A Rare Tour of IMAX Cameras

A Rare Tour of IMAX Cameras
There are 26 IMAX film cameras in the world today. At IMAX HQ, I got to play with 4 of them (and take plenty of photographs for you).

The camera workshop is an homage to IMAX’s most appealing attributes, their mechanical, analogue craftsmanship. In short, it’s a pigsty filled with solder and screws and clamps and lots of random components that seem lost without their context in a complex machine. It was a comforting place to hang out, as Mike Hendriks, camera artisan, casually spun millions of dollars in equipment around for my perusal.

The bodies are constructed of magnesium (sometimes aluminium, but it tends to be too fragile). The lenses are Carl Zeiss, but IMAX rips the glass from the lens body to build their own optics from semi-scratch.

This is IMAX’s “lightweight” camera as well as one of their longest standing designs. Here it’s loaded with a magazine that holds but 150 metres of film (or about one and a half minutes of shooting). Believe it or not, in this 20kg configuration, the MKII made it to the top of Mount Everest. That poor, poor Sherpa.

MSM 9802
The MSM is a general purpose 2D camera. It’s a larger evolution of the MKII design (loaded with a 300m magazine here), with a more elegant internal design and upgraded electronics like video output. You may know it as the camera that shot the famous Dark Knight Tumbler sequence…before it was destroyed by a stunt vehicle. Mike Hendriks had to repair the system as it’s but one of four such cameras in the world. (I overheard that while it’s insured for $500,000, repairs came in at well under half that.)

3D-15 Solido
Now this was my favourite camera. Walking up to the beast for the first time, I foolishly assumed that the two eye-like pieces of glass comprised a very comfortable viewfinder. I felt a bit foolish when I learned that the Solido is a two-lensed 3D camera. The reason I felt like sticking my eyes in there was that the spread between the lenses intentionally mimics the human perspective. Two luxuriously fluid shutters spin on the inside, allowing for precise exposure of not one but two simultaneous reels of film. I was able to rotate the camera around for shots on the table, but there’s no way I was lifting the thing. It weighs in at 98 kilos when loaded with just 300 metres of film, and 150kg when loaded with 750 metres.

Hendricks was kind enough to fire up the Solido, chassis spread eagle, for me to film. It sounded like a sewing machine on PCP as the powerful motors kicked on exposing 24 frames of IMAX film a second, times the two reels of film in the system. Tragically, my $US1000 HD camcorder malfunctioned and the footage didn’t save, wasting hundreds in film stock. It was a low moment for me (and JVC).

This second 3D camera looks less impressive on the outside, but technically, it’s pulling off a pretty astounding trick. While the Solido shoots 3D on two reels of film, exposed simultaneously, the 3D-30 shoots 3D on one reel of film, with two side-by-side frames exposed simultaneously. So it moves film through its labyrinth of gears twice as quickly, burning through 300 metres of celluloid in just a minute and a half. And the film comes out unwatchable, with the frames capturing a left-right-left-right-left-right perspective. So the film is digitised to reorganize the shots later. (It’s easier than cutting out each frame and hand-parsing the images into two reels.)

The 3D-30, named after the 30 perforations of film exposed at once, was the same 3D camera taken into space to film the recent Hubble repairs. For that, IMAX provided NASA with a special 1.5km reel container stored in the shuttle’s cargo bay (about 7.5 minutes of film). Because there is no reloading IMAX film in space.

If you have any crazy questions about IMAX cameras, post em in the comments. I’ll beg Mike Hendriks to show up and answer a few. If not, I’ll forward them on through email.

Read more from Gizmodo Goes to IMAX