the IMAX 3D experience at Odeon Liverpool One.

Film Tomorrow sees the launch of the IMAX 3D experience at Odeon Liverpool One and this morning I was invited to see a preview by the publicity company stage managing the opening few days. The email came via my Liverpool Blogs blog, which happens sometimes because of its proximity to the search terms "liverpool" and "blogs". It’s good that they’re reaching out to the social network, and quite exciting to be treated like a proper journalist, joined in the process by a Merseyside radio personality and someone from the local press, both of whom rushed off to talk about and write up what they saw.

I came home and finished painting the living room, which isn’t quite as glamorous.

If the idea was for me to offer some good word of mouth, it worked. As a film presentation and projection system this is amazing. A refit of one of the third floor auditoriums, the screen size has been increased to 9.7 high by 17.8 wide with stadium seating so that it’s almost impossible to be blocked by someone sitting in front of you (unless they have a very big head). The half hour spent in there were comfortable, with only the aisle based, under seat lighting providing a slight irritation, always twinkling brightly at the edge of vision.

The sound and picture quality are magnificent. We were presented with a showreel of some old and new content, mostly trailers for the likes of Batman Begins and 300 complete with the green band US MPAA ratings at the top. The clarity of the image is sometimes astounding, especially in the promo for Chris Nolan’s latest Inception, were the grain from the 35mm negative was perfectly visible, removing that slight stumbling block I’ve always had with digital projection experiences in the past (cf, Cornerhouse Manchester) which have always retained the slightly artificial quality of dvd.

The most astounding examples were of course in 3D; excerpts from a documentary about the Hubble telescope in which the edge of the satellite are at eye level, the train in Polar Express flying past your face in a way that makes you understand quite why that first audience that saw a similar locomotive projected by the Lumiere Brothers over a hundred years ago in L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat. The sound quality is extraordinary, very detailed and realistic; the press release speaks of being able to hear a pin drop and I can believe it.

We were treated to a preview of Tron Legacy in which it seems the “real” world will be presented in 2D only entering the third dimension as Kevin Flynn’s son materialises within the game world, in much the same way as the Wizard of Oz flips from monochrome to colour when Dorothy and Toto aren’t in Kansas any more. I’ve always thought that 3D will only shift from gimmick or enhancement to art form when filmmakers begin to somehow produce stories that only work in that format and this could be the first indication of a shift in that direction.

After the screening whilst my journalistic colleagues were interviewing the Odeon’s manager, I inevitably asked instead to see the projection room. I met the technician/projectionist who spearheaded project to bring the system to Liverpool and he was positively evangelical, patiently answering my questions about how the films are stored (giant removable hard disks) and how the system works (two giant projectors that look like the kind of equipment Galactus might use for his holiday slides). His glee was infectious and only increased my excitement for seeing a complete “film” projected this way.

But, and this is a big but, and after being treated so well this morning I take no pleasure in saying this, it’s not IMAX, or at least it’s not the traditional projection IMAX format. As I surmised in my bonkers unsurprisingly unanswered email to the Odeon last week, no matter how large the screen, it doesn’t have the wrap around experience of the classic IMAX aspect ratio reaching to the ceiling and floor and filling the field of vision on either side as seen at the Manchester Filmworks, the BFI and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Before the preview I put this to a gentleman who was introduced to me as knowing more about the technical side. As the projectionist would later, he talked about how IMAX was about the immersive experience and that was what they were interested in. I suggested that in fact that meant they were reconfiguring the IMAX name but that there would be people who knew (what I kept calling) “proper IMAX” but would be disappointed to discover that’s not what they were getting here and that perhaps they needed to make that clearer in the publicity.

I tried not to sound overwhelmingly negative since I was still looking forward to investigating this other system (always interjecting with “I don’t want to be a cynical sausage...", "I'm honestly trying not to be a cynical sausage..."), but having seen the new IMAX logo which had been added to the Odeon signs in the foyer, as a passionate film fan, I’m genuinely concerned that when the people of Liverpool greet this new way of seeing movies, that they’ll think they’re finally seeing a range of film made in the IMAX format (assuming they’ve heard of it before). They’re not. They’re seeing a range of films which in the main are made for an ordinary projection system that are being transferred to this other format.

That difference is also covered by the media fact sheet, which says “a major change of aspect ratio from the traditional ‘full-height’ 1.33 of 15 perforations 70mm film, to the 1.78 of their DMR system, which is more consistent with the general framing of Hollywood films.” Except, since “DMR” is Digital Media Remastering system that upscales a 35mm film, that change in format means that the image quality, however detailed, could actually still be inferior to the original IMAX which has more information in the original print, unless like some sections of Inception they're shot in at least 65mm.

The FAQ also asks itself about the key difference between this IMAX auditorium and the one in Manchester, and answers by talking about crystal clear imagines and the special audio system when in fact its that watching a film here involves looking at a giant rectangle but there it's feeling as though your about to fall out of a helicopter into the Grand Canyon or whatever. I think about my own first jaw dropping experiences in Bradford in the 90s in which I felt like Jodie Foster in Contact ("they should have sent a poet"), my eyes agog at this strange new world, as penguins swam beneath the glaciers above my head.

Imagine this trailer projected on a screen the size of a three up, two down:

I brought up the problems last year in the US when people turned up for IMAX showings to find this system in place (which led to the Destroy Fake IMAX campaign), all he could offer was that yes, there had been criticism on some technical blogs. But journalists also wrote like this one which I’ve linked to before and lists the key differences. At length. With pictures. Roger Ebert also went over the topic in much greater detail and I’d direct you to his article too. As he says, “(IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond)’s problem appears to be that most people do foolishly persist in thinking of IMAX as the giant screen” when they’ve branched out further in the battle against home formats.

So Liverpool is still waiting for its first IMAX film projection system, but what it does have is a truly excellent new option for seeing Hollywood film releases, which admittedly has been well received in other areas. The first week will see Shrek Forever After and coming soon are Inception, Toy Story 3, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (partly voiced by Bernard Cribbins), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part One) and the film which could be the game changer, Tron Legacy. I’m really looking forward to seeing most of those (yes, even Resident Evil, it’s a guilty pleasure) with only the price a potential barrier (£11.75 for adults).

Because, let’s be honest, despite my reservations about calling a spade a spade,  it’s probably just all about some pupils from a local school in a photo which was sent to me this afternoon by the PR company (because they were the first to see the system), on the edges of their seats and the rapt expression on their faces.  The boy on the left looks like he's going to be a film fan for life.

UPDATED 14/7/2010: For all my huffing and puffing above about screen areas, I've just discovered that the Odeon aren't using the proper IMAX screen they inherited (when they bought out UCI) at the Filmworks in Manchester to show proper IMAX films anyway. Boo. (see below)

Updated 02/08/2010 Haylay has been in touch with the Odeon regarding all of this and has sent me their response. She's agreed to let me publish her email to me below. All I've done is break up the central quote into small paragraphs for ease of reading (FYI we swapped emails after I saw a comment from her on Twitter):
"Hi Stuart

Thanks for the email (sorry its taken me so long to reply!)

Glad to hear that I'm not the only one who felt this way.

I emailed Odeon after I had been and thought you might be interested to read their response:

"I'm sorry to hear you feel you are disappointed with our new IMAX installation. I would like to assure you that the IMAX we have had fitted is a 'True IMAX' and was installed and tested by IMAX technicians from Canada.

Unfortunately Liverpool ONE was not designed for IMAX when built so we were limited on how large we could make the screen.

The IMAX we have is Digital IMAX which historically has a smaller screen than traditional IMAX as it is more difficult to enlarge a digital image to the size of older IMAX screens. With the digital age of cinema becoming more apparent you will find newer IMAX installations to be of similar size.

The IMAX experience is not just the screen size and the laser aligned sound it is the full process from filming on special IMAX cameras to enlarging each frame of film.

I do agree however that if you are sitting close to the front or far out on one of the sides the Immersive wrap effect is some what lost. We are current working hard with IMAX to see if there is any solution we can come to."

I'm guessing they have probably had a fair few emails about this!

As you had said in your email, the thing that's bad is that they are selling it as IMAX, and people expect IMAX to be the giant screen and wrap around shape.

Take Care,

Updated! 25/12/2011 Slashfilm have posted an FAQ which covers much the same ground but updates to include material about Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol and The Dark Knight Rises.

Interestingly our nearest proper IMAX screen at the Manchester Odeon in the Printworks has Ghost Protocol and the Batman preview which indicates that although they've installed Digital, they can still show floor to ceiling when necessary (Chris Nolan has indicated the preview could not be shown on faux-IMAX screens).


Scouse in the house said...

It's a shame to hear that - I got very excited when I heard on radio city it was an IMAX screen in Liverpool, ran home (well, continued to drive within the legally set speed limit) and promptly bought 3 tickets for Sunday. (which if you don't remember to switch to standard are 14quid for premier tickets...)

I share your feeling that it might be a great, great big scream, it's still a let-down to discover it's not full IMAX. I too will mourn that fact and drown my sorrows in a bucket of butterkist.
I can't believe they didn't actually let you see wheel at the preview though. ....... How cheap is that?!?!?

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Which wheel?

You've sort of proved my point. But do let me know what you think afterwards.

Anonymous said...

Having read what the screen size was on the Liverpool Echo website I became sceptical and so decided to Google the screen to try and get more info, hence stumbling across this blog. I can't believe they're actually changing the definition of what IMAX is and I am highly disappointed, particularly taking into account the price of the ticket, which is the same price as an IMAX ticket at the Printworks.

When the Odeon at Liverpool One opened up I thought they had really missed a trick by not having an IMAX screen and so was really excited when I found out they were adding one. I should probably reserve my judgement for when I actually go and see Inception next week but I'm not getting my hopes up and get the impression that any film that I am truly looking forward to that is to be screened in the IMAX format I will probably still travel to Manchester to watch it in the Printworks.


Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks Sean. Do please come back and let me know what you think. The screen is big, it's just not *as* big as Manchester.

Simon Rimmer said...

I've been to a number of Imax screens in America, and like the posters above was really looking forwward to one opening up in Liverpool. I've now been to see Shrek 4 and when I first walked in I was disapointed to find it wasn't an 'Imax' screen. However after watching the film on it I left being very happy at what was there. True it's not got the wrap around aspect that others do, but the picture was stunning, sound awesome and the whole experience worthwhile. I'm now booked in to see Inception on it, but for the price I'll wait for Orange Wednesdays.


Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks Simon.

My problem isn't with the screen -- it's a wonderful screen as I said. My problem is with the blurring of the "IMAX" brand name from the massive square projection system I've known and loved.

David said...

Thank you so much for this article. I have too recently discovered this and had a heated email exchange with Southampton about this issue. I went to the BFI to see Avatar and the Tron Legacy Trailer, and frankly, thats what you want for your money, not a higher quality 16.9 experience. I want the square screen that fills my field of view, as thats what IMAX really is. I loved it in Florida when I was 14, and I loved it last Christmas when I watched a whole film like that.

Keep fighting!