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John Benson Writes on Avatar and IMAX 3-D

John Benson, the esteemed comics scholar (editor of the EC magazine Squa Tront and co-editor of the beautiful boxed set reprinting Harvey Kurtzman's classic satire magazine Humbug) is also a close student of the movies. After seeing Avatar in IMAX 3-D, John shared his thoughts with me about that film, and about 3-D in general, and with his blessing I'm publishing his comments here. A few years ago, he wrote at length about Polar Express after seeing it in IMAX 3-D, and you can read his comments at this link. MB

I recently saw (more or less) Avatar both in IMAX 3-D and in 3-D on a standard multiplex screen, and I thought you might be interested in my thoughts on the differences and on IMAX 3-D in general.

My first 3-D IMAX experience was The Last Buffalo made in 1990 but which I saw in 1995, at the NYC Loews Lincoln Square multiplex (which is the only venue where I've seen IMAX). This 27-minute film shows an artist welding animal sculptures, the sort of filler short subject that would normally be added to a program in the afternoon to make the evening show start at the right time. But this film was the entire program! As in the very earliest days of movies, you paid admission purely to see a technical marvel: huge-screen 3-D. Content and even length of program were irrelevant.

The Last Buffalo had many close-ups, which produced a curious effect. When you see the image of an arm that, in 3-D, seems to be three feet from your face, your eyes tell you that it's only two feet long, effectively shrinking the huge IMAX screen to almost nothing. When the the 3-D glasses are removed, the screen instantly is again enormous and overpowering. My recollection is that standard Polaroid glasses were utilized.

My next IMAX 3-D film was Wings of Courage, the same year. This was touted as the first fiction film in IMAX 3-D, still only 40 minutes long at a full ticket price (possibly even a premium price). For this film, the glasses were futuristic headsets with LCD lenses that actively alternated which eye saw the image, in synchronization with the projection. The headsets also had speakers that were cleverly used for the character's interior monologue, which had the effect of his thoughts seeming to be actually in your own head. These headsets were so prone to mechanical failure that before the show there was a recorded announcement that ushers would patrol the aisles at the beginning of the show to exchange sets with patrons whose sets were defective (and several were exchanged at the show I attended).

In the alternating-image 3-D system, first the left eye sees an image while the right sees nothing, then the right eye sees a slightly different image while the left eye sees nothing. Because of persistence of vision, the eye that's blacked out still retains the image that was last seen. This works fine when you're looking at a stationary image. But when the images are moving, one eye is seeing a frame of film a fraction of a second later than the other eye is seeing the other image for that frame, though the two were originally filmed simultaneously. In extreme movement, the two eyes are not seeing the same image elements of the movement at the same time, a disconcerting effect called "stuttering." I found this very obvious and annoying in Wings of Courage.

Another perennial problem of 3-D, which was often present in the 1953 3-D cycle, is showthrough or "ghosting," in which one eye can see a shadow of the image intended only for the other eye. This is often found in anaglyphic (red-blue) 3-D systems, and in 1953 was also caused, I'm told, by the deterioration of the Polaroid properties of the filters in front of the lenses because of the heat of the projector. In the newer age, I have rarely experienced ghosting, but it was occasionally noticeable in the Wings of Courage showing. The subject of Wings of Courage, a pilot who has crashed in the Andes returning to civilization on foot, was ideal for IMAX, and reasonable advantage was taken of the format, but the technical shortfalls of stuttering and ghosting made for a less than total experience.

The next IMAX show I saw was Encounter in the Third Dimension in 1998. My records show that this was 50 minutes long, but IMDb says the 40-minute barrier was still not broken with this film. Roger Ebert's review indicates that he saw it with the LCD headsets, but I recall that at the Lincoln Square regular Polaroid 3-D glasses were used. I don't recall any stutter or ghosting. This program was a hodgepodge of 3-D history (with clips from earlier 3-D films including some from the 1953 cycle) and special effects sequences, tied together by some characters who basically served as narrators. The 3-D was especially impressive in a computer-generated roller-coaster ride "through the center of the earth," and in the huge room that was the home base of the characters; seen in 3-D IMAX, it was hard to believe that a vast, airplane-hangar-sized room was not actually stretching out before you.

My next "encounter" with 3-D IMAX was The Polar Express in 2004. I had a cold and a headache the first night I saw it and left before the end. I wasn't initially impressed with the narrative, but parts of it stuck in my mind and I decided to see it again a few weeks later. The second time I had a totally different reaction, and I now feel that it's a very special and unique film. This isn't the place for extended comments on the film's artistic qualities. But it seems that director Zemeckis must have seen Encounter in the Third Dimension, because the film includes a similar underground roller-coaster ride and has similar vast rooms in the factory where Santa's toys are made.

According to IMDb, the films described above may have been produced with different technologies (IMAX 3-D for the first two, Iwerks 3-D for Encounter, and IMAX Digital 3-D for The Polar Express), but all used the same projection technology, namely 70 mm (horizontal) dual-strip 3-D. Until The Polar Express, all had the same aspect ratio, 1.44:1. The Polar Express was shown in IMAX in a 'scope image-shape, a 2:1 ratio per IMDb, so the complete IMAX screen was not filled but was effectively letterboxed. (Per IMDb, regular release prints were 2.35:1.) When dual projectors are used with regular Polaroid glasses, both eyes are seeing the same frame at the same time, so there is no stuttering. With the film frame printed horizontally on 70mm stock, the width of the image is about three times that of conventional 35mm film. Thus, the image quality is of the highest quality and the 3-D is flawless. The effect is breathtaking, technically. And The Polar Express was completely, intelligently, planned for large-screen 3-D, making for a unique experience.

Now we come to Avatar, which was shown in digital projection at both theatres where I saw it. Standard Polaroid glasses are used, but the left and right images are thrown on the screen alternately (although apparently more often than 24 times a second). Thus there is image stuttering. In the manner of today's action movies, Cameron moves his camera constantly, often extremely fast, and in some sequences, notably the long fight with the animal at night in the jungle, the stuttering effect is very strong. (Different people's eyes react differently to stuttering, but for me it was difficult to tell what was going on in that sequence and the 3-D effect was all but lost.)

The other problem with digital projection is that the image definition is not nearly as sharp as in true IMAX film projection. The size of the screen, the 3-D, and the action all command one's attention, so the somewhat less than perfect image quality isn't really annoying, but it's definitely noticeable. Unlike The Polar Express, the Avatar picture filled the IMAX screen. IMDb says the IMAX version of Avatar has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, which may be, but I would have guessed a more nearly square ratio. As noted, IMDb gives a 1.44:1 ratio for earlier IMAX horizontal projection films (called 15/70 because a frame is 15 sprocket holes wide and 70mm high). Wikipedia lists various actual sizes for different IMAX screens, which work out to ratios from 1.21:1 (old) to 1.96:1, and gives 1.60:1 for "multiplex." Since the ratio for Avatar is obviously quite flexible, perhaps Loews Lincoln Square, being a multiplex, projected it at a 1.60:1 ratio; that wouldn't be out of line with what my eye told me.

In the regular theatre (AMC six-plex at Broadway and 83rd Street), Avatar was shown in a standard 'scope 2.35:1 ratio—a dramatic difference in screen shape from the IMAX showing! This means that either the IMAX version had much more image at the top and bottom, or, more likely, it was the 2:35:1 version cropped significantly at the sides. If that's the case, the entire film must have been designed to be so cropped. I doubt they pan-and-scanned it. Or possibly, the IMAX was a little of both; more image top and bottom, less image at the sides. Although I saw the two versions a few weeks apart, I really couldn't remember specific images well enough to tell.

It's difficult to conceive of such dramatic shape changes being applied to The Polar Express, which was so carefully composed for the 'scope screen (although there is, incredibly, a "full-screen" DVD, which must be terrible). Since the digital projection technology was the same on the smaller screen, the technical limitations were the same. Although the reduced image quality was not noticeable, the stutter was still quite annoying when there was a lot of movement. But, generally, the difference in the experience of seeing the film in the two different venues was dramatic. In the six-plex, the effect was of watching any standard 'scope movie; the 3-D certainly added something but was hardly overpowering. The two-dimensional narrative and one-dimensional characters took center stage and the experience was much like watching a fifties 'scope western, where the vistas seem a backdrop to the story, and one accepts the conventional plot structure as the primary point of interest. (This was the case even though the screen was relatively large: all six theatres at the 83rd Street complex are big, each 400 or so seats.)

But in IMAX, the alien world that was so meticulously created pushed the story aside. The first real glimpse of the wilderness world was overwhelming, with a real sense of depth and of the landscape spreading off in all directions in incredible detail. The butterfly-like insects flitting about seemed real and natural. On the six-plex screen I barely noticed those insects at all. The scenes where the characters ran along the vines and limbs of trees far above the forest floor were breathtaking. The scene where the characters climbed up and up to get to the floating islands seemed incredibly fantastic, imaginative and dreamlike. In these sequences, the lame script and one-dimensional characters seemed irrelevant.

I had gone to the IMAX show primarily to see what the new 3-D was like and out of curiosity to see how successful the CGI recreation of an alien world was. Extreme movement on a large screen has a disorienting effect on me, and since the limited aspirations of the screenplay were rather annoying, I left the show about half-way through. I hadn't intended originally to see it again on the standard screen, but I became curious to see the difference, and I figured I might even get through to the end to see how it turned out. I went to the 83rd Street theatre one afternoon and was told that the show was canceled due to technical problems. So I went back the next day: big mistake.

About halfway through the film, the left and right images suddenly got out of synch and there were other weird visual effects. This shortly straightened out, but then about 15 minutes later, the left and right images reversed! Try this with a 3-D comic or photo; the effect is bizarre. I went out for the manager and asked if he could come to the theater when he was found; I'd be standing in the back. He finally came and looked at the screen with glasses and said that that was the way it was supposed to be! That's a showstopper: what can you say in response to that? This was a young kid in his early twenties. He told me that he was not only the manager but also the projectionist for all six screens! The only other staff in the place were the ticket-seller and the concession-stand clerk who doubled as ticket-taker—rather fantastic to me, who once worked in a first-run theatre where we had two projectionists, a manager, an assistant manager, several ushers (at least one even early in the day), a doorman, and a ladies' room attendant, as well as the ticket-seller and concession-operator—all for a single screen.

We didn't have a very heated exchange; he offered his card, and I think an address to which I could write a complaint. Obviously the problem wasn't his, but a chain management that made a young kid the manager and projectionist for six screens at once. Yelling at him would solve nothing. I imagine the technology of digital 3-D projection is beyond a layman projectionist's comprehension anyhow, and he wouldn't have been able to fix the problem even if he'd acknowledged it. (It's hard for me to understand how a single digital projector could somehow get the images switched, and especially to get out of synch.) You might ask about the reaction of the rest of the audience. Well, there were six other people in the theatre...and what would the typical Avatar audience know? Interestingly, the manager didn't mention them: I would have said, "Those people aren't complaining." There was nothing for me to do but leave, so I did.

When I left, the incredible might of the U.S. Army had just destroyed the sacred tree and the hero had gathered together the locals with their bows and arrows to fight back. I was curious to see how they managed to win the day, but that was not to be.

This new technology makes me very sad. The double-projector 70mm presentation of The Polar Express was state of the art and seemed just about perfect, but I guess we'll never see that again. The digital technology, obviously much simpler to operate, is really second rate; inferior image, inferior 3-D. Bummer. I should note that IMDb indicates that Avatar is/was also shown in "70 mm (horizontal) (IMAX DMR blow-up) (dual-strip 3-D)." I wonder where it was shown that way. I could say more about Avatar as a film, but I think I'll stop here. Note: I am no expert in IMAX 3-D projection technology and there could be errors in these comments.

Avatar's floating mountains

[Posted September 8, 2010]