Having stunned audiences with vivid digital and analogue presentations of “Dunkirk” in 2017, and with a packed slate of offerings gracing their floor-to-ceiling screen venues in 2019, IMAX appears to be going from strength to strength. Brian Bonnick has acted as the IMAX’s CTO since 2011, having joined the firm in 1999, and is the mastermind behind a host of technologies, including the single projector ‘IMAX with Laser’ solution. Martin Dew caught up with him for Cinema Technology and quizzed him on evolution of IMAX technologies and even the current state-of-play on the legendary 15/70 film format…
Big screen cinema? Many people immediately thing “IMAX” — and last year the big-screen team introduced IMAX DNA, a full ecosystem from content capture to presentation that ensures its venues show 26% more picture area than standard cinemas. This spearheaded a slate including “Black Panther” and “Mission Impossible: Fallout”. The company can rightfully lay claim to introducing the first large screen venues of their type which spawned the modern frenzy for ‘premium large formats’. But who in the IMAX development team in the 1970s could foresee that its quirky special venue product would become a mainstay of the multiplex? Last year alone, the Ontario-based group secured deals to build over 200 of its single-projector ‘IMAX with Laser’ systems for exhibitors such as AMC and Pathé Gaumont, with Europe shaping up to be a key battleground.
Interviewed for CT, chief technology officer Brian Bonnick shares his thoughts on future success in the PLF world.
First up — what does IMAX as a brand mean to you…
It boils down to providing the world’s most immersive experience, that means consumers go somewhere that, under normal circumstances, they would never be able to go. Our intention is to remain at the top of the food chain, providing the best experience. I’ve worked for 12 companies over my career, and I’ve never worked for one where it doesn’t matter if you’re in the technical area, the film area, or even finance; our employees have such a passion. I laugh because often when our employees go to see movies in IMAX I’ll get a phone call from one of them saying, ‘I went and saw a movie, something wasn’t quite right, and I didn’t think it was perfect.’ That type of love drives everybody to try to excel every day.
Can you sum up what differentiates a modern IMAX screen from a standard multiplex?
There are five areas that differentiate the IMAX experience. The obvious ones are the projection systems we employ, which are all proprietary and custom-designed, as well as the sound systems.
The next is the venue itself and the theatre geometry. IMAX is about putting you into an experience. To do that, we need to immerse you. Every IMAX theatre is a short-throw venue and the audience is sitting relatively close to the screen. When we convert a normal theatre to IMAX, we go in, remove their screen, put a new one in, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, and we bring it closer to the audience. By bringing the screen forward, it’s the equivalent of putting in a new screen that, in other formats, would extend beyond the walls of the building. We have a patent on that concept —and sometimes we remove the front row of seats too.
The theatre is acoustically treated to IMAX standards, so NC noise control and reverberation specifications have to be adhered to. One of the reasons we do that is because we want the audience to be able to go into any IMAX theatre and have the same experience.
Then, obviously, there’s the choice of materials — dark materials, generally speaking — so that you’re not getting a lot of reflections. The screen we use in the theatre is a custom-designed one that improves the reflection of content to the viewer.
The other part we deal with is at the front end. I always talk about the fact that IMAX is ‘cradle-to-grave’, and the cradle part is our filmmakers. We’ve been working with filmmakers for 40 years, including Chris Nolan, J. J. Abrams, Michael Bay and the Russell brothers — all have embraced IMAX. In combination with their skillsets and the use of IMAX technologies, such as our large format cameras, they are able to capture content in a way you normally can’t for any other venue. We’re able to support a 1.43 aspect ratio in these venues. Filmmakers are some of our biggest customers, so with everything we’re designing, they’re sort of our acid test. They’re more critical than any consumer will ever be.
Next in the process is our digital remastering technology, and this is the method by which we can take content and remove the grain, create a clean slate if we wish, or something in between. We’re able to remove artifacts in an image, and improve sharpness and overall quality.
You mean the DMR (Digital Re-mastering) process?
That’s correct. This is in conjunction with our projectors, when I talk ‘cradle-to-grave’ we’re controlling the cameras at the front end. We’re controlling the DMR process, again, with the filmmakers. And we have a sound system and projection system, each of which is designed to work with these other elements. We control the whole system. Each component is designed knowing what’s upstream of it, and we take full advantage of it, even down to the cables we choose to use.
You’ve got control of the entire workflow process and even the room in which the content is presented?
What we don’t want to do is degrade the quality of what they’re trying to convey. We try to provide an experience that’s lifelike, and that means you have to work with the filmmaker. Sometimes he or she actually wants us to put more film grain in, or they want it not quite as sharp as we can make it. There’s not a right or a wrong in the process.
The next area is preserving the quality of the experience. It’s great when a tuner comes in and tunes your theatre today. For the next two weeks it looks great, but what happens down the road? Obviously, we can’t keep an engineer on site, so we have microphones located around the theatre. Each morning they listen to specific test tones and compare them to a reference design. They’re capable of making adjustments, should there be a variation. Acoustical performance of a loudspeaker varies with temperature and humidity — we’re able to ensure the sound is tuned perfectly.
Similarly, we use a camera that looks at the screen every morning to look at the brightness. If we’re using one of the dual projector systems, it ensures both are putting out the proper light level and are within a minute tolerance of each other. In 3D, in a dual configuration, if your light levels are off a little, your brain picks up on it. Every morning the system calibrates itself. It gives us the ability to guarantee to the consumer that the system is working at peak performance. If it’s not, we get an alert. We can log into the system, and we know exactly what buttons the operators pushed on the console. We’re at a point where 94% of all field issues are resolved remotely. It’s great to have a product that comes out of the gate working, but you’re going to get pixel drift and convergence issues on the systems.
The design of the projectors is 25 years old, and everyone in the marketplace, except for us, whether it be xenon, or blue laser, or RGB laser, are all using the same fundamental optical design. That design, to be blunt, was never optimised for cinema, until now, having implemented this new design with our laser products. It’s a brand new piece of technology. So, all of these things are working together.
But you do still send techs out to each site?
We do send techs out twice a year, and they do maintenance, like changing filters, and a general validation. They’ll bring in the $10k colour meter and take readings. If it’s something we can’t adjust remotely, they will go in at that point. Typically they’re also providing training to the operators. The systems are easy to use, but the techs also get feedback. They tend to be our client representatives, because it’s important that we understand from exhibitor partners what’s working and what’s not working.
How do the IMAX laser systems compare to the analogue 15/70 system in terms of screen resolution and performance?
I actually prefer laser, but when we designed our laser system, we did so with the mindset of trying to approximate the visual experience you get with film. There are subtleties in our laser system that, even down to some of the types of glass we’ve used in the optics, reflect what a film-based system provides. Obviously, we don’t get the artifacts and dust on-screen. Where films stand out is where they have been captured at 18,000 [horizontal] resolution. Our film system is capable of displaying that, while obviously our digital projectors are capable of 4K. Now, in our situation, when we use dual projectors, we’re employing a technology that allows us to increase perceived resolution because we’ve got double the number of pixels. It’s not quite 8K, but when you look at the technology we employ, it’s a lot more than 4K. So, both have advantages, and both can work side-by-side well. Going forward, I think our GT laser that does 1.43:1 is a lot more capable of filling that gap.
The Odeon Norwich and Odeon Kingston in the UK both have smaller screens than are typical for IMAX. Are there base criteria for screen size and seating?
There’s a bit of misnomer in the industry that if the screen’s not big, it’s not IMAX. I acknowledge that when you walk into a theater and the screen is eight stories tall, your body relative to the venue makes it feel bigger. It doesn’t matter whether the screen is 40ft wide or 80ft wide, if it has the same field of view. We try to get into the largest auditorium in the complex, but at some venues, if the largest auditorium and the design of the venue precludes us from going into a larger one, we have to make do with what’s available.
We work closely with the exhibitor to select sites that have good demographics to support it from a business level, but also try to optimise size, screen venue, acoustics and all the geometric issues that are of concern to us. In some cases it’s not an 80ft screen because they can’t support it. If it’s a marketplace where we can put a screen in and maintain that accentuated aspect ratio, the customer is still getting a wall-to-wall, fill-your-peripheral-vision experience.
And the same optimised viewing angle, too?
There are venues we turn down all the time, where we don’t believe we can achieve an optimized viewing angle. As an engineer, it’s less to me about the screen size, although we’re not going to go into a 30ft screen. Clearly, there are more technical parameters. We know from 40 years’ experience, that when you get a field of view less than ‘x’, you’ve started to detract from what we perceive as IMAX. It’s more to do with the geometry of the venue — how wide and how long.
There’s also a misunderstanding among consumers in terms of the brand when a regular 2K or 4K film is shown in an IMAX screen. How do IMAX and exhibitors get the message across that a title is not necessarily optimised and mastered for this specialised viewing environment?
This doesn’t happen often, but if they’re showing a film that is not issued by IMAX, a standard goes up on screen to say you are not watching an IMAX movie. There aren’t a lot of titles that get shown that way — we have a pretty heavy slate of films now. We’re putting out a movie roughly once every week-and-a-half on average. Last year we did about 60 films.
Not every film gets processed the same way. It’s very dependent on how the filmmaker and his team made it. Some are almost engineers who understand content capture technically and create a near-pristine piece of quality content out of the box. Others do not. So, the way we apply our technologies is specific to every film. In conjunction with a filmmaker, we determine ‘What does this film need?’, recognising that we’ve got a projection and sound system that exceeds anything else. As an example, just about every filmmaker, when their soundtrack comes through, can have it remastered. Our system can go an octave lower than any other. It’s the difference of being at a rock concert where you can feel your chest beating, versus hearing that rock concert with a nice sound system. Your body’s not feeling it.
We can take the same content someone else has got, and it’s going to look better on our system — we know how to manage convergence, brightness, and pixel alignment. These are subtle, technical things, but when they start to go awry, the quality on the screen is not as good. Our lenses are custom — we don’t use ones that anyone else in the industry uses. Our cost factors more than theirs, and we use the most expensive flint glass. The bottom line is that the quality of the sharpness coming out of the IMAX system, with the same identical content you would show elsewhere, is higher.
You’re using 12-channel audio, as opposed to 6 or 9, as standard now for IMAX installations?
Yes, it’s not to compete with others that offer 60 channels and so on. It really has merit in our largest venues where room volume is extremely large. We’ve added two additional speakers on the side walls, and four additional loudspeakers in the ceiling. In a lot of these systems with multiple loudspeakers, there are a couple of issues. They do a good job of giving a point source, or with sound coming from multiple locations in the theatre. The drawback is that you can’t spend a ton of money on the loudspeakers because you’ve got anything from 20 to 60 of them — and people are running a business. Yes, you can place a sound at a certain point, but the sheer cadence and the quality of that sound — the realistic aspects of it — just aren’t going to be there.
The other problem they have is they make one soundtrack and rely on a computer to remix it, based on the number of speakers in the theatre. So, if I have an object-oriented sound system with 20 loudspeakers versus 60, the processor has to figure out how to restructure that sound. It does a good job, but it’s different.
So in that sense, they’re dealing with objects and metadata attached to specific effects…
Correct. And one of the drawbacks is that it will sound a little different from theatre to theatre. We’ve taken a different approach in that we’ve got discrete channels, and a discrete sub, which are all full-range. We’re able to provide you with an extreme high dynamic range audio soundtrack. We jokingly say you can literally hear a pin drop in the theatre, and you can hear a rocket ship taking off at 118 or 120dB without distortion. Our amplifiers are designed to work with our loudspeakers. Our loudspeakers employ a technology called PPS (proportional point source) sound. When you look at the horns in any other theatre, they have symmetry to them. Ours have a weird-looking shape to them, and that shape is designed for the theatre it’s going into. What it allows us to do is emit more acoustical energy to the seats that are further away, versus the ones that are closer. The sound dissipates as it’s moving to the seats further away. So, though we’re sending a much higher energy level, by the time it gets to those seats, it’s at the same energy level as the closer seats. It allows us to create an extremely large sweet spot in the theatre. You can sit just about anywhere in the theatre, and acoustically you’re going to get the same thing.
Are you using focused dispersion characteristics in the speakers to achieve that?
We do that and other stuff on top. We’re able to image sound. If you think of us having 12 loudspeakers, and you draw a line from every speaker to every other one, you create a ‘sphere’ around the seating deck. We can originate the pin-point source of a sound to anywhere within that sphere through the loudspeaker system.
Everyone’s talking about object-oriented sound and all these special effects. That’s fine for a special effects movie where sounds are not real. You can’t do them wrong because there’s no reference to base them on. But when, for example, you show a quality film like “Dunkirk”, our human brains know what a plane should sound like, we know what a bomb going off should sound like, and we have a perception of what the reality of that is. In order to reproduce that, every loudspeaker has to be tuned the same as the next. Others use tuning systems that will have, say, 31 bands of tuning, plus some parametric bands too, but that’s fundamentally it. I’ve got 31 adjustments I can make, and it’s way off the mark. In our system, we employ computer algorithms, and use a physical tuner, so we don’t just rely on the computer. We rely on human ears, the old-fashioned way, but we take thousands and thousands of readings from all of these loudspeakers from 20 different spots within the theatre.
What we’re doing is balancing the sound, managing bass nodes, and other negative things that can happen in the sound system effectively. The computer system stores all this information, and we can make adjustments any time we want. If we were to do that kind of adjustment manually, we’d be onsite for weeks. These are loudspeakers specifically designed for an IMAX short-throw venue where we want to provide the loudest sound when it happens. We generally don’t play it super loud. Our amplifiers have well over 25,000W of power. Typically, our amplifiers are running at 100–200W. The point is, I’ve got so much darned headroom that when that airplane starts shooting or that bomb blows up, I don’t have any distortion to worry about. If it doesn’t sound real, you’re losing that feeling of being there.
When a studio wants sequences in 15/70 (1.43), jumping up from 2.39:1, they obviously budget for that, and decide on it in pre-production. How does that proces play out?
We’ve developed trust with filmmakers, which is important. The film is their baby and they don’t want it touched in any way without their say-so. They come to us in advance saying they want to do a film, they want to do it in IMAX, and they want to do something different. We figure out creatively what it is they want. Some have particular shots they want, some have entire scenes, some have a hell of a lot of the movie they want to do. They usually want to take advantage of the IMAX aspect ratio, the sharpness of the projectors, and the higher resolution. Even though you might have a 4K projector, we employ a technology known as oversampling, so if you capture your content at higher resolution, even though you’re still limited in your playback, there are things you can do to enhance that 4K playback content to make it look like it’s a lot higher resolution.
Your partner is Barco with its stacked projectors in your digital IMAX screens, but are you using Barco laser too for the new single-projector ‘IMAX with Laser’ system?
Consider Barco a supplier. With our laser systems, we have sub-contracted to them to build laser modules. Everything else in the system I design. I put their laser modules into our system. I talked earlier about our projectors having a 25-plus-year history of using an optical prism to which the chips are mounted. Whether they are DMDs or LC chips, it doesn’t matter. Every projector typically has — if it’s not a colour wheel — three chips mounted onto a prism. Light bounces into that prism, goes through a red, green and blue filter to each of the three chips. The chips are all aligned on this prism, so if I turn pixel ‘number one’ on, they all direct pixel ‘one’ out of the lens, and they have to be superimposed on each other — that’s what the prism does. The problem is that it was never truly designed to handle the power level that lasers put out. You have stray light, so what happens is that there is this piece of glass, and the chips all start to expand and contract. That can lead to misalignment due to heat on the chips. On screen, you get pixel misalignment, you get convergence issues where you may see fine magenta or green line, depending on the leading or lagging edge.
The other problem you have is that you’ve got all this light coming into the prism, and stray light is bouncing around, grossly affecting contrast. With typical systems, the average guy’s getting somewhere between 1,800 to 2,000:1 contrast. Also, because you’ve got so much glass, it affects sharpness, so you’ve got three Achilles’ heel problems.
We spent over $60m developing our laser solution. We threw away the prism, we have these chips mounted about a foot apart from each other — so there’s no stray light — and our contrast levels more than double IMAX film. Even in our lenses, we’ve removed glass, and get this unbelievably sharp image. Our projectors have humidification and temperature management systems to maintain a constant level. The chips are mounted to an open air frame, so can be cooled from front and back, and maintain a constant temperature. The frame is made of a material called invar, one of the most thermally stable materials on the planet.
Now we have an environment with no stray light, chips mounted far apart, no glass, so my sharpness is better, and I’m maintaining a thermal equilibrium, I don’t have pixel drift and I don’t have convergence issues. I have a pristine image on-screen that I can’t get through other means. Barco is absolutely a partner of ours, designing the light source that feeds our GT laser. They design it to our specification. If I need a widget and if I can find what I want in the open market, I’ll buy it — I’m not going to design it. If I can’t find it, it’ll have to be designed. If someone has more expertise than me, I farm it out. If I have more, I do it myself. We’ll use anybody’s technology if it’s the best as we want the best experience on screen.
The future of analogue 15/70
Will there be more IMAX film 15/70 screens built?
What we’ve got now is certainly as much as we’ll get. We’ve got some that have been mothballed and we’re seeing what we can do about bringing them back into the marketplace. We’re not quite sure right now, because we haven’t been through the assessment, but we won’t be manufacturing more. It’s a 40-year-old legacy design. We can refurbish ones we’ve already got, but we couldn’t build from scratch.
How do the IMAX laser systems compare to the analogue 15/70 system in terms of screen resolution and performance?
I actually prefer laser, but when we designed our laser system, we did so with the mindset of trying to approximate the visual experience you get with film. There are subtleties in our laser system that, even down to some of the types of glass we’ve used in the optics, reflect what a film-based system provides. Obviously, we don’t get the artifacts and dust on-screen. Where films stand out is where they have been captured at 18,000 [horizontal] resolution. Our film system is capable of displaying that while obviously our digital projectors are capable of 4K. Now, in our situation, when we use dual projectors, we’re employing a technology that allows us to increase the perceived resolution because we’ve got double the number of pixels. It’s not quite 8K, but when you look at the technology we’re employing, it’s a lot more than 4K. So, both have their advantages, and both can work side-by-side very well. Going forward, I think our GT laser, the one that does 1.43:1, is a lot more capable of fulfilling that gap.