by Michael S. Palmer
A couple weeks ago, Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment flew a number of respected journalists (and, for some inexplicable reason, me) to San Francisco for an early look at 'Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures' Blu-ray boxed set (available September 18). Some of you may have seen a few of the photos on our Facebook page. We'll have a transcript of a presentation with the legendary Dennis Muren and Ben Burtt, as well as some more photos from inside the Lucasfilm archives, in the next couple weeks.
Included in the press event was a 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' screening. Since the film has been meticulously restored -- the original negative scanned at 4K, damage repaired frame by frame, and color corrected -- I assumed we were going to see a digital 2K or 4K "print." Awesome, right? But as we sat in endless traffic on the Bay Bridge, I started surfing the web on my iPhone. One story immediately grabbed my attention: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' to be released in IMAX September 7. Then I looked out the window and saw an AMC Theatres with one giant word visible from the road:
We must have all looked like Jack Nicholson's Joker, perma-grins stretching our faces wide. We were among the first in the world to see the restored film. But before we jump into a little mini-review about how the film looks and sounds, I spent a few minutes talking to David Keighley, Chief Quality Control and President of DKP Prouctions for IMAX, to learn a little bit about the conversion process.
David said most 2K digital cinemas are supposed to run at 14fL (foot-lamberts) and these projectors typically have a contrast ratio of 2,100:1. Digital IMAX screens are larger, and their dual subpixel-aligned projectors put out 22fL with a contrast ratio of 2,600:1. Further, when you see a movie projected digitally, the film itself is a compressed "DCP" file. When IMAX converts a film to its format, they have access to a less-compressed "DCDM" file. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' arrived after its 4K restoration, but even when IMAX receives films finished in 2K, they bump them up to 4K because "they prefer over-sampling."
Next, the film's DCDM file is adjusted for IMAX's extra brightness and run through their proprietary DMR remastering system. David said, "That process allows us to sharpen and degrain the footage so it looks good on a bigger screen." This is important for larger screens where too much noise or not enough sharpness become distractions. The DMR process is different for every film's needs, and sometimes requires trial and error. For 'Raiders', IMAX brought in Lou Levinson from Technicolor, who was working on the Complete Adventures Blu-ray, to consult. In addition to the picture upconversion, IMAX take the audio stems and remaster them for their sound system, which has more power than traditional cinema auditorium and so "we can give you better dynamic range and you can not only hear the bass, but feel the bass." So how does it look and sound?
Let's talk audio first.
I'll have more technical information in the next article, as mentioned above, but Ben Burtt went back to his original sound files in order to create stereo surrounds. In IMAX, every gunshot and punch resonated like an explosion. John Williams' famous score sounded wonderful, creating mood and enhancing the film's perfect sense of wonder, romance, and adventure. The audio, for me was the best part. I haven't heard the Blu-ray soundtrack yet, but if it resembles the IMAX presentation, we're in for a treat. It's the classic sounds we know and love -- the cracking whip, the screeching monkey, the rolling thunder of heavy stones scraping as they shut -- feeling fresh and new. Honestly, Indiana Jones has never sounded this good. I was floored.
In terms of picture, it was a bit of a mixed bag, but I would check more boxes in the Win column.
I've seen 'Raiders' on the big screen a number of times, but never a screen this big. When it's working, which is most of the time, 'Raiders' looks better than any of the film prints I've ever seen. It's bright and crisp and clean and colorful. The ultra-immersive IMAX screen sucks you right into the action. As for the DMR process, which both digitally sharpens and reduces noise, the movie still looks like film and faces never appear waxy. However, the best IMAX presentations are those where you can see textures on props, sets, clothing, and even faces. Sadly, those small details seem to be lacking. The largest flaw is the amount of noise in the dark scenes. Given the available source materials, this is probably about as good as 'Raiders' could look in a large screen format like IMAX, but if you don't like noise, you might be distracted.
Also, I prefer the 70MM IMAX auditoriums over the digital IMAX cinemas because I notice what David called "The Screen Door Effect" -- meaning, in certain bright spots and highlights, I can see individual pixels. David said IMAX is moving towards dual 4K projectors, where the pixels will be a quarter of the size, which should reduce the issue. Also, in 2013 or 2014, IMAX and Eastman Kodak will debut a new laser projection system with a 1.43 aspect ratio and 8,000-10,000:1 contrast ratio (apparently, film is more like 4,000-5,000:1). 'Raiders' only has a few noticeable moments of screen door effect; much less than 'Iron Man 2' (the last digital IMAX film I saw). While I haven't seen the Blu-ray yet, I imagine any of the noise issues will be minimized on your HDTVs and home projectors.
'Raiders' has never sounded this good and, with the exception of some noise in darker moments and some visible projector pixels, looks pretty damn good in digital IMAX.
FYI, there will not be any 70MM IMAX film prints, but if you don't want to see 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' on IMAX (playing one week only, September 7-13), you can also check out 'Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures' Marathon on Saturday, September 15. Playing only at select AMC Theatres, the marathon is not in IMAX and costs $25 to watch all four movies back-to-back-to-back-to-back.