Jackson's 48-frames-a-second was like watching hobbits on the evening news?
When it comes to image sharpness and resolution, technology now exceeds our ability to enjoy it. In other words, too much detail just doesn't look good—not that you can tell the difference, past a certain point. The real gift of laser, rather, is in the range of colors it affords. "What we're doing is giving you the ability to see colors that you can see in the real world, but could never be displayed on a screen before," said Bonnick.
While touring IMAX's R&D facility, Bonnick and I dropped into one of their Digital Re-Mastering studios to look at the differences between movies before and after they've been upgraded for IMAX screens. Seeing original scenes from Titanic side-by-side with their digitally enhanced versions, the disparity was striking. Maybe not hit-with-a-wrench-in-a-streetfight striking, but impressive nonetheless.
For those of us accustomed to watching movies on screens measured in inches rather than feet, however, most of these refinements are too subtle to notice in detail. I contemplated watching some humdrum Xenon version of Furious 7 for comparison, but IMAX had already given me more Vin Diesel than I could handle, in all his sparkling crispness. If you're in a theatre with an 8-storey-high screen showing a never-ending stream of vehicular fetishism and carnage, don't waste your time kicking the tires. Better just to take the ride.