IMAX, 35mm, The Dark Knight Rises, and you


Four years ago I went to the local IMAX theater to see The Dark Knight. It was the first mainstream film shot partially in IMAX, and I knew I couldn’t see it any other way. And it completely blew me away. I’d seen documentaries about Everest and rainforests and what have you that were shot in proper IMAX, but it was nothing like this. Mainstream films shot in IMAX format are still part of a pretty exclusive club, but Batman’s not the only game in town anymore.

But Christopher Nolan and co. are nothing if not technical geniuses, so I was hoping that, having had previous experience with shooting IMAX, The Dark Knight Rises would come and show the world why IMAX was the king of kings. Over one-third of the film was shot in IMAX (compared to about one-fifth of The Dark Knight), and it makes a huge impact on the scale of the film. When I was watching the scenes shot in IMAX, I was in awe of the spectacle of the whole thing.

And then it cut to shots that were done on 35mm, and it made me want to cry.

[Header image courtesy of BFI]

Bane and Batman friendly on set

Now, I’ve already written about problems with the IMAX experience and how The Hunger Games made clear some of issues with the translation from 35mm to IMAX. It was a problem then and it’s still a problem now, but I will do my best to not tread old ground. If you want to know what I think of upscaling, go there. This isn’t about that. This is about things that are far more problematic. Also, I will be staying away from spoilers, so don’t worry about that if you still haven’t seen it (weirdo).

In order to get ready for The Dark Knight Rises, I watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight again. It was the first time I had seen either one in several years. I love both movies immensely, and that didn’t change with these viewings. One thing that did change, though, was my impression of The Dark Knight‘s visual fidelity. I watched both films on Blu-ray, and the IMAX shots in The Dark Knight were just gorgeous. But then it would cut away from them, and I could actually see the drop in quality. But it’s more than that. It’s not just the drop that bothered me, it was the change in aspect ratio.

Time to get a little technical. I imagine most of you know what an aspect ratio is, but you may not know how varied they can be from film to film. If you look at the back of your DVD/Blu-ray cases, it will usually tell you the aspect ratio in which the movie is presented. Films are generally shot at the Cinemascope ratio of 2.35:1 (although other 2.3x:1 ratios are not uncommon), but most consumer cameras shoot at the widescreen friendly 16:9 format, or 1.78:1. Since the so-called Ultrawidescreen TVs (which are 21:9, essentially Cinemascope ratio) are unnecessary, prohibitively expensive, and barely available, I can essentially guarantee you’re using a screen with a 16:9 or 16:10 ratio, the latter of which is found on most smartphones as well as older computer monitors. Unless you’re using a big old 4:3 (1.33:1) CRT, in which case what are you doing with your life?

A bunch of dead CRTs

IMAX is different. IMAX cameras shoot at a ratio of approximately 1.44:1, which is far closer to that old CRT you shouldn’t have anymore than it is to a regular Hollywood movie. What does this mean from a practical perspective? Well, if you’re projecting both a 2.35:1 image and a 1.44:1 image on the same screen, one is obviously going to take up dramatically more vertical real estate. Since IMAX screens are designed for the 1.44:1 ratio, a regular film will be wasting a massive amount of space. Part of what makes IMAX so impressive is how completely it fills your vision, both vertically and horizontally. Obviously, any image shot in such a wide format cannot replicate that.

So now we get to the problem. Here we have a film that is shot using both IMAX and 35mm cameras, and sometimes the switch between the two literally happens from shot to shot to shot. It happens right from the beginning. Jim Gordon gives a speech, and it’s in Cinemascope. The next shot begins the brilliant (if somewhat bizarre) Bane abduction sequence, shot in IMAX. To say nothing of the quality (we’ll get to that), the shift in aspect ratio is… jarring. Really jarring. Instead of coming across as an intentional use of the widescreen format (something which can be used to beautiful effect), it just seems like part of the image was cropped off in post. Obviously that’s not what happened, but that’s the apparent effect. It just looks like we’re getting less than we should be.

Chart of typical aspect ratios

I noticed this when I was watching The Dark Knight at home, and even that bothered me. Obviously the IMAX images had to be cropped to accommodate the 16:9 format (imagine how visually distressing it would be if bars on the top and bottom became bars on the left and right of the image, especially in the cases where it goes shot to shot to shot), and they were cropped to 16:9. So it would go from 2.35:1 to 1.78:1, essentially filling in the black bars when it was IMAX and returning to them for the 35mm. A less drastic shift bothered me on my 42″ TV. I went into The Dark Knight Rises worried about the impact of the shifts, and it was the thing that distracted me the most from my enjoyment of the film. It wasn’t the audio mix, which seems to be the chief complaint about the film, that really got to me (although it did bother me at times), it was the shift. Watching a 35mm film blown up in IMAX has its issues, fine. Watching an IMAX movie in IMAX is amazing, cool. But if you put the two of them together and do absolutely nothing (and what could you do?) to help ease one into the other, then you have a problem.

Now let’s talk about the quality. A lot has been made of the whole “Digital vs. 35mm” debate, but there’s no doubt that proper IMAX format destroys either of them. From a detail and quality standpoint, IMAX is head and shoulders above either. There is also 70mm (or 65mm, depending on who you ask), which is also better than current digital cameras and obviously holds more detail than a 35mm frame, but is so underutilized that it may as well not exist. Technically, an IMAX image is also referred to as 70mm image, but it means something different. [Jeff in the comments pointed out the flaws in my logic, although they do nothing to change the argument itself]. In the case of 35mm film, that is the width of the entire strip of film, not just the width of the image area. So the perforations on the side as well as the place to capture sound both take away from the width of the 35mm.

35mm vs. 70/15mm IMAX film stock comparison chart

But it’s not true about IMAX. An IMAX frame is 70mm wide, and 48.5 mm tall, which translates to ~3 inches wide by ~2 inches tall. Comparatively, a 35mm image actually translates to 21.95mm by 18.6mm (~.85″ by ~.75″). Each IMAX frame is more than eight times the size of each 35mm frame, which translates to an 8x jump in quality, because each image captures 8x more detail. For all of you digital camera lovers (of which I count myself a part), it’s the difference between a 2 Megapixel camera or a 16 Megapixel camera, except it’s probably closer to the difference between a 16 MP camera and a 128 MP camera. Admittedly, it’s essentially impossible to properly equate an analog image, but it works as an approximation of what is going on. A 128 MP image has, shocker, 128 million pixels, versus 16 million pixels. Assuming equivalent quality of the sensors in each camera (and in this case, I think that’s a fair assumption), each pixel on the 16MP sensor takes the place of 8 pixels on the 128MP sensor. That is an incredible loss in detail.

Admittedly, it’s not all about size, and it never has been. The Arri Alexa (which was used to shoot Drive, for example) shoots at a lower resolution than RED cameras (which are used for most movies these days), but produces an arguably superior image. But IMAX cameras allow for so much more detail and have high quality sensors, so it would be nigh impossible for any smaller camera to replicate IMAX quality on such a large scale. 

So we’ve concluded that an IMAX image is 8x more detailed than a 35mm image, but what exactly does that mean? Well, it means that all of the little subtleties that get lost in 35mm get picked up. It’s like going from 480i (SD) to 1080p (FHD) or putting a VHS tape next to a Blu-ray. Maybe that’s not entirely fair, and when both of them are put together on a non-IMAX screen (or on a Blu-ray), the difference in quality is not quite as distinct. However, and this is something I focused on last time, a shrunk down version of a larger image will appear to be sharper and more detailed, and there is a clear difference on the Blu-ray of The Dark Knight from between what was shot on IMAX and what wasn’t. When the native image is put up o several-story high IMAX screen against something that has been upscaled, though, it really works against the film as a whole. It doesn’t look cohesive, because two vastly different technologies were used to make it happen. Comparatively, the upscaled 35mm looks blurry and far less colorful. 

Christopher Nolan near the Bat signal

I have no doubt that Christopher Nolan and co. were completely aware of all of this when the film was being made, so why didn’t they use their enormous budget and shoot the entire thing in IMAX? Well, because the problems with shooting IMAX don’t stop at the cost. The biggest problem, at least for Nolan, is the noise. IMAX cameras are very loud, which makes recording dialogue (or anything, really) difficult at best. That’s why the scenes that were shot in IMAX in The Dark Knight were primarily helicopter exteriors and action scenes. More action means less dialogue. And much of the dialogue that there was could be easily ADRed (ADR stands for Additional Dialogue Recording or Automated Dialogue Replacement), such as everything that the Joker and his team said in the awesome opening heist. They were all wearing masks, so there was nothing to match up and ADRing was easy. 

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the same is true here. It’s easy for anything involving Bane to be shot in IMAX because all of his dialogue is ADRed anyway (no mouth means no hassle), but ADRing a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon would take a lot of time (and thus money) to do. Considering images of conversations don’t need to have vast amounts of detail, it makes a lot of sense to not shoot IMAX for them, and the smaller image also creates a more intimate feeling, which can also be good for conversation. But it’s still jarring, especially when a shot of a beautiful helicopter exterior shot in IMAX is thrown into the middle of a 35mm conversation. It is, as I said in the beginning, jarring.

Tom Hardy as Bane

I’ve been complaining this whole time without giving any kinds of possible solutions, and I’m kind of at a loss. Aside from biting the bullet on ADR and other costs in order to shoot the entire thing in IMAX (or forego IMAX entirely), there doesn’t seem to be any real solution. There isn’t much of a happy medium, but there are two mediums that are a little less sad. The first involves a return to the good old days of 1.375:1 (Update: I incorrectly said 1.33:1, which was the silent standard. The sound standard is ever so slightly wider). Outside of films attempting to replicate the look of old, ugly consumer cameras and The Artist, it’s just not something that gets used anymore. But it would do a lot to mitigate the issue. Although there would still be a change in the aspect ratio, a shift from 1.44:1 to 1.375:1 (which would reduce the image horizontally) would be far less dramatic than the shift to 2.35:1.

It wouldn’t be perfect (and the need to blow up the image further would likely widen the gap in quality between shots), but it would be less immediately jarring. The Artist proved that the use of that old aspect ratio is entirely viable (as does The Dark Knight Rises, to a lesser extent, given the aspect ratio of its IMAX shots). But in a world where screens are only getting wider, 1.375:1 wastes too much space, and it’s not realistic to ask filmmakers to that or for audiences to put up with it.

A more practical method would be to remove any sort of shifts from shot to shot to shot. Putting those IMAX exteriors in between 35mm interiors/conversations is a reminder that you are watching a movie. It’s like a particularly glaring continuity error or audio feedback when a character shouts. These all act as distractions that remove you from the experience. The brilliance of IMAX is and always has been intended to draw you in, which is why the format has been primarily used for documentaries of gorgeous places. But transitions to and from have exactly the opposite effect. Segmenting sections as “This is 35mm, this is IMAX” would go a long way towards mitigating this issue. There would be the initial shock, but until the next transition, there’d be nothing to think about.

Christopher Nolan looking at an IMAX film camera

Perhaps Christopher Nolan is the wrong director to do this, though. He loves his parallel action, so making sure to keep the IMAX shots out of the 35mm scenes becomes a bit more difficult than if everything was more linear. His non-linearity-within-linear-scenes is fantastic, and it’s one of the reasons his films are so unique, but it is also not conducive to this kind of intense planning, since at least some of it comes from not necessarily having the shots planned out in advance and some of the scenes being parallel-y action-ed are likely to be more conducive to the larger format than others. But nonetheless, there is no doubt in my mind that the IMAX experience of The Dark Knight Rises is hampered by this problem. If you saw the film in a regular theater, you may have noticed a change in quality, but without the ratio switch (and with no worries about magnification) it probably didn’t even register. It flowed smoothly between the two. You’re lucky.

I shouldn’t be recommending an inferior version of a film because its (varying) quality makes it distracting. When I was watching the IMAX-shot scenes in The Dark Knight Rises on a screen that was at least five or six stories tall, I was in awe. The detail, the color, the scope, and the scale of it is just jaw-dropping. There is nothing like it. If studio executives want to keep customers going to theaters, they just need to start shooting in IMAX. Even if the tickets are ludicrously expensive, they give an experience that cannot be replicated at home. But it’s a double edged sword, and The Dark Knight Rises proves that.

If you have the option to see The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX, or any future film that was shot that way (including, funnily enough, the sequel to The Hunger Games), you should take it. But you have to go in understanding that it will switch (and switch frequently) from mind-blowing to mostly-eh quality. It’s a sad state of affairs, and there’s really no way to fix it. Maybe in 5 years (or even less) digital cameras will be able to shoot at 8K or 10K or 12K or whatever resolution it is that matches the analog equivalent of IMAX, but at that point there won’t be much reason to shoot using IMAX cameras in the first place, especially since the relative silence of digital equipment means that the noise issue that plagues current shoots will disappear.

But for the moment, let’s give three cheers for IMAX. Proper IMAX, not that ridiculous upscaled nonsense, and three cheers to Nolan for bringing it to the mainstream.

Hip hip hooray!