Since 1994, as far as movie theatres go, the IMAX at Lincoln Center in New York City is the best there is. With films projected on an enormous 100-foot screen, any viewing experience there certainly fits the bill as “larger than life.”
I went inside the projection booth to see what type of machinery makes the best-in-class experience possible.
When I stopped by to look behind the scenes, the IMAX at Lincoln Center was playing the 70mm print of Interstellar. The print is 10 miles long and weighs 600 pounds. To get to the theatre it gets transported via forklift and truck and takes 6 hours to assemble once it arrives.
Once assembled, the print has to be threaded through the projector. To do this, the first 20 feet of the print are taken and put through the projector across the room and back into a take-up spool, the winds it back up. There’s a handy diagram on the machine, though the projectionist, like Mike Satran who handled Interstellar, usually know all the steps already.
The 70mm IMAX projectors use a double projection method that project twice the amount of light than a normal single lens system. This is what gives IMAX its signature high brightness, contrast, and sharpness. But it also makes the projection system a little more complicated than your average system, and making sure it’s running perfectly is difficult.
Unlike any other projection systems, 70mm requires a glass pane to keep the film in place as it slides in front of the projector. This glass needs to be thoroughly cleaned by the projectionist before each viewing. Because there is that extra layer of glass in front of the picture, projectionists actually need to sit in and watch the whole film to make sure no dust or dirt shows up on the film.
Even the room itself is part of the machine making the best projections possible. Two huge humidifiers keep the room between 45 and 65 per cent humidity. This preserves the prints so that they are never brittle. If they dry out, you run the risk of cracking or tearing them easily.
Once the picture is wound up and ready to go, the theatre’s equally impressive sound system is queued up with a unique 6-channel hard drive that plays, synced to the film.
For Interstellar, once everything was ready to go, Christopher Nolan himself stopped by the theatre and did a quality control pass, just to make sure the projection was as good as possible for his film.
Pretty soon these complicated but fascinating projection methods will be replaced. IMAX is set to debut a dual 4K laser system that is capable of even more contrast and brightness and a larger range of colour than IMAX’s 70mm prints, thanks to a collaboration between the IMAX and Kodak.
Along with better picture and a simpler projection system, a new 12-channel sound system will be introduced, putting speakers above the audience. Lincoln Center’s IMAX will be one of the first with the new system.
The inevitable truth is that film is going away, for better or for worse; digital is just leaving it behind. These intricate but mostly unknown projection systems will be replaced by something better and simpler, but just a little less intimate. But all you’ll notice is that beautiful new picture on the screen.