One of the most spectacular and well-attended events at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900 was the Lumière Giant Cinématographe, 25 minute-long screenings that consisted of 15 films and in addition some colour photographs projected on a screen 21 metres wide and 18 metres high. The programme was changed regularly so that a total of 150 films were projected. With 326 screenings between May 15 to November 12, and audience sizes that ranged from 3000 to 5000, the spectacle was seen by 1,400,000 people.
Like the Lumière Cinématographe, IMAX(r) (the trade name of a government supported Canadian company, IMAX(r) Systems Corporation), had its origins at an exposition. The first multi-screen films were shown at the Montreal Expo ’67, IMAX(r) was premiered at the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan, and thefirst permanent IMAX(r) Cinema was built at Cinesphere, Toronto, in 1971. Though for many years the technology required government sponsorship, it has finally managed to prove the commercial viability of defining space – both cinematic and architectural – as event.
The original IMAX(r) units were used for conventional theatres using a vertical screen. The prototype for IMAX(r) was shown in the Labyrinth pavilion, a building designed like a jewellery case for the jewel within, which was the IMAX(r) projection facility. The Expo 1967 management actually made it a condition of the show, that complete control of the architectural design for the building be given to the show producers. This logic has continued to dominate IMAX(r) architecture ever since. There are currently 160 IMAX(r) screens worldwide. IMAX(r) plans to double the number of its theatres by opening an additional 150. IMAX(r) screens planned for malls in Southern California will be seven storeys high and generally cost around $7 million US to build. The screen size for a 500-seat auditorium is 65 feet high and 95 feet wide, producing an image the size of a seven-storey building.
The OMNIMAX(r) model has been designed for use in tilted planetarium domes and encompasses the entire range of vision. Maximum audience impact is achieved by having the screen occupy the full horizontal and vertical field of the human eyes, that is, 120 degrees horizontally by 140 degrees vertically. Loudspeaker banks, controlled by an 18,000 watt six-channel sound system, deliver a realistic sound-around effect.
Though 2D IMAX(r) films continue to be shown, 3D has been the goal since 1976; but only a fraction of the existing IMAX(r) theatres are capable of screening the 3D films. 3D IMAX(r) adds heightened stereoscopic vision to the images that fill the frame of vision. Our brain combines the signals from both our eyes into a single image. Normally, stereoscopic vision falls within a 700-foot range. To extend that, two separate, displaced images are delivered to the viewer by two interlocked cameras that record the scene and two interlocked projectors that deliver it. Polaroid filters are placed over the projector lenses, with one image vibrating vertically and the other horizontally. The stereoscopic glasses unscramble the overlapping images and transmit the right and left eye stimuli separately to the brain. In other words, 3D IMAX(r) delivers a giant, virtual reality.
Originally known for its nature and science extravaganzas, such as Sea Dreams and the 1984 The Dream is Alive, a film made on board the Challenger Space Shuttle, IMAX(r) films gradually made the transition to more narrative films. The first fiction IMAX(r) film was Wings of Courage starring Val Kilmer and Craig Sheffer and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, used the 3D process to show airmail pilots working in the Andes. Last year’s big success was the documentary Everest, which chronicled the 1996 attempt to climb the peak which resulted in the deaths of 12 climbers. This $17.5 million dollar film made Variety’s Top 10 list, the first time for an IMAX(r) film.
The success of this film has opened the way for IMAX(r) films to move more towards the mainstream. The $15 million T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous opened this year, directed by Brett Leonard (The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity), and combines the large screen format with 3D effects. A Star Trek Movie featuring the Next Generation cast is also in the works. There are now a total of 1570 IMAX(r) films in release.
An upcoming addition to the IMAX(r) theatrical chain is the British Film Institute’s IMAX(r) theatre to be built on the South Bank in London. When it opens its doors in the spring of 1999, it will be the largest of its kind in Europe. There is a 2D IMAX(r) theatre in Bradford and a 3D theatre in London, but the BFI IMAX (r) will show 3D, 2D, 70mm, 35mm and video formats.
This landmark building, designed by Brian Avery, is an example of Jean Nouvel’s idea of the building front as an interface between different modes of existence.
Described as a ‘world class building in a world class site’, commended by the English Heritage and the Royal Fine Art Commission, the building resembles a glass bullring, and like a bullring, it has multiple levels of approach and exit: four Underground lines, train and bus stations and the Eurostar International terminal. Pedestrian access leads to Waterloo Station, Waterloo Bridge and to retail facilities linked to the Museum of the Moving Image’s shop and cafeteria and the South Bank area. The British Film Institute, the South Bank Partnership and the South Bank Employers Group are all hoping that the BFI IMAX(r) will serve as a catalyst to extensive redevelopment of the South Bank area. Cost: 20 million pounds, of which 15 million come from the ACE Lottery Fund and the rest from private donations.