In a more perfect world, all films would be released in the IMAX format. With screens several stories high and massive multi-channel sound systems, IMAX theatres provide the best theatre experience you can get. While it’s been around a while, IMAX has generally been regarded as a novelty format until recently. Using bulky cameras and expensive film with a limited number of venues, the format was largely ignored by the major studios as unprofitable. A big wave of construction along with the release last year of “Everest”, it was proven for the first time that you could actually make a lot of money and the quality of the films is on the rise. The future hold the promise with the upcoming IMAX releases of “Fantasia 2000” and “Star Trek: 3D”.
This brings me to one major trend in IMAX: the combination with the old film novelty, “3D”. The loftier purpose of the new film, “Encounters in the Third Dimension”, is to educate the audience about the history of 3D film. It actually does an admirable job at it but does little in the way of analysis. While the Lumiere brothers made a stab at making the first 3D short movie in 1903 with their “L’Arrivee du Train” (recreated in “Encounters”), the medium (and 3D film should be considered a different medium than regular film) has never developed over the years while the technology has been steadily improving. Nearly every medium makes its initial growth by trafficking in spectacle of pornography, essentially providing an experience the audience can’t get anywhere else. Pornography helped to launch home video if the first genre to really exploit the technology of DVD, but most IMAX theatres seemed to be attached to science museums and other family-oriented places so they have to rely on spectacle.
3D has never really advanced past the spectacle stage in part because it’s difficult to understand how to use it artistically. You can’t edit a 3D film like a regular film. Every time you cut to a new image the brain takes a moment to adjust to what it’s seeing, meaning that “Natural Born Killers” would end up as just a 2-hour headache (though you may think it is, anyway). You have to stick to as many long, continuous shots as possible.
3D films through the 1970’s relied on the ancient method of superimposing two images tinted in different colors. The viewer would wear a pair of 3D glasses with each lens a different color, creating the 3-Dimensional image in their head. It doesn’t do a lot for the cinematography, believe me.
Today, there are two methods, each applied at different IMAX theatres. The first employs a pair of goggles on the viewer with a shutter over each eye. An image is shown for one eye, with a closed shutter over the other eye. Then, a new image is displayed for the other eye with the shutters reversed. This method works great as the images on the screen no longer have to be superimposed on each other. However, it requires, first, for the film to be projected at 60 frames per second (standard for IMAX) so that each eye gets the 30 fps it needs to register fluid movement. Second, it requires all of the expensive motorized goggles and a radio unit to synchronize them all to the projector. The other method, and the one used when I saw “Encounters”, superimposes two images requiring glasses with two polarized lenses, one at a 90 degree angle to the other one. While this method works pretty well and does not screw up the photography as badly as the tinting did, you still must watch the contrast and brightness in what you shoot or the two images will bleed into each other. All you need, though, are all of the cheap goggles.
OK, enough with the lessons. “Encounters in 3D” opens with an image of a curtain over the screen fading with the appearance of a laboratory behind it (VERY similar to the new Disneyland show, “Honey, I Blew Up the Audience!”). We soon meet the Professor (Stuart Pankin) of the 3D Institute, and his flying robot, M.A.X. From there, the two take the audience on an extremely demonstrative retrospective of 3D entertainment. Some very impressive 3D Computer generated imagery is shown, mostly in the form of first person simulation through artificial worlds. Many examples are cribbed from pre-existing sources, particularly from simulator rides and shows like “Terminator 2: 3D”. There’s great original footage of a journey to the center of the Earth (and back). It’s these multiple simulations that are the true draw of the film. While the scenes with the professor are at least tolerable, and the history lesson is nice, it’s these 3D roller coaster rides that that will wipe out Laserium in the new millenium.
This film will send you hurtling on journeys through the Earth, space, graveyards, mine shafts, and more. You may very well want to go again and again. The audience I was with audibly gasped, at times. It’s a TRIP. Now, I can’t (legally) condone drug use and the theatres would probably like you not to show up s**t-faced, but if you go to “Encounters”, you go for the RIDE. If you feel the need to enhance the experience, DO WHAT YOU’VE GOT TO DO.