Imax May Be The Greatest Film Delivery System Ever Developed, But Will It Prosper?
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Animation Is A Practical Medium For Imax At This Time
There are several reasons why 70mm dramatic productions haven’t been the mainstay of Imax operators wanting to keep the public entertained. One is the basic economic realization that if there are only a few houses that will show your finished product, you have to keep your production costs down. Arthur Schwartzberg, president of Xaos, a company that has worked on twelve 70mm productions, said almost all Imax productions in the past have cost around $6 million. Old Man and the Sea cost $3.4 million. Cyberworld, with about 11 minutes of new animation (the rest is clips purchased from other producers), is said to have cost under $10 million.

One reason animation is appealing to Imax producers is they do not have to pay for high priced talent (well known stars, directors, script writers, etc.). With low budgets and expensive lab bills that is a strong incentive to try animation.

The first film to hatch using the SANDDE system -- the Imax 3D animated film Paint Misbehavin'. © Imax Ltd.

Another possible appeal is Imax has developed new tools to make computer animation easier. SANDDE (stereoscopic animation drawing device) is a system that lets the animator draw by waving an electronic wand in space. The artist draws the key frames with SANDEE and then uses Imax’s GEPPETTO system to do inbetween movements (the drawing between the key frames) automatically. Although the systems are still in development, they worked well enough to create some of the CGI footage in Cyberworld and Paint Misbehavin’, an entertaining 2-minute short made in 1997. I was told that Imax is a research and development company and SANDDE and GEPPETTO will probably remain "in the active development stage" in the future. Unfortunately, there are no plans at this time to release either system to outside production companies.

When asked how efficient the new animation tools are, the press person did not know. Drawing in space sounds like it would be an easy way to go off model. If that is the case a lot of touching-up of drawings would be required.

Since animation is a popular form of entertainment and it has proven to be a money maker for Imax theaters, we should see a lot more animated productions in the future, but only if the other business factors stay healthy enough to support the company as a whole.

Directing Imax Animation Is Different
For the animation director the 70mm format has to be approached slightly differently than working in 35mm. Working with an enormous picture, especially one that will be seen in 3D, means no fast cuts, quick pans or sudden zooms. Extreme close-ups can be upsetting to some people. Sudden changes of camera angle or lens focal length between shots (like cutting from a wide angel shot to a telephoto shot of the subject) can also be disorienting.

Nick Walker, an animator at PDI/DreamWorks who was working on the conversion of Shrek from 35mm to 70mm, says one problem they faced was having to add more information to shots. For example when they turn a close-up into a medium shot, they may need to add legs if a person is shown in 35mm from the waist up. If the person moves, the legs have to be animated to show the person walking.

Andrei Hedstrom, director of marketing at Xaos says, "We love working on 70mm projects for many reasons. Beyond the hardware and software challenges of storage and bandwidth, our animators are always faced with opportunities to perfect their art. When your work is going to be displayed on a six story screen, suddenly details that might take the minimal amount of consideration for 35mm or TV, are scrutinized to the point of obsession. To perform at this level for the length of time large format projects demand, is proof positive that we can take on anything."

Pandorama, distributed by Xlargo in Paris, has won several festival prizes. © Nina Paley.

Directors are slowly learning how to use the medium best. By having the first theaters in museum settings that were free of most commercial pressures, the creators of Imax films could learn by trial and error how to best use their equipment. Now the pace is quickening. Will the stock holders give the industry the time it needs to learn more about directing and producing 70mm films, or will people wanting a quick profit demand fast results? (Remember that it took 35mm filmmakers at the beginning of the last century 15 or 20 years before they really got good at telling stories.)


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