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Getting the IMAXimum From Cinema

Published: 31st December 2015 , The New Indian Express
CHENNAI: Say IMAX in Chennai these days and people go ga-ga. You can’t blame them, considering how larger-than-life this latest big screen experience is. And this craze for new developments in cinema has been consistent from the days when film reels were wound and played by hand, especially in a cinema-crazy land like Chennai.
“I remember threading a film projector when I was 13 years old,” reminisces V Senthil Kumar, co-founder of Real Image Technologies, who pioneered digital cinema in India through Qube Cinema. This was a time when movie-goers would have to wait in suspense for the second half of MGR’s Enga Veettu Pillai, as the film reel had to be manually changed behind the projector. And for nearly three-quarters of a century, between the 1940s up to the early 2000s, directors and audiences were okay reeling in cinema this way.
So of course when the idea of digital projection was pitched to theatre owners at the turn of the century, most were sceptical. “You have to remember this was a time when crowds were so crazy about cinema that if a movie was stopped midway, they would break down the theatre,” an industry source recalls.
A few forward thinking individuals decided to give the ‘new age’ projection system a go. But not without a few safety precautions first. “In the early days, we had to ensure that there was always a support engineer present, and a back up film print ready to go, just in case there was a problem,” says Senthil. This was in addition to providing digital projectors free of cost to get theatre owners on board.
Another big challenge was convincing cinematographers that the digital route would mean ‘better looking’ films. To achieve this, an industry source tells us that costs for conversion of films from print to digital would often be absorbed by the digital cinema provider — companies like Qube, UFO and PXD. Clearly, the digital way made quite an impression though.
“We started with 35 screens in Tamil Nadu in 2005,” says Senthil. “Two years later, it was up to 100.” No doubt, his movie moghul grandfather, the legendary A V Meiyappan Chettiar would have been proud when almost every single theatre was pushed to go digital by 2008.
With much excitement over the first IMAX screen at Jazz Cinemas, is this the way of the future? “I think because of how expensive it is to set up, IMAX in the next decade is going to be in the niche 10% range for India or the world,” explains Senthil.
Instead, he points to laser-based projection. But it costs about Rs 40-50 lakh per theatre to convert to laser. Thankfully for those of us in the audience, there’s only one thing to do — to see how the story unfolds. Sit back and watch the screen.
From Reel to IMAX
1930s 35mm film reel was used for film projection in theatres for black and white movies
1984 India’s first 3D film My Dear Kuttichathan released
2002 Prasad’s 72-foot tall IMAX screen opens for business in Hyderabad
2015 IMAX rolls out laser digital projectors
42-ft High Screen, Coming Soon
Ever since Chennai got it’s first IMAX screen, movie buffs haven’t been able to stop talking about it. In fact, when the screen opened at Luxe Cinemas in Phoenix Market City last month, many said they were actually disappointed when the first movie it showed was Spectre. “You need the right kind of movie like the Dark Knight Rises or Transformers to really get the visual awe that this format is known for,” says Ajay Ayyapan, who makes it a point to catch films on IMAX screens every international trip he takes. So when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came, fans had double the reason to celebrate.
What sets an IMAX screen apart from any other is, literally, it’s MAX size. In fact, Chennai’s two screens — one at Luxe Cinemas and the other at SPI’s Palazzo (soon to open in Forum Vijaya Mall) are almost half the size of the IMAX screen in Hyderabad that stands a mammoth 72-foot high and 95-foot wide. “The screens, speakers and the projectors are shipped from the US and are installed by their technicians here. This is a global process and they ensure that they handle the whole thing themselves. It takes a good year or so to get it done, because of the sheer amount of setting up needed,” says a source at SPI Cinemas, adding that no existing theatres can be converted — they have to be built from scratch.
The fact that these screens are curved and stretch from floor to ceiling also make for a more immersive experience. “Not to forget, nuances like dual projectors and the fact that the rows of seats are raked much steeper than usual so that the audience is facing the screen directly,” says a spokesperson from  SPI Cinemas.
The approximate cost to construct an IMAX theatre is Rs 20-25 crore for a giant screen and Rs 15-18 crore for a smaller one, say sources. The IMAX screen that will open next year at Palazzo is 42 feet high and 75 feet wide, sources tell us, covering a massive two floors of the mall. The biggest obstacle that multiplex owners say they face is space. Not that we’re surprised after the range of dimensions dished out so far!
Why Laser is Going to be Big
Ever wondered while watching a movie, why the screen is darker than it should be? It’s because the bulb in the digital projector possibly needs to be replaced. This bulb change needs to be done at least five times a year, a spokesperson from a popular multiplex says. With laser projection however, this step can be skipped altogether with more vivid colours and sharper lines every time.
How It’s Done
A project representative from IMAX vets space and blueprints designs before construction
Once theatre reaches basic level of infrastructure, a tech team from the company flies down from Singapore to check on everything from speaker wires to projector settings
A year later, it’s ready. IMAX orients theatre employees with technology