Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Films The Way They Were Meant to be Seen

Photo via IWatchStuff.com

At no point will I deny that IMAX 3D is the pinnacle of modern cinematic experiences. I also won't argue against, ignoring money and travel difficulties, the belief that IMAX 3D should be the preferred way you watch a film when available. Yet, I find myself taking issue with a recent phenomenon among 'catchphrases' used by reviewers and directors for describing the way in which someone watches a movie. That being, because said someone saw it in "IMAX 3D," they saw it the way it was 'meant to be seen.'

Implicit in this statement is that anyone who, for whatever reason, doesn't watch the movie in this format, hasn't seen the movie correctly. They've seen a bastardization of the film. A lesser version, if you will. They're opinion is undermined by the fact that they either couldn't afford, or merely didn't have the opportunity, to see the film in its 'proper' format. However, I often notice this only comes up when people are trying to discuss films with mediocre stories but amazing visuals.

You see, no matter how amazing a film might be to watch in such conditions, we all know that truly great films can be watched in any format. A film whose quality can only be attained in a strict, optimum, environment is inaccessible, and distanced from mainstream audiences. According to NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) there are 5,942 cinema 'cites' (indoor + drive in) in the USA as of 2009. There are roughly 400 IMAX theaters in the world (couldn't find exact US statistics but I'm guessing it's around the 300 range).

What I truly and honestly dislike is that somehow not seeing a movie in a format which doesn't quite manage 10% of US cinemas devalues my opinion. That goes with the fact that opinions are not static things. They fluctuate and flow as films traverse the various stages of distribution, and over longer periods as we grow and change as human beings. Pointing to a film's optimum viewing as being only appreciable during one tiny fraction of one's life is asinine. A movie can have an ideal viewing environment, but there should never be a concrete way it's 'meant' to be seen. If a film can't prosper in all environments, then irregardless of how good it is in one, there's never going to be widespread love for it.

Now, I don't want you to misunderstand me, and think I'm saying directors shouldn't use the best technology available to them. I think they should. Pushing the boundaries of technology only helps further cinematic techniques. Yet, if they're going to do so, they must recognize the vast majority of people may not be able to see the film exactly how they want. At least until that manner becomes readily available to everyone. Until then, that's where little things like cohesive plots and interesting characters come into play... but that's another debate entirely.

11 better thoughts:

Mike Lippert said...

I think people who cling to this belief as well are even more short-sighted in the rise of those fake digital IMAX theaters that advertise themselves as providing the true IMAX experience.

I think there is truth in the statement that IMAX is the definitive way to watch a movie only under one condition: it was filmed using an IMAX camera and is being projected on film, through a 70mm projector, sideways.

To blow a feature film up to 70mm for IMAX is fine but you don't get the depth and amazing width that you do from having that film run through the camera sideways as is the case with the IMAX camera because, in reality, when the project was filmed on 35mm and blown up to 70mm you aren't utilizing the entire power of the IMAX screen.

To make matters worse we have these digital IMAXs with smaller screens and so-so sound that charge the same price as IMAX but you may as well be watching a reagular theatre screen, in which case I'd just recommend (if you are in Canada) Ultra AVX which offers the picture and sound of IMAX, on a smaller screen but with reserved leather seats.

One last thing, with regards to your statement that great movies can be viewed in any format, I agree with you about 95% of the time. I think some movies are only best appreciated on a big screen (2 that come to mind are 2001 and Lost in Translation). They are great films, but you don't get their full effect unless you see them on the big screen.

Good post.

Jess said...

I agree with your argument that IMAX cannot be the way films must be seen - I saw Harry Potter 7a on an IMAX screen and it wasn't any better in appearance. But I had to drive 7 hours for the privilege. While there are 2 3D screens within an hour of my house, and another 10 within 2 hours, there are no IMAX screens within 3-4 hours of upstate NY. This is a phenomenon of cities I suppose, but I refuse to believe a movie goes from being an okay movie to a great movie if only I had seen it on an IMAX screen.

The Mad Hatter said...

Interesting. I think there's some grey area here.

To date, I have only seen three films that have made full use of IMAX/IMAX 3-D: THE DARK KNIGHT, AVATAR, TRON LEGACY. Of these, the only one that really benefitted from the format was AVATAR.

TDK was a stellar film no matter which way you slice it, and while getting that IMAX experience was swell, it didn't take my enjoyment of the film to a whole new level.

LEGACY was pretty and all...but...y'know.

AVATAR was designed to make use of both the grander IMAX scope, and the depth that 3-D can provide. Did it make a difference in terms of how much I enjoyed the film? You bet. Does it suck that this experience wasn't more widely available - absolutely.

You're sort of touching on the crux of my conversation with Douglas Trumbull two weeks back. He brought up the fact that certain epics - 2001, LAWRENCE OR ARABIA - were filmed with grand presentation in mind. He pointed out, that every once in a while a director will come along and want to do something grand. For these (very few) movies, that grand presentation gives the whole thing something extra.

Here's the thing - you're dead right in most of the case where 3-D/ 3-D IMAX is being offered. They offer nothing extra. Wanna know what you missed by not seeing ALICE IN WONDERLAND or TOY STORY 3 in 3-D IMAX? Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

The other thing that came from that conversation with Trumbull is how he pointed out that a wonderful theatrical experience can be had quite easily at home these days. Next time someone chides you about not getting the full effect with 3-D IMAX, just tell 'em that you're saving for a Blu-Ray player and a digital projector.

Rich said...

I agree with Mike about some movies needing to be seen in certain formats. Would you want to see '2001' on an iPod? (Or any movie, for that matter?) I watch movies on YouTube for my blog out of necessity, plus, I have a decent sized screen, but even with old movies, I've discovered that the experience of seeing movies on a big screen can make a difference in how one perceives it. That said, I agree with you that your opinion should not be invalidated just because you didn't see a film in IMAX.

Univarn said...

@Mike See, I fully enjoyed 2001 on my own at home. Lost in Translation not so much, but since my dislike for the film had nothing to do with its visuals and everything to do with its story, I don't see how seeing those visuals, which I thought were all well and good to begin with, on a larger screen will change that.

@Jess 7 hours? Yikes! There's one about a half hour from me but it's sold out unless you intend on going on an off-night every time.

@Mad Avatar is a good example of the point I'm trying to make here. I get that it was designed with IMAX 3D being the intended viewing platform, but it adds an unnecessary addendum onto a film I enjoyed well enough at a decent theater in 3D. It creates a sentiment of elitism among those who can (and do) see films in IMAX 3D as often as possible. Using the belief that they're decision (often made by ease of access) makes them a better critic of the film because it closely aligns with the way the film was shot.

@Rich There's also another added element when it comes to seeing things on the big screen - other people. Whether or not they support, or hinder, the viewing experience is always a wild card.

The Mad Hatter said...

@ Univarn... Well that makes sense.

If someone responds to you saying you liked something with the comment that "You haven't experienced it...", just kick 'em in the nuts.

That's like saying you can't possibly be a fan of Arcade Fire because you've never seen 'em live.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Considering the average multiplex has only two screens in 3D, I'd think saying you HAVE to see it in IMAX 3D is really asking for the impossible. While I've never seen a movie in IMAX 3D (I've seen a couple IMAX movies, but that was before the days of our current level of 3D technology) I don't believe my experience with either Avatar or Tron Legacy were lessened by merely seeing them in 3D.

simoncolumb said...

what a great article Univarn!

Personally, I saw AVATAR on the IMAX ... and yes, that is the only way to view the film. Therefore - I will never buy the film - on DVD, Blu Ray, 3D Dvd, etc. I won't buy it - i mean, its not a great film either, but the 'way' its meant to be seen has unfortunately devalued any other format. If only everyone stood by this belief.

Secondly, I think maybe someone is paying the reviewers to state their claim on the way a film is meant to be viewed - like Mike said - 2001 is supposed to be watched on a cinema screen. I worked that out upon first viewing on DVD and will hunt it out ... not all films have that quality.

I had a nother point but I've forgotton it - but i think the avatar point is a good one.


Simon said...

Fuck IMAX. And while we're here, fuck 3-D. Those damn glasses never fit over mine anyway.

Univarn said...

@AlexJ I agree. I know my local multiplex only has 3D installed in its two main seating rooms.

@simon See, my issue with that statement on Avatar is you're basically saying that anyone who watched in in a lesser format wasted their money and time. I don't think that to be the case. Avatar was perfectly enjoyable in 3D, on a well sized screen. Whether or not it would have been exponentially increased by size and scope had I gone to see it an IMAX, I don't know.

@Simon I used to hate 3D as a kid because the glasses were always painfully uncomfortable over my head. That's why I pestered my parents to extremes about getting lasik eye surgery. However, that doesn't stop those glasses from still being a pain.

Mike Lippert said...

Univarn- You've touched on an important point when you speak of visuals. No Lost in Translation has nothing visually spectacular about it in any conventional sense but it does have a very distinct style in the way that Coppola uses space to convery certain meanings that is lost on the small screen. It certainly never picked up on it until 2 or 3 viewings in, at which point I began to realize just what a great movie it is. I know a lot of people who only saw that at home and hated it. The experience just isn't the same.

I think the commom misconception of the treatrical experience is that it is best suited to visually stimulating or "big" films which is completely stupid. If anything those films play better at home that dramas that make true use of film style by making full use of the cinematic frame which, especially when you have directors who play with space and depth, you really need to big screen to catch the nuiance of that since it needs to wash over you.

Seeing 2001 on video = watching a great movie. Seeing 2001 on a big screen = out of body experience.

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