by Gary Meyer
Polyvision, Cinerama, Todd-AO, Dimension 150, Emergo, Circle-Vision 360, Kino-Automat, Showscan–I have experienced all these attempts at immersive cinema and more. They were celluloid film-based formats before almost everything went to digital a few years ago.
The news that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar would be screened in several formats, including 70mm IMAX, offered an exciting continuation of a lifelong journey and gave me an idea. I asked Chris Rasmussen, one of the Bay Area’s finest projection techs and a cinematographer, if he would like to attend screenings of the movie in its many formats and offer our readers a report on his experiences. He was excited, though work got in the way of his report being completed within a few days of the Interstellar opening. Chris’ final story appeared last week; it balances his enthusiasm for the movie and what he saw and heard with technical information to help readers better understand what is going on “behind the scenes.”
Two days before Interstellar ’s opening there was a press screening at the Metreon to show off the film in its ultimate format: 70mm IMAX. Chris was to join me, but at the last minute a 35mm reinstallation he was doing kept him away. Little did we know then how lucky he was to have missed it. And let’s hope Mr. Nolan never hears about it.
The Metreon auditorium feels like it is six stories high, with its gigantic screen and steeply raked seating accommodating about 700 viewers. But only 62 people were spread throughout the theater, each selecting what he or she hoped was the best seat in the house. Press members were not allowed to bring guests, though nobody knew why, since the movie had previously been screened in San Francisco and reviewed in national publications.
The film began with a very non-science fiction family-on-a-farm scenario, but soon enough we were blasting off into space with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.
It was frighteningly loud, and the sub woofer caused the place to rumble like Sensurround on steroids. I am not sure how old theaters will survive this 10.5-on-the-Richter-scale effect. There appeared to be a sound mix problem, as dialogue was inaudible whenever something else—like the roar of a spacecraft—was happening in the audio. Eventually we settled into another galaxy’s comfort zone, until a guest star showed up. We could hear people in the audience whispering, “I didn’t know Matt Damon was in the film.” This surprise appearance, not hinted at in advance promotion or advertising, was a distraction.
The outer space images were visually stunning, but suddenly there were giant bugs crawling over the faces of our stars. I was reminded of Mel Brooks’ short The Critic1 “Vots dat? Doit? No … it’s a Cock-a-roach” … or maybe The Tingler 2.
With such a big projector gate and wide film surface, dirt and dust collects, and a little static electricity makes it hard to remove while the film is running. The projectionist tried to blow it away, but “the fuzzy creatures” reappeared elsewhere on the screen several times, most distractingly during the scenes of light blue sky and white snow.
The aspect ratio kept changing … full screen unless the original format for a scene was widescreen and it was letterboxed. This distraction is standard for most Hollywood movies screened in true IMAX, for those who notice these things. For most it is fine, and to the discerning, as Chris pointed out last week, the various frames can add a subtle dramatic effect.
We settled back into the story when, at about the two-hour point, Damon barely got into the spaceship’s depressurization chamber, slamming the door behind him. The film went silent. An effective moment in contrast to all the sound effects, muffled dialogue and over-the-top Hans Zimmer musical score preceding this moment.
Soon we saw Anne and Matthew’s lips moving. They seemed to be expressing extreme fear that something was wrong. Little did they know! The ship was in trouble, shaking violently. But all of this was mute to us. Something was on the fritz, and not just in space. The silence was broken by the sound of someone closing a theater exit door. Then seats squeaked as we squirmed and other ambient noise became dominant. This didn’t seem right.
At least five minutes of action and missed dialogue passed before the screen went dark. There had been audience temptations for a Mystery Science Theater moment. Minutes seemed like hours before someone meekly announced from down front (tho most of us could not hear from so many rows up) that they had stopped the projector to figure out the problem. Duh. Many more minutes went by before we were told it would take another 10 to 20 minutes for the movie to resume. “But don’t worry—we will start from where the sound went off.”
I thought to myself, “Are they using 70mm IMAX changeover? If it is a platter, that is a continuous loop system, and they cannot rewind it.”
Next we were told, “Because it is on film, we cannot back it up. If it was digital we could.” Another wait, and we were informed it would start soon, but the first few minutes would be silent and then another few minutes out of sync (like early Bruce Lee, or Woody Allen’s first movie What’s Up Tiger Lily?3).
As we waited, we also hoped the theater staff would be bringing us popcorn. Most of us had not eaten dinner. Dream on. But we didn’t dare leave and miss the (re)start.
Critic Michael Fox reminded us that it was the Metreon where the press screening of Eyes Wide Shut was shut down with 15 minutes to go when a fire alarm resulted in evacuation and a rescheduling the next day. Of all filmmakers who would not want their films experienced this way, Kubrick and Nolan would be the most upset. Nolan is heavily influenced by Kubrick in his concern for presentation … Kubrick personally screened every print.
When Interstellar came back on screen, all they promised was distractingly true. Finally, it was in sync, but within minutes the sound went out again.
An onscreen joke must have been told, as we saw Anne and Matthew laughing (at us?), but we didn’t think it was funny. We were making our own comedy with impromptu commentary.
The projector stopped again. “Wait another ten minutes, please.”
These nervous critics had to write their reviews for a deadline the next day at noon. Eventually, several of us decided it was time to leave. The situation might not get better.
As we walked out, I heard a Metreon staff person explaining to the publicists that the sound source was missing the information needed to finish the film, so I guessed it might be canceled.
A note from the publicist the next morning confirmed that they did cancel, and would try again in early afternoon. Another email announced they were starting the print and we should arrive in two hours to see it from where the sound problem started.
There was no way I could return to San Francisco that day, and since I was not actually reviewing Interstellar , I figured I would see the last 49 minutes in 70mm at my neighborhood theatre, the Grand Lake in Oakland.
Late one afternoon I arrived at the movie palace by Lake Merritt. I timed it well. Matt and Matthew were fighting on a distant planet surface, which meant I would see about ten minutes again, perfect to settle back into the movie. When Damon closed the depressurization door, it went silent. I held my breath. And then there was sound again. And the noise level was just right. Loud enough for a thrill ride, but not at an ear-damaging level. The presentation was superb—that crisp, bright picture the Grand Lake is famous for projecting. And I was pleasantly surprised at how moving the film’s finale was.
My first two recommendations for seeing Interstellar would be a toss-up, depending on what you are looking to experience. The high-priced AMC Metreon IMAX has a screen that more than fills one’s peripheral vision, and a sound system that literally rattles your bones.
The Grand Lake’s picture and sound are spectacular, but not so overwhelming. I suggest sitting in the front third where your peripheral vision will be filled. The admission is the lowest in the area, it is in a movie palace, and the theater is locally owned.
I had considered going to San Jose, where The Tech Museum has the huge, Hackworth IMAX Dome Theatre. If can be a wonderful experience for non-narrative science and travel films running under one hour. But most reports have been highly critical of the uncomfortable seating with little leg room, and the terrible angle of the domed screen on the ceiling, which requires one to bend back 90 degrees, resulting in a sore neck. The extreme curved screen means that films not intended for this format are partially out of focus, and there are repeated reports of dizziness and nausea. Proceed with caution, as Interstellar is 2 hours, 49 minutes.
A personal journey through Immersive Cinema.
Gary Meyer co-founded Landmark Theatres in 1975, the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on projects for Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007. Meyer also founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in 2014, with the EatDrinkFilms Festival to tour nationally in 2015.