I was an IMAX Projectionist: AMA

Discussion in 'Random Thoughts' started by Merrick, Oct 26, 2021.

  1. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Inspired by the Dune thread, previous posts here: https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...une-denis-villeneuve.11558/page-4#post-363872 and https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...une-denis-villeneuve.11558/page-4#post-363890

    I was an IMAX and 35mm projectionist (and operations manager) at the now defunct Bridge Cinema de Lux in West Los Angeles, near LAX, from about 2007-2013. I built, tore down, and projected IMAX films in 2D and 3D. AMA!

    First original post: IMAX used to be special when it was true film run horizontally through a custom projector, in a custom theater designed just for that showcase.

    [​IMG]

    15 perforation 70mm IMAX in a properly calibrated IMAX theater is absolutely the best presentation you will ever see of a feature film. Hands down, period. And I should know, I worked for many years as an IMAX projectionist. Some IMAX projectors could also do 48fps for things like the Hobbit movies, others could do 3D using two film prints. Really incredible to see it at work. It is the pinnacle of film-based media. The screens were floor to ceiling in a 4:3 aspect ratio and when the image filled the full screen, it is truly immersive.

    Sadly, in order to remain competitive in the marketplace, IMAX converted everything to digital. They started by using two 2k projectors on screens that would simply be considered the largest screen in the house of a regular movie theater. This diminished the experience massively. Then they introduced laser projection at the Mann's Chinese Theater. I'm not sure how many theaters now feature laser IMAX. Laser projection is pretty cool, you can stack the laser modules to increase resolution so it's a partially modular system and laser can project true black. However, to equal the image quality of 15/70 IMAX, they'd have to project in 8k or higher, which the projectors can do but AFAIK cameras can't even shoot in true 8k yet, and even if they did and they filmed a big movie in 8k and projected it on IMAX laser, you still wouldn't have the floor to ceiling screen.

    I can't say for sure, but there may still be a few museums that didn't convert their IMAX systems to digital. That's what IMAX was originally designed for, documentaries to play in museums. If there is one near you and it's still running film, I highly recommend going. It will blow the pants off Dune.

    Second original post:
    Yeah, IMAX was always a niche of a niche and now they just exist as a brand name to get suckers to pay more at theaters. Unless you know you're seeing a 4k movie with laser projection, it's not worth any extra money any more.

    Working with IMAX film was a trip. The platters were so heavy we had to use a hand-cranked forklift to lift and move them. I could run the entire projection booth by myself but whenever we had two people we'd assist with loading and lifting. Here is a photo of an IMAX platter system (not my theater):

    [​IMG]

    Because of the way the film ran through the projector, we would have to load it and then hand turn it by several frames to make sure the film was correctly laying flat on the lens housing, and turn it until we hit the start mark. Unlike 35mm film, where the soundtrack is printed on the celluloid, we would load the soundtracks manually to a hard drive and the system would sync it to the film based on that starting mark, so we had to make sure it was aligned correctly every time.

    The film is so big that it would come in 3 minute reels with headers and tails. When this was for 20 minutes documentaries it wasn't an issue, but it took me an entire day and night to build Transformers 3 because that was in 3D so I had to do it twice! I logged so much overtime that at first the company thought it was a mistake and asked me to correct my time punches, but when I confirmed the hours were correct they flipped out. Made a nice chunk of change on that. For comparison, a standard 2 hour 35mm movie would come on six reels. A 2 hour IMAX movie would be on about 40 reels and unlike 35mm film where the splices are straight, because IMAX film moves in a wave-like motion and is so large, the splices had to be zig-zag using a special splicer and it was so easy to be off by a single sprocket for any given slice, making it take forever. On top of that, if you happened to splice one sprocket too many, meaning you've cut into the film image, you'd have to request a whole new reel for that 3 minutes at the cost of several thousand dollars.

    It was honestly one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had.
     
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    Last edited: Oct 26, 2021
  2. Armaegis

    Armaegis Friend

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    Maybe copy/paste those two posts into here for the sake of ease-of-reading?

    Was there anything particularly different about IMAX sound systems compared to regular cinema?
     
  3. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Good call, I went ahead and added the full text of those posts.

    IMAX was indeed different from standard cinema sound systems. This site has a good overview (note that my theater used the Digital Disc Playback system described on the page, not the analog 35mm system): https://www.in70mm.com/newsletter/1997/50/imax_sound/index.htm

    I'm just going to do some cut and paste here:
    The amps deliver more than 2000 watts per channel. The entire system is more than 15000 watts. The six audio channels are fed to a 4-way JBL speaker array. Every section is equipped with JBL models no: 2404 H (Ultra-High Frequency), 2445 J (Wide Range), 2123 H (High Power Low Frequency), and 2245 H (Medium Efficiency Extended Bass). They are located to give strong directional effects and placed as follows: Channel 1 Left rear (theater), Channel 2 Left screen, Channel 3 Center screen, Channel 4 Right screen, Channel 5 Right rear (theater), Channel 6 Top of screen.

    A special subwoofer with 8 JBL model 2245 H (Medium Efficiency Extended Bass) in one enclosure.

    All the sound discs came with the soundtracks encoded in WAV and we uploaded them to a hard drive with an ancient GUI that allowed us to select the soundtrack we wanted to use. We would then need to line up the print in the projector to a specified start frame to ensure sound sync. We would have to manually check at the start of each show to ensure we did in fact line up the sync correctly. If we didn't, we would have to stop the show, unthread the projector, and thread it again.

    I believe digital IMAX theaters have an entirely different sound setup, 44 matrixed speakers or something like that.
     
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  4. Boops

    Boops Friend

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    How loud was the projection room when things were running?

    Did anything ever go horribly wrong with the equipment during a screening?

    How do you “connect” all the separate reels for one film? Is it something you set up beforehand and hit “go” or do they have to be changed on the fly?
     
  5. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    - The projection room was sound proofed. The theater was mic'ed so I could monitor sound playback via a PA system in the booth. We had a massive window in the booth that allowed us to see the full screen and most of the theater. I sat and watched many movies that way over the years. :) No amount of soundproofing could prevent the vibrations of the subwoofers from bleeding through though, so whenever there was a big action sequence we could feel it!

    - The only times I experienced major issues with the equipment was due to user error. The first was after we had replaced the bulbs in the projector. The lamphouse on top of the IMAX projector utilized two 15,000-watt liquid-cooled, short-arc xenon lamps. After the lamp replacement, something was triggering the projector auto-protection circuits and shutting the projector down after about 15 minutes of playback. We went through everything with a fine-tooth comb and could not determine the cause. We eventually found a circuit board that got wet and was fried. However, we couldn't for the life of us figure out how this particular circuit board, housed inside the unit, could have gotten wet. We did use a liquid cooling system but it was a closed loop and there were no obvious leaks. It took several days and we finally discovered we had forgotten to replace a single o-ring about 3 inches in diameter where the water hooked up to the bulb housing. The reason we couldn't tell this was the source of the leak is that the water only ran through the cooling tubes when the projector was turned on. When the projector shut off, the water stopped running, and the leak wouldn't present itself.

    The second time we had an equipment issue was when one of the other projectionists threaded a print to a platter that was too small. It was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The movie was 2.5 hours and the projectionist threaded it to a platter that could take 120 minutes of film. For the last half hour, the film was wrapping around the outside of the platter, then falling down, until eventually it got low enough to be caught in the gears underneath the platter system. This set off massive alarms of course and the projectionist had to emergency stop the projector. I got called in despite being done for the day to survey and the damage and just had to cut the print with scissors to get it untangled from the guts of the platter system. We then had to order new reels from the damaged sections to splice back in. It was a total mess. Easily the biggest disaster I ever witnessed in IMAX.

    - As I mentioned in one of the above posts, IMAX film came on three minute reels with headers and tails. I would have to splice off the header, attach it to the last frame of the previous reel, run that onto the platter until I got to the tail, splice off the tail, then load up the next reel and repeat. The header of the first reel would stay on as leader and the tail of the last reel would stay on too. IMAX film ran horizontally through the projector instead of vertically using a motion known as a "rolling loop". This meant the film would arc out away from the lens before a blast of air would push the frame firmly against the lens, allowing for a tight and secure fit of celluloid to the lens, before arcing away again. Because of this rolling loop motion, straight splices would show as shafts of light on the screen. Instead, we had to make zig-zag splices so the spliced film would interlock and bend without being visible on the screen. Because of this and the short length of the reels, splicing film prints together would take hours. Once spliced together, they would be fed off platters through the projector to receiving platters.

    Here is a video showing how film IMAX equipment was prepped and run:
     
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  6. crenca

    crenca Friend

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    All this obviously took some skill and training on your part, and assume (maybe I assume too much) you were paid commensurably. Do you know if the move to digital also allowed theater's to get by with lower skilled (and paid) projectionists? Lot's of reasons why I think the theatre experience is not what it was (and thus I avoid it whenever I can), but digital is certainly part of it:

     
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  7. YMO

    YMO Friend

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    Did people get motion sickness with IMAX? I did a few times, which is why I'll never see anything IMAX (or "IMAX" as @Merrick pointed out).
     
  8. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    If you're seeing a movie with digital projection at any chain, they're all on timers. The only reason a human would need to interact with digital projectors would be to turn them on the morning and off at night, ingest or remove movie files (although many theaters have satellite connections that make this automated as well) or if there's a problem. Since the projectors rarely have to be touched, the amount of problems like focus issues are greatly reduced. Anything beyond the most basic adjustments will get referred to a tech who works for the manufacturer. There is no skill necessary to using digital once it's properly installed and calibrated. The good news on that through is that there is usually a minimum level of consistency that you can expect from a digital presentation. But I guarantee there are no dedicated projectionists at theater chains anymore.

    The boutique/arthouse theaters are obviously different. But if they're all digital the projectionist might be part time just to come in and do upkeep and maintenance. The only way you're making money as a projectionist now is if you have a gig at a proper arthouse theater that still uses film, or running private screening rooms for rich muckety mucks. It's an entire segment of the industry that's going to be near obsolete within 10 years. Those who can hang on will be better paid because they'll now have specialized knowledge but most people won't survive the job purge.
     
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  9. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    With 3D sometimes, yes. But that's also true of non-IMAX 3D. There may have been people who got motion sickness watching 2D IMAX but I never encountered any of them. I could see this happening with a full frame IMAX presentation. It does look dizzying to see the floor to ceiling screen completely filled, especially if the footage is something like the Burj Khalifa sequence from Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.
     
  10. sfoclt

    sfoclt Friend

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    I managed a 4-screen theater in high school way back in the day, and loved being the projectionist (non-IMax). I'd skip school on Thursdays and go pick up the new film canisters and then throw a midnight party to see whatever new film was opening on Friday. All the real film had to go back but the trailers were throwaway so I'd use those to splice together my own films to show with whatever "soundtrack" I cared to play.

    This was the South so low-paying, but in NY and LA at the time projectionist was a union position that paid well.
     
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  11. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    I saw so many movies after we closed. I'd build the 35mm prints during the day then load them up after the last show and invite some friends in for a party. Those were the days!
     
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  12. sfoclt

    sfoclt Friend

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    Being able to thread the film through the projection gates was an art. You had to get just the right tension or you'd end up with a mid-showing break. I used to have dreams where I'd just be opening/closing all the gates over and over. Not long ago I was looking on ebay to try to find the model I used, thinking it might be fun to get one for the house. It wasn't this one but sort of like it. I then realized I probably wouldn't be able to get software.

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/123912229490?hash=item1cd9be9272:g:syoAAOSwKzNdhA24
     
  13. YMO

    YMO Friend

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    Holy fing shit, that was the last movie that I saw in IMAX that made me wanted to puke my guts. I felt so horrible after seeing it to the point that I never saw anything IMAX again.

    And that plus other things I really don't like going to the movie theathers. I am senative to screen sizes, so the bigger the screen the worse vertigo issues that I'll have. Also, streaming put a big puzz in the movie theather experience since while ticket prices are not bad, it is getting anything from the theather (popcorn) that makes you eat your wallet. I'll prefer to just watch something when it is out on streaming, which is very rare since I don't watch movies that much anymore.

    Also, I put some of the blame of people having a meh theather experience on smartphones. I swear the smartphone is just everything from an 80s Radio Shack store in one device.
     
  14. purr1n

    purr1n Super Friend

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    Tends to happen to me regardless with wide viewing angles, when I'm either too close to the movie or TV screen. I used to like big when I was younger. Now I sit back more so I don't need to move my eyeballs so much.
     
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  15. purr1n

    purr1n Super Friend

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    For sure. The digital IMAX systems need precise calibration. Triply so for 3D.

    Last IMAX film I saw, it was not calibrated correctly. This was the Irvine IMAX which had been known to employ subpar employees. I bitched and received three free tickets. Then I bitched to IMAX corporate.

    IMAX corporate actually cares very much about their brand. It's supposed to be a premium product. IMAX is not supposed to be a subpar experience.
     
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  16. Boops

    Boops Friend

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    Is IMAX fully owned/controlled from end-to-end? Do they own the cameras, film stock and processing, all the way to the projector? Or is it more like a standards body that certifies equipment, film, etc made by third parties?

    Are there cameras that shoot slow motion IMAX?

    What are your top three IMAX documentaries?
     
  17. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Back when they were film based, they definitely owned the cameras. Now that it's digital I'm not sure what differentiates IMAX digital cameras from other professional grade digital cameras. I also don't know if they did the processing in house but our reels would always arrive from IMAX's facility in Los Angeles, not a standard finishing house.

    Since IMAX could go up to 48 frames, I'm sure they could shoot in slow motion. With digital that shouldn't be an issue either.

    My facility was always for commercial films, so we never ran any of the documentaries. I've seen a few at museums and the Hubble one was very impressive, along with Galapagos and any of the undersea ones. Honestly, seeing any of the nature documentaries in IMAX is a breathtaking experience.
     
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  18. elwappo99

    elwappo99 Friend

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    What was your overall favorite film in IMAX?

    What was a film you didn't really like, but the IMAX presentation added some new depth to?
     
  19. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Overall favorite film from my time projecting had to be The Dark Knight. Most movies prior to that didn't use the full IMAX screen and I was so blown away every time I watched it. Additionally we held several events where Nolan attended so there's a personal nostalgia involved. I don't regard the film as highly anymore for a few reasons, but I'll never forget seeing it in IMAX.

    I hated what Ridley Scott did with Prometheus but the open matte 1.66:1 IMAX presentation was really sumptuous. It was an experience, even though I really disliked the film. Similarly, Avatar was more impressive in IMAX 3D than digital 3D. I find the film extremely blah but it looked amazing in IMAX.
     
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  20. purr1n

    purr1n Super Friend

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    It's a real company. They don't have their own cameras anymore, unless someone is still using their large / tall format film. It's all digital. IMAX does certify digital cameras as being "Filmed in IMAX". It's all kind of BS since the Arri LF used in is only 4.5K, with the extra 0.5K because of its tall format. There are other "certified" cameras which are 8K. Not entirely sure because I don't keep track of it. It's stuff like Transformers that get the 8K treatment, though I'm pretty sure that the 8K sensor is just used to more resolving power with 4K still being the output. (Bayer sensor pattern ya know). I can ask around - I know people who would know for sure (I seriously doubt 8K would be used in Post).

    What IMAX owns is their projection and sound systems. It's not too different from Dolby. Instead of Atmos, we have IMAX's proprietary sound. The projectors need to be purchased from IMAX. The sound playback system comes with it. I'm pretty sure that a theater can get their own speakers (it's 85% JBL Cinema series stuff anyway across the board). The studios if they want to release an IMAX film actually need to send their films ASAP to IMAX for them to convert it to their system before public release in the theaters. The IMAX guys work hard and scramble to get the conversions ready - literally at the last minute. There is a facility in LA where all this work gets done. I think Canada may have one too.

    Typically, only the tentpole films get IMAX treatment. IMAX is supposed to help draw a larger audience - denoting premium end product for consumers. The good screens here in CC are the IMAX ones since the regular screens are tiny (small town here). No Atmos though. I think IMAX is limited to a dozen channels. Not that it really matters since Atmos is bullshit - very little is used of what Atmos can do with respect to positioning with the ceiling speakers. Maybe a few titles per year have a few scenes that truly utilize Atmos.

    The use of tall 1.4:1 IMAX tends to be problematic because theater screens are set up for 1.8-2.35 to 1.
     
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    Last edited: Oct 27, 2021

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