Size Matters – quick thoughts on Blu-Ray & Giant Screen

So, I just got a nice but cheap projector, the Panasonic AX-200U, for “Outside In”. It happens to be really cheap if you buy via Microsoft Live Cashback (cost me $800 shipped) and has a couple of great features for proofing “Outside In” giant screen shots – smoothscreen to eliminate pixelation effects even if you get close and outstanding color and contrast for an LCD. Even better, it has a high brightness mode for giving presentations related to the film that will start in earnest next year. Of course, it does not have the near resolution of 15/70 film but I proof resolution on high-rez LCDs.

Upon hooking it up and projecting a hidef movie (“Blade Runner”) on a 92″ portable screen, the overwhelming power of big screen and high quality hits you like a ton of bricks. Movies should be big and giant screen films should be, well giant. I recently saw a demo of IMAX’s digital projection system in NYC at the GSCA conference. It was a 2K system and I was sitting about 1/3″ of the way back in the theater. It was a little underwhelming to say the least after coming from the Sony IMAX at Lincoln Square, the second largest IMAX (film) screen in the world.

The digital IMAX screen was fairly big for a multiplex,  but small by giant screen standards. My 92″ inch gives almost the same apparent size. The digital IMAX system suffered from pixelation artifacts that were very distracting on diagonal, high contrast lines (like a house roof) – visible even towards the back of the theater. My Panasonic projector has zero pixelation, even walking up and pressing your face against the screen. Result is a “sharper” yet “smoother” picture than what I saw with IMAX’s digital projection. My speculation is that IMAX, in an effort to brighten the image, has over-cooked their projectors lumen-wise and/or has other circuitry issues.  The IMAX system had a bit better black levels, color was about equal and contrast was a wash – side by side viewing would be required.

Of course, my setup could not fill a big room, but for me, I would rank my cheap home projection system more enjoyable to watch than IMAX digital, but way below the film IMAX at the Sony theater. This is the problem IMAX has – I don’t think until they get to at least 8k projectors that are bright and beautiful enough to nearly match 15/70 film on a true giant screen film, can they really be “digital”. Of course, business-wise, everyone else has been rolling out digital projection and they could not be seen as “behind”. But they may paint themselves into a corner with too many of these 2k digital “IMAX” theaters and not real giant screen digital technology.

Today, this technology does not appear to exist. It’s not likely that IMAX has the money, R&D expertise and resources to develop digital projection technology, especially that can leap the Sony’s, JVCs, Christies etc. of the world. For “Outside In”, I’m not worried though. It will play fine on anything from a blu-ray disc to digital IMAX to even 35mm film. But I know right now, it will look best as an 8K master carefully output to 15/70 film and shown in a “real” IMAX theatre like the giant screen at Sony’s IMAX in NYC.

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