Canadian IMAX technology contributes to The Dark Knight’s success

Director Christopher Nolan may have filmed on the streets of Chicago and New York in place of Gotham City in producing The Dark Knight, but it’s a 40-year-old Canadian technology that is making the imagined metropolis appear larger than life.

The latest blockbuster movie to depict the caped crusader’s crime-fighting talents is the first-ever Hollywood studio feature to be partially filmed in IMAX.

Short for “Image Maximum”, the super-sized film format debuted at Montreal’s 1967 World Expo thanks to four Canadian entrepreneurs. After decades of impressing museum audiences with documentary screenings, the format has recently broken into the realm of the popular fiction film.

Now the format has contributed to The Dark Knight’s record-breaking box office performance over its opening weekend. The movie is playing on 94 IMAX screens across North America. These showings have contributed $6.4 million to the $158.4 million total revenue for the movie.  That’s a record by both standards.

Many theatres added extra screenings to meet audience demand, and some screened the movie for 24 hours straight. Theatres in Chicago and New York even ran the film for 72 hours straight.

“The excitement surrounding this film further legitimizes IMAX’s format with filmmakers, moviegoers, studios and exhibitors,” says Greg Foster, president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment. “The success of The Dark Knight demonstrates the real potential of the IMAX network, which is expected to triple in size over the next three years.”

With co-headquarters in Mississauga, Ont. and New York City, the company has made some major headway in the commercial movie market. Last December, IMAX inked a deal with AMC Entertainment to jointly install 100 IMAX theatres in 33 major U.S. markets – doubling the format’s footprint in the continent.

Using IMAX Digital Re-mastering (DMR) technology, the company has adapted almost 30 traditional film movies to a letterbox-shaped format on the much larger IMAX screens. A recent deal with DreamWorks Animation will bring four kid-friendly flicks to the really-big screen over the next couple of years. That includes Shrek Goes Fourth 3D and this summer’s Kung Fu Panda.

But Warner Brothers’ studio is the first to actually film with the IMAX format.

The film is 10 times larger than standard 35mm, and the cameras are notorious for being bulky and noisy. But director Nolan was impressed with documentaries he saw in the IMAX format, where the production required that the massive camera be lugged up Mount Everest, flown over Niagara Falls, and blasted into space.

“I’ve always been interested in shooting a film in IMAX,” Nolan says in a video on the IMAX Web site. “I always felt that if you could shoot a fiction film in that format, you’d get an incredibly immersive experience.”

Nolan filmed nearly a half-hour of the film in IMAX, for six separate high-octane action sequences scattered through the two and a half-hour epic. An IMAX scene opens the film, featuring a bank robbery that includes thugs in clown masks, a shootout, and a school bus driving through a wall. It serves as an introduction to the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis since the character’s creation in the 1940s.

“In continuing the story of such a great icon I’m thrilled to be able to expand the scope of the film, not just in terms of its story, but in giving Batman and the Joker the largest possible canvas on which to face off,” Nolan says. “No existing technology compares with the IMAX format in terms of its ability to throw the audience into the action.”

Aside from its screen that is many times larger than traditional cinemas (it can be as tall as an eight-storey building), the proprietary format has many other unique characteristics that set it apart. Film runs sideways through a projector that is massive compared to a standard film reel projector. To make more room for image information, sound is not encoded on the IMAX film, but onto a synchronized 35 mm magnetic tape.

Aside from being bulky, the film’s size creates logistical problems in production. A reel runs only from 30 seconds up to 150 seconds, and printing an entire feature length film is costly. That’s capped most IMAX documentaries at less than 40 minutes.

“We believe the rollout of our new IMAX Digital theatres this year and in 2009 will ultimately lead to larger IMAX movie slates due to the elimination of film print costs,” Foster says, “which can be as high as $20,000 for a 2D IMAX feature length film.”

In going to digital projection and eliminating the unruly reams of film needed for a feature length movie, Foster predicts IMAX growth will triple over the next three years. That could mean that The Dark Knight isn’t just a novelty film in its use of IMAX, but a harbinger of change for the movie industry.

“Nolan’s groundbreaking use of IMAX cameras has certainly blazed a new path for Hollywood filmmakers,” he says. “We welcome this type of innovative filmmaking on future projects. It clearly resonates with moviegoers.”

But even if IMAX is embraced by Hollywood, the format won’t forget its roots, the IMAX chairman adds. They are still committed to delivering 3D films to museums and science centres around the world. Two documentaries currently in production are Under the Sea 3D, slated for release in February 2009, and Hubble 3D, slated for release in February 2010.

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