How The Hunger Games reveals the flaws in the IMAX Experience


On Tuesday, I went to see The Hunger Games with my younger sister. Because the IMAX Theater near our house has a special price on Tuesdays, we elected to see it that way. And why not? If you’re going to go for a theater experience, it may as well be the biggest, best one you can find, right? Going in, the answer seemed obvious. Coming out, I wasn’t so sure.

There is no question that films shot in IMAX should always be seen in IMAX if at all possible, but films like The Hunger Games, which are meant to be shown in theaters a third to a quarter of the size, should be looked at on a case by case basis. Not every one of them will benefit from the larger screens, and some of them will be hurt by it.

Jennifer Lawrence and some dudes in uniform

I’d like you to join me in a little experiment. 

There is a pretty good chance that somewhere in your vicinity is something you can use to take a picture. I want you to do that. Done? Good. See how (relatively) nice it looks on the screen? Now, either on the device itself or on your computer, look at the image zoomed to 100%. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t look so good, does it? If you didn’t feel like participating, I did an example for you. This is a picture of a painting my girlfriend did. It doesn’t really matter if you think it’s a good painting or not; that isn’t the point. I took this picture on a Canon T2i/550D at a resolution of 5184×3456, cropped to 4748×3159. I took the photo in poor lighting to make everything easier to see.

This image has been resized to 620×413, because of the width required by our blogging software.

Painting by Montana Jaro, resized

It’s not a particularly flattering image, but it doesn’t look terrible. Kind of flat, sure, but there aren’t a whole lot of visual problems going on with it.

Now compare that with this image, which is a section from the original photograph at full size and cropped to 620×413.

Painting by Montana Jaro, cropped

See how noisy it is? It’s awful. All of that visual noise technically exists in the first image, but it’s basically hidden because of something known as “oversampling.” Oversampling, in this case, refers to the condensation of an image and its pixels. In the case of the above image, the original resolution of the image is ~8X larger than what you see here. That means that each pixel in the above image is taking the place of ~64 pixels from the original image. This makes the image seem much sharper and clearer, because problems with individual pixels are masked.

But if you take an image and blow it up at full size or larger, such as when a non-IMAX image is projected onto an IMAX screen, the exact opposite thing occurs. A film’s visual flaws may be able to hide on a regular sized theater screen, but when it’s being shown on a five story behemoth, the pixels are forced to expand rather than contract. They become bigger and their issues become clearer. This is especially problematic when dealing with CGI.

4K vs 2K vs 1080p vs 720p relative size comparison from Wikipedia

Let me pause here to explain something about resolution and its place in digital filmmaking. If you understand the difference between 1080p and 4K, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

When you are given a TV’s resolution, the numbers you see given are defined by an image’s number of vertical pixels. A 1080p image is 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels tall. 720p is 1280 pixels wide and 720 pixels tall. When dealing with larger resolutions, however, the width becomes the defining number, and the specificity is ignored. This is because different films are shot at different aspect ratios. For example, the bottom rung film resolution is 2K, which theoretically results in an image that is 2048×1152. However, some 2K cameras shoot at, for example, 2048×1080.

Although not exclusively, many filmmakers shooting digital use cameras that record at what seems to be the industry standard of 4K, or 4096×2304 (depending on manufacturer). Aside from the Arri Alexa (which gorgeous films like Drive and Melancholia were shot on), few of the major cameras used these days shoot below 4K, and some of them are beginning to shoot higher. Much of the indie scene is relegated to 2K at the moment, but with the advent of (relatively) affordable 4K cameras like the RED Scarlet-X and the upcoming Canon EOS C300, it will likely replace 2K in the indie space within the next few years. When 4K is replaced by Super-Hi Vision/Ultra High Definition/8K, which is closer to the resolution of an IMAX image, some of these arguments will be made irrelevant. But we’ve got a ways to go before that happens.

Arri Alexa

It’s even worse in the case of The Hunger Games, because it has poor CG to start with. Pretty much every bit of CG effects work looked bad, since every flaw was magnified on the IMAX screen. The fire effects on Katniss’ and Peeta’s suits as well as Katniss’s dress were unimpressive at best, the train and flying ships were ugly in all of the wrong ways, the green screen effects were middling, and the projectile weapons (arrows, spears, etc.) didn’t mesh well. Really, the only CG effects that worked were all of the Truman Show meets Minority Report effects that took place in the control room. Admittedly, that all worked pretty well. Considering the elements in the room are not actually supposed to be “real,” even in the context of the world in The Hunger Games, I don’t know if that’s such high praise, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

Films like Avatar can get away with it since pretty much everything in that film is effects-driven and because of the sheer spectacle of the big screen (not to mention the budget used is considerably more padded). This means that it’s even more difficult to spot the flaws in it. I think the fact that so much of The Hunger Games is live-action (something I appreciated greatly) actually worked against it. The special effects are used pretty sparingly, so the moments where they are used stand out dramatically.

Jennifer Lawrence on the TV and stuff

Last year, I attended a talk given by film historian David Bordwell, and he made a comment about Michael Bay’s editing style. He said the reason that nothing Bay does makes sense on a big screen is because he makes them on a small one. Nobody has the luxury of editing in a theater, so all of the cuts are made on smaller screens. These smaller screens allow for the brain to more rapidly process the images. So an editor may not even realize how jarring and headache-inducing a film might be until it’s shown in a theater, and people who see it on DVD or Blu Ray months later will wonder what everybody was complaining about.

The brain can only handle so much information, so it makes sense that a rapidly edited fight scene could become more and more visually confusing as it became larger and larger. Case in point, The Hunger Games. Generally speaking, the fight scenes in The Hunger Games don’t actually have too many unnecessary cuts. There are two exceptions, one of which worked better than the other.

Jennifer Lawrence in the woods

In the first battle over the equipment, the quick cuts and rapid movement seem designed to create a level of confusion and disconnect similar to what was happening in Katniss’s mind. I thought that was fine and it worked. The characters were different enough looking that I got the basic sense of what was happening, and the entire scene came across as properly disorienting.

In the final fight between Peeta and Cato, however, I don’t think it worked. Maybe that was intentional, but whereas the opening confusion drew me into the film, the final confusion took me out of it. I was thinking about the fact that I had no idea what was going on, and I was annoyed with the filmmakers for doing it that way. I absolutely think that it would have made more sense on a smaller screen, because I couldn’t even get a bearing on what kind of fighting was really happening, let alone who was doing what. 

Jennifer Lawrence on set of The Hunger Games

And here we get to one of the biggest general complaints about The Hunger Games: the shakycam. If I had to guess, I’d say that the majority of the filming was done handheld using telephoto lenses. There are a huge number of extreme close-ups (something you really don’t see a lot of), and the camera moves around violently for pretty much the entire film. I know that there are people who hate handheld camerawork, but I have no problem with it. It’s a stylistic thing, and it can definitely have a positive impact on a movie, but here it was just too much. Or it seemed to be, at least on that screen.

About five minutes into The Hunger Games, I began having second thoughts about purchasing that IMAX ticket. For whatever reason, the first act has the most consistently distressing camerawork, and by the time the Reaping had been completed, I was actually out of breath and I had to sit back and rest for a moment. The less of a scene you can see onscreen, the more work your brain has to do to figure out how everything connects, and the tenser you feel. This is why nearly all fight scenes take place primarily in close ups. As soon as it moves to a wider shot, tension is released and you feel better. There are not a lot of wide shots in the opening scenes of The Hunger Games, so the tension just keeps ratcheting up and up.

Fortunately, the pace slows down a bit after leaving District 12, and aside from the aforementioned fight scenes, it never really cranks up to that same level again. Fortunately, when it did speed up during the games, I had been acclimated to the shake, but it took far too long to get there, and I imagine that for people less accepting of shakycam it could be a major problem. 

Jennifer Lawrence reaping day

But pretty much all of this stems from the fact that so few movies are shot in IMAX or with IMAX in mind. Just as many films these days are converted to 3D in post, so too are films turned into “The IMAX Experience.” As of right now, only three released features have been shot partially in IMAX (none have been shot fully): The Dark Knight, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. More are being released in the next few years, but it’s very rare. 

Perhaps every director would love the ability to work in IMAX and with IMAX, but it seems like a lot of this is coming down to the whims of the studio and studio heads rather than those of a filmmaker. If Gary Ross had made The Hunger Games with the intention of seeing it in an IMAX theater, he probably would have changed the way it was shot at least slightly to accommodate that. Perhaps he knew from the beginning that it would be getting an IMAX upconversion, given the success of the final Harry Potter movies, but even so, thinking about the possibility is not the same as working towards that goal, and the team behind The Hunger Games clearly wasn’t working towards that goal.

The Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence Liam Hemsworth

I think that seeing movies at the IMAX is absolutely fantastic. I honestly do. I saw both Avatar and The Dark Knight at the IMAX on opening day, and I saw Inception in IMAX three times. When I could, I would always choose that. Now I realize that IMAX isn’t such a sure bet. The spectacle is wonderful, but it has the potential to do more harm than good. Such is the case with The Hunger Games.

I’m very happy that I saw The Hunger Games. It’s an amazing film, and I’m hoping to see it again soon. But if/when I do see it second time, it won’t be in IMAX.