Imax's laboratory invents the future


Imax executives like to talk about the large-format exhibitor's "wow" factor -- the giant screen, high-resolution images, sound and theater geometry. Well, nestled in a quiet suburban Toronto community is the wow factory, Imax's technology facility where engineers, digital-imaging specialists and software developers create and manufacture next-generation goods to deliver on the Canadian exhibitor's "big-screen" promise.

The R&D facility where Imax theater systems are designed and manufactured -- where Imax DMR and Imax MPX technologies were invented, and from which hardware is shipped to locations around the globe -- has the look and vibe of the gadget-inventing laboratory in the James Bond films, with Imax senior vp technology Brian Bonnick presiding as Q.

Technicians in white lab coats work on camera image enhancement engines and custom lens design, digital projectors, devising software to convert Hollywood films into 3-D experiences, and making giant-screen theaters smaller, easier to install and more cost-effective.

In the camera department, for example, the major innovations are with 3-D cameras, which use two lenses to simultaneously record images on two 65mm film strips, one for each eye. The film is later projected in stereo on the giant Imax screen.

Developed in the early '80s, the first Imax 3D system consisted of two Imax cameras mounted together. The technology was advanced in the early '90s with the first Imax dual-strip 3-D camera, a single unit that simultaneously shot two strips of film. Loaded, it weighed 215 pounds. A further breakthrough was achieved in the late '90s with a single strip 3-D camera that weighs 90 pounds. Suitable for aerial cinematography and the more nimble moves demanded by Hollywood filmmakers, it journeyed to the space station for 2002's "Space Station 3D."

Moving deeper into the bowels of the Toronto facility, you come to the sound department. Here a major challenge is ensuring everyone in the Imax theater can hear the shade and subtlety of a tiny drop of rain or a thunderous rocket launch -- wherever they are seated.

The solution: create a bigger sweet spot for the theater. This was achieved using a 6-channel, proportional point source loudspeaker system developed in Toronto that delivers exacting sound volume and quality.

That proved useful to Hugh Murray, vp of technical at Imax, when he and Randy Thom of Skywalker Sound mixed the sound for Warner Bros.' 2004 release "The Polar Express" when the film was digitally remastered for 70mm projection using Imax's proprietary DMR technology.

In one scene, a pack of wolves in a forest pursue a train thundering by. Precise sound placement in an Imax theater enabled Murray and Thom to create a Doppler Effect, where the yowling sounds of the wolves could originate from far behind a listener and move to the front of the theater as the wolves progressively catch up and run alongside the moonlit train.

According to Murray, Thom was so impressed he created new, enhanced yowling sounds for the wolves exclusively for the Imax version.

Beyond using DMR technology to scan a traditional Hollywood movie, enhance it and enlarge it to 70mm, Imax engineers in Toronto also invented a proprietary 2-D-to-3-D technology that, for example, converted select scenes from the 35mm version of Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" (2006) to stereo vision.

The rub is 2-D movies are originally shot from a single vantage point, so it lacks the geometric information necessary in 3-D to fool the eyes and brain to see in stereoscopic vision.

So Imax researchers developed computer software to take a flat 2-D film and assign depth, volume and shape to its background and moving characters.

That work takes place in a nondescript office building in downtown Toronto, where Imax artists using the proprietary technology recently finished converting scenes from Warners' upcoming "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" from 2-D to 3-D using modeling and render-based technology. First, rotoscoping tools were used to isolate characters and backgrounds in the original 2-D film.

Imax artists next used image-based modeling to estimate geometric depth-map information. Then, using that data, they situated objects on the Imax screen anywhere from the plane of the screen to out in the immersive audience space -- all to be viewed with special 3-D goggles.

Wow about that!