VFX engineer on why Star Trek ain't IMAX

My friend, a VFX engineer, shares this frustration with the IMAX version of Star Trek (which she otherwise dug):
Just for future reference, ST was not shot in IMAX, and therefore is not a true imax film. imax is 65mm, 15-perf film, with an aspect ratio of 1:1.37 and a MASSIVE amount of image area, approximately 4x the size of VistaVision (VV is also the same format 35mm still cameras shoot, imagine a negative almost four times the surface area of one that was shot in your still camera.) Star Trek was shot in cinemascope, an anamorphic format that squeezes the image on the film, but projects it through lenses that stretch it back out horizontally to its 1:2.35 aspect ratio. C-scope is run through a normal movie camera vertically, (90 degrees to a still camera) and exposes a frame taking up four perfs of film - about half the film area of a 35mm still camera. What Star Trek has done for their imax projection is just stretch their anamorphic cinemascope (1828x1556) image to 3656x1556 and then blow it up by 12% to 4096x1746 where it only takes up 60% of the height of the half-resolution imax - 4096x2988. (that is, unless they have cropped in at the sides to literally do a pan&scan on the 1:2.35 cinemascope image, ugh!) The end result of all this unsqueezing and blowing up is that at the very best, you will get an image that has 1/8th the information of a standard imax image. What you see will be much softer, although it may not be noticed by the general public unless they see a side-by-side comparison with a true imax print. Full-resolution imax is 10240x7470 (10k by 8k), btw, but it isn't often used in visual effects because of the sheer amount of data required for each frame. Other films will be shot in imax and c-scope, with some sequences being full imax, so in the theater the screen will jump to a taller picture for some sequences. I think Batman did it last summer. Normal theaters will only see a c-scope extraction (trimming top and bottom) during the imax sequences.
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29 Responses to VFX engineer on why Star Trek ain't IMAX

  1. Anonymous says:

    aah, to only see true 3 camera/projector cinerama.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Looks like 2K is 2048×1080 and 4K is 4096×2160.

    Other issues/topics: colour space (bit depth, linear vs. log scale, etc.), film grain, compression CODECs.

    A huge advantage digital projection has is: there is no physical, mechanical moving shutter interrupting the stream of photons at twice the frame rate. The image is brighter and therefore “better”; just as in audio A/B testing, where increasing the sound decibel level makes something sound “better”. “Spinal Tap” setting of 11 still works.


  3. Dave Faris says:

    I saw some promos for the new Star Trek movie in two different Imax theaters recently (Aliens vs. Monsters in Nashville, TN, and another time at the US Rocket and Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama). I thought the Star Trek promo was virtually unwatchable. Too much camera shake, especially during combat scenes. It was impossible to take it all in, so it just seemed like an overwhelming blur.

  4. Anonymous says:

    @ ihaveseenenough, you have several facts wrong. 1. 1 1/2 minutes of footage in 2008 was rendered in 4K, that’s all, with most of that in one shot from Iron Man. 2. You say “4k technology wasn’t ready yet” but you yourself contradict that by saying AMC is installing 4K, specifically Sony CineAlta 4K projectors, and I can counter that with ALL of my local Muvico’s 18 screens also being Sony 4K. Lastly, sure the resolution may not be much better than that of someone’s living room 1080p set, but what about the sound system? Are you going to argue that someone has the same quality of surround sound as a theater? Hell no. And getting back to the resolution, the viewing distance is also a lot further away. yah sure if you sit in the front row at a megaplex you can see the pixels, but if you sit 1′ away from your TV you can see the pixels away. If you’re in the middle of the theatre like you should be you see no such pixels. Star Trek in IMAX Digital looked gorgeous, bright, crisp, and clear no matter what your numbers may say.


  5. Anonymous says:

    The resolution numbers seem a bit low; isn’t 35mm DI (digital intermediate) rez 2k or 4k vertical?


  6. bramo126 says:

    I just got back from an IMAX showing of Star Trek and I must say it was amazing, both the film itself, and from what I could tell, the quality. I really would never have guessed it wasn’t shot in IMAX.

  7. LightningRose says:

    I wants me Cinerama back!


  8. therevengor says:

    Once all the movies are shot in IMAX, will the next generation of TVs be 4:3 again?

  9. Roger Strong says:

    There was an IMAX film on special effects 10 or 15 years ago. This was just after Independence Day was in the theatres, and it featured the filming of some of the special effects for that movie.

    Working with some of George Lucas’s folks, they also refilmed the openning space battle scene for Star Wars: A New Hope, in IMAX.

    The Star Destroyer flying past overhead was awesome, with one extra effect that should have been in the later SFX-updated DVD release. But in the next shot where it flew past level with the camera, the clarity of the picture was TOO good. Normally your mind told you that all those points of light were windows; In IMAX they were too clearly just round points of fiber-optic light.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Another correction, but a very small one. VistaVision is not “the same format 35mm still cameras shoot.” That would be 35mm. VistaVision was two 35mm frames side-by-side (the strip of film ran across the aperture sideways, not top-to-bottom as in a standard movie camera), making it twice the size of the standard 35mm frame. See the diagram at Wikipedia.

  11. David Carroll says:

    Anonymous #25:

    I was not going to “whine in” on this topic, but since you told me not to, here we go!

    Many years ago I used to go see the odd “true” IMAX film at one of the original IMAX designed theatres in a local museum. Recently I visited a not-so-true IMAX theatre in a multiplex for the first time to see Watchmen.

    They are most definitely NOT the same thing. But each serves a purpose, and I was blown away by Watchmen none the less.

    In addition to the insufferable movie trivia/advertising crap that infests such theatres, I was made to suffer through the most tacky light/sound/laser show I have ever seen. Five solid minutes of my life wasted learning how wonderful IMAX sound and picture quality is.

    I do plan to see Star Trek soon in that very same theatre, but this time with earplugs and a blindfold for that five minutes.

    Is this common to all IMAX theatres? Why?

  12. SamF says:

    Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense to me why someone would single out the new Star Trek movie to complain about “true IMAX” vs. whatever it is they’re doing now. Pretty much any movie you see in an “IMAX” theater that is not shown exclusively in an IMAX theater was shot using non-IMAX camera technology and retrofitted for IMAX. It costs so much to film in IMAX, and then add on the cost to adapt a fully-IMAX movie to a standard movie screen, and it just doesn’t make sense to do it for feature films right now. The closest you will get is the way they did Dark Knight where some of the external establishing shots were filmed with an IMAX camera, and the rest were shot with a standard film camera of one variety or another.

    BTW, if you missed seeing Dark Knight in an IMAX theater, you can get the Blu-Ray version which includes the IMAX shots. Personally for me it was distracting to have the aspect ratio switching between scenes. Sure, those IMAX scenes looked great, but if I just want some great looking shots, I’ll go see an IMAX exclusive film. For cinematic entertainment, I don’t think the IMAX shots really added much, if anything. And the aspect ratio switch was made more jarring by switching my mental movie-watching gears between “that looks really nice” to “this is very entertaining”. But maybe that’s just me.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Star Trek looked and sounded great in IMAX, no need whine about it, just go see it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    To date, the most memorable IMAX experience was “Dark Knight”. Christopher Nolan really utilized that medium.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the informative discussion about the different film formats, especially the Cinemascope information. I never knew! I was an avid childhood fan of early wide-screen films, including Cinemascope and Todd-AO, but, not being very techno-literate, never really understood “how they did it.” Muchas gracias.

  16. ihaveseenenough says:

    That’s not even the half of it- bear with me while I get geeky.

    Recently, IMAX decided to expand its footprint in traditional movie theaters. But given the custom screen size, expense of the giant projectors needed to run the film and so on, it was really impossible to add IMAX to existing screens that ran 35mm film. So last year, they began to install a new version of IMAX-and these new IMAXs don’t use film at all- they put two 2k digital projectors next to each other and shine one on top of each other to make sure the image is bright enough (this also allows for 3-D). This results, due to some complex encoding, in a picture with slightly more resolution than standard 2k digital projection. You can tell which “IMAX” you’re in because the screen is shaped differently- the new digital IMAX has a 1:1.9 aspect ratio as opposed to IMAX’s typical 1:1.44 (meaning the new screens are rectangular and long like a slightly wider HDTV, as opposed to square-ish like an old television).

    Now, there’s already a bit of controversy in the exhibition world regarding how good digital really is, and you need to understand that to understand why what IMAX is doing is such a problem. The current standard for digital projection is “2k”- it’s what is installed in virtually every “digital” or “DLP” theater. With a maximum resolution of 2047 x 1080, it’s virtually no different than your 1080p TV at home with its 1920 x 1080 – and your TV just has 40-50 inches to fill, not 40-50 feet. Sit in the front row of a digitally projected film showing on a larger screen, and you’ll see pixels.

    4k digital projection is coming down the pipes, and with a resolution of (4160 x 2160), it is what most film industry types consider the first format to come close to the resolution of 35mm film (the resolution listed above is in fact incorrect- there is no “resolution” for 35mm film as it’s an analog format, but most films are scanned for color correction and finished digitally, usually at 4k but sometimes in 2k). But it’s only in a handful of theaters, and even fewer distributors are making 4k scans of their film available. AMC Theatres has just struck a deal to install 4k projectors on all of their screens, and other big exhibitors will follow- but for now, that technology isn’t out there far and wide just yet.

    So, back to IMAX- they were losing money and wanted to add screens, and at the same time reduce the cost of printing and shipping 65mm film prints to theaters (these prints are HUGE- IMAX film is so large that it can come on 40-50 reels, as opposed to the 5-7 for a typical 35mm film- and shipping and printing costs were far higher as a result). Digital was an easy answer, but because 4k technology wasn’t ready yet, they ended up going with 2k for these new screens. And, so a theater could retrofit itself for IMAX without ripping off the roof, the screen also had to be reshaped to better fit a standard auditorium. So, in the end, this new IMAX digital has a resolution slightly better than 2047 x 1080- that’s a scant few lines better than a 1080p television, and no match at all for the 10240 x 7240 capability of 65mm IMAX (which the poster correctly points out most films don’t take advantage of).

    What’s shitty about it is that theaters make no differentiation- there is no “IMAX Digital”, it’s just “The IMAX Experience”. How can you tell what you’re getting? Aside from looking at the shape of the screen in the theater (after you’ve bought your $15 ticket, naturally), all of these digital installations happened in the past year or so- so if your local theater has suddenly sprouted an “IMAX” theater where a regular one used to be, and they haven’t torn the roof off and built three stories up- voila, you have “IMAX Digital”. Several theater owners with the traditional IMAX systems have complained that this cheapens their brand, but IMAX hasn’t listened or done anything about it (some theaters have started branded themselves in ads “The ORIGINAL IMAX experience”- but that’s rare).

    So in the end, these new “IMAX” theaters are now charging $3-5 extra per ticket for an “IMAX” experience that is inferior to regular IMAX by far, and possibly even inferior to well-projected regular 35mm film in some cases. If you think it’s bad to blow a 35mm film up to IMAX on film, as the poster’s friend was complaining about, you’ll be in for a sore disappointment when you arrive and find IMAX with resolution essentially equal to that of a Blu-ray disc.

    Admittedly- most people won’t notice this. And it should be noted that the IMAX sound system is identical in these theaters, so your eardrums will get blown either way. But I’ve seen all these formats up close and personal, and while even a 35mm blowup to IMAX (like STAR TREK) is a fun experience, the IMAX Digital thing is nothing but a rip-off to me. It doesn’t look as good, period.

    (If you’re interested in this kind of stuff and want to get uber-geeky, there’s a very tech-y message board for projectionists over at http://www.film-tech.org – interesting reading if you’re into this stuff, which I am.)

  17. Anonymous says:

    Imax is over rated… I rather see movie technology become cheaper (i.e. digital filming and projection), and increase the number and variety of films available, than to see the latest blockbuster on a slightly larger screen.

    Cheap and digital is the future.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Joel, your “VFX engineer” friend doesn’t exactly know what he’s talking about.

    STAR TREK IMAX is not simply 35mm STAR TREK blown up. IMAX has a proprietary process called DMR, costing a few million bucks per feature, in which they digitally remaster a 35mm feature frame by frame for the IMAX format.

    Yes, it’s not the same as a film _shot_ in IMAX format, as the image wasn’t originated at the same/full IMAX resolution or aspect ratio — but it is leaps and bounds beyond a simple “blow up” of the 35mm film.

    The fact your source didn’t even see (or even know about!) how it worked for THE DARK KNIGHT last year makes him utterly unqualified to even talk about this. The majority of DARK KNIGHT was shot conventionally and remastered for IMAX using DMR, but certain key sequences were indeed shot in IMAX format/resolution/aspect ratio, and those shots took over the whole screen. (If you missed seeing it in IMAX, you missed one of the greatest moviegoing experiences ever offered to audiences.)

  19. Anonymous says:

    Most of the theaters are not Imax anyway

    Roger Ebert has a bit o blog on it.


  20. Anonymous says:

    http://www.film-tech.com , not .org- sorry about that.

  21. pewma says:

    I’m not too big on IMAX. Yeah, it’s a larger screen and resolution but most of the IMAX screens I’ve seen are just a bit larger and slightly rounded versions of regular movie screens. I would rather see more films done in OmniMAX, or IMAXdome as it’s sometimes called. We have had one here in St. Louis at the science center for years. I think it makes for a much better all encompassing film experience as the viewable area wraps around your full area of vision.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Keep in mind that while IMAX is big in the US it’s basically nonexistant elsewhere – there are 10 IMAX screens in all of Australia for example.

    While it’s true they could have shot it in extra-big-ass mode for you guys and then give everyone else a down-sized version, it really isn’t necessary when looking at the global cinema market to go through the extra expense.

  23. chumpmeat says:

    @6 – great post, ihaveseenenough. But how about a different URL? http://www.film-tech.org gives me a page load error.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Personally, I think IMAX is too ridiculously to be adapted by the entire industry.

  25. O_M says:

    “I wants me Cinerama back!”

    …Truthfully, have you actually seen the original three-projector Cinerama? Or are you referring to the “faux Cinerama” that 2001 was hyped as being filmed in?

  26. dbtayag says:

    “With many films now shooting digital, there’s NO WAY they’re going to start shooting IMAX. Forget it. Nor are they going to significantly increase the resolution that they’re shooting digitally.” – The Pants

    Bay shot three scenes of Transformers 2 with IMAX cameras and Favreau is planning on using the IMAX camera with Iron Man 2. According to Christopher Nolan, if he plans to direct the third Batman film, it will be shot entirely with IMAX cameras or IMAX mixed with 70mm film.

    On the HD front, filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and Peter Jackson have begun shooting their films with the Red One camera which is 4K. “Dark City” director Alex Proyas is going to be shooting with the Red Epic (which is 5K) on his next film.

  27. ihaveseenenough says:


    I firmly admit that I’m nitpicking, but that’s because I’m a cineaste and the quality of presentation in a theater is something that definitely impacts my enjoyment of a film.

    When I say 4k technology wasn’t ready yet, that’s not a misstatement- the Sony projectors weren’t ready and widely available for IMAX when they were creating and testing these systems a few years ago. AMC’s install has only just now begun, and runs through 2012.

    And you’re not quite accurate in saying “only 1 1/2 minutes” was rendered- while most digital special effects have only been rendered in 2k, that’s not the case for shots in the film without digital effects- Technicolor has a 4k DI facility on the Sony lot, and Spiderman 3 was the first film scanned and entirely color-corrected and rendered in 4k using the Da Vinci Resolve 4k software-based system, and then presented in a few theaters in 4k digital projection (the first). In addition, that same facility has scanned and created a 4k DI of Dr. Strangelove, and this has gone on to screen in Toronto and L.A.. Sony now scans all of its new films shot on 35mm to 4k resolution, and makes 4k versions available. All of the Bond movies have been rescanned and corrected for 4k, and other films released in 4k include Ocean’s 13, Hancock, Da Vinci Code, and Fantastic Four 2.

    I am under NO circumstances suggesting a 1080p TV and even a great 7.1 home surround setup rivals even an average theater. Movies were made to be seen in the theater- no doubt about it. However, I think it’s unacceptable for a company whose very identity is “we give you the best sound and picture” to pass off ordinary digital projection with a few tweaks to consumers, for a $2-5 price premium, and not differentiate it from the real experience that people think they are paying for.

  28. Anonymous says:

    So really I should ask the theater for $2 back for not providing the true IMAX experience. I will mind that in the future, should I return to the cinema…in the mean time, may it live long and prosper.

  29. the_pants says:

    Dark Knight shot IMAX for about 30 minutes of finished footage. The rest of Dark Knight and every other Hollywood movie has used a blowup technology called IMAX DMR (here’s a list -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_IMAX_DMR_films). With many films now shooting digital, there’s NO WAY they’re going to start shooting IMAX. Forget it. Nor are they going to significantly increase the resolution that they’re shooting digitally. At some point, seeing every pore, wrinkle, and star’s patchy makeup is going to work against Hollywood, not to mention the very real cost of rendering realistic effects at a resolution that would be adequate for transfer to IMAX film. There’s no point to complaining, it’s not going to happen for the foreseeable future. When it does, IMAX will most likely not be a film medium anymore, anyway.

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