May 31, 2014

IMAX in the broader revival of Midcentury aesthetics

The sudden explosion of 3D movies in the 21st century is not a revolution, a game-changer, or whatever else it's supposed to be. It's simply a return to Midcentury preferences, which favored as complete of a sensory immersion as possible at the movies.

By the '80s, audiences had undergone a change of mindset -- sensory immersion was felt to be obvious gimmickry that took you out of the moment. You wanted to listen in on the movie, and behold the movie -- from somewhat of a distance, as with any form of popular art -- not to escape into it physically as though it were a two-hour amusement park ride.

Along with 3D, there's been an explosion in IMAX, not only in blowing up ordinary films to the mammoth size of the IMAX screens, but also shooting more and more of the original on IMAX film itself, which is a much larger format than the standard 35mm film. How does this tie in with the general resurgence of Midcentury aesthetics in the Millennial era?

Well, the mammoth size of the screen is easy enough to understand. Folks in cocooning times are not very excitable, and the falling crime rates that go along with cocooning leave them cushion-brained from reading the daily news. They prefer vegging out in front of one kind of idiot box or another -- today, the internet and TV; in the Midcentury, radio and TV. Movie studios felt they had to really "wow" them at the theaters in order to lure them out of their domestic cocoons.

Remember, that was the era of the drive-in restaurant, church, and yes, movie theater. If they didn't even want to leave their cars when they ventured away from home, they would really need a spectacle to get their butts in the movie theater seats.

By contrast, the fun-loving folks of the '80s already had their motor going in daily life that they didn't need the movie projector and speakers to shock them awake like a heart defibrillator. And the rising crime rates put them in a higher state of arousal in everyday life. They didn't need to get woken up by melodramatic acting, bombastic musical scores, or gory details.

But now we're back to Midcentury levels of cocooning and falling crime rates, so audiences need to get whacked over the head to feel like the trip to the theater was worth it. You can't get your eardrums blown out at home!

There's something more going on than the sheer size of the screen, though. The size of the image as it is captured on film itself is much larger than usual. The standard since forever has been film that is 35mm wide and 4 perforations high, so that the image occupies a frame that is 20.3 mm by 15.2 mm, with an area of 309 mm squared. The film used for IMAX cameras, however, gives a frame that is 69.6 mm by 48.5 mm, with an area of 3376 mm squared -- or nearly 11 times as large of area as the 35mm image.

What does this larger image size on the film get you? A much higher resolution when it is projected. IMAX was originally used for nature and other documentary approaches that sought to deliver the most lifelike picture possible. It is like shooting a movie on "medium-format" film used in still photography (in this case, near the 6x7 size for 120 film). There, too, the larger image size on film gives much higher resolution than the standard 35mm format (the kind of film you used to buy when you used to shoot on film yourself).

It's not hard to see how the far greater resolution and more lifelike picture ties in with the rest of the whole "movie as sensory immersion in another world" phenomenon.

So, was there a counterpart in the Midcentury? My research wouldn't amount to much if there wasn't. And there was: 70mm film. It mostly went under the names Todd-AO or Super/Ultra Panavision 70, depending on whose cameras were used, but the image size on film was the same -- 48.5 mm by 22.1 mm, or 1072 mm squared. That's more than 3 times the area of standard 35mm film, although below the mammoth size of IMAX images.

And its marketing appeal was the same as that of IMAX today -- a more lifelike resolution that you were never going to get from watching TV in your home. Or even from watching standard movies. The 70mm format produced such Midcentury spectacles as South Pacific, Cleopatra, The Sound of Music (on Todd-AO), Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (on either Super or Ultra Panavision 70).

In fact, the first two major hits for Todd-AO -- Oklahoma! and Around the World in Eighty Days -- were also shot in a higher frame rate than usual, at 30 frames per second instead of 24. Note the parallel to today where Peter Jackson is trying to push 48 frames per second because it looks more lifelike than 24.

Yet the more it looks like real life, the less it looks like a movie. And, sure, if it doesn't look real at all, it won't look like much of a movie either. Somehow the degree of realism has been snuggled into a happy middle spot -- fairly realistic, but not too realistic -- since movies have had spoken dialog. A 35mm 4-perf frame, and 24 frames per second. Once you move far enough away from that optimum, it gets into the realm of virtual reality and escapism rather than stylized reality with a clear distinction of roles between performers and spectators.

I'm worried how Christopher Nolan's upcoming movie Interstellar will look, given that he's shooting more of it on IMAX than anything else he's done, including The Dark Knight Rises, which already had over an hour of IMAX-filmed scenes.

The lenses on IMAX cameras are spherical, not anamorphic, so they don't give you that sublime shallow focus that good ol' Panavision does. Oddly enough, in still photography shooting on a larger film format gives a shallower depth-of-field. Evidently, though, this effect is swamped out by the loss of the anamorphic lens when shooting on IMAX, since it gives deeper rather than shallower focus.

In my review of The Dark Knight Rises, I noted how confusing the melee scenes were because they were filmed in IMAX rather than Panavision -- too many of the crowd members' faces and bodies were in decent focus, and Bane and Batman were not singled out from the rest to be shown in focus. You didn't know where to look, and the melee looked jumbled rather than striking.

And that was with ace cinematographer Wally Pfister at the helm -- you can imagine where things will go when filmed-on-IMAX becomes as ubiquitous as 3D, and every tentpole project will try to outdo the others in how much of their movie can be shown in an overly realistic resolution.

On a broader social note, we can foresee the end of the cocooning phase of our society within the next probably 5 to 10 years. The last time around, the peak of sensory immersion and virtual reality hit between roughly 1955 and '64, a decade defined by shifting the gears from cocooning to connecting (and as a result of the more outgoing climate, a steady rise in the crime rate). So if you aren't a fan of IMAX, rest assured that it won't last that much longer. In the meantime, you'll just have to hope that they don't abuse it... but with Hollywood I wouldn't get your hopes up.


  1. I'm a bit confused on how completely immersive experiences take you "out of the moment" vs ones you take in at a distance.

    So in 5-10 years the crime rate will start rising, and then about 5 years later IMAX will fade in popularity?

    The best cinematography on TV is on "Hannibal", an essay on the use of shallow focus in that here. I'd link to the image I found of the article in "American Cinematographer" where they discuss how that look was achieved, but I found it via twitter and can't find it any more. I suppose verbiage about it is less interesting than the visuals themselves, so I recommend the Hannibal without people video.

  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968, well into the rising crime era.

    I forget if I've mentioned it here before, but Beyond the Black Rainbow has a rather 2001-esque look blended with early Michael Mann.

  3. Change isn't 100% overnight, so there are still traces of Midcentury culture lingering into the '60s, just fewer and fewer each year.

    Unwieldy bureaucracies like the Hollywood studio system have more inertia as well, so they'll be even slower to reflect changes. Hence the feeling that the studio system was "out of touch" with cultural changes, unlike the music industry which changed more quickly because they don't invest such huge amounts in a single project.

    Architecture, too -- '60s architecture still looks Midcentury authoritarian, whereas graphic design had quickly changed to upbeat snazzy Mod.

  4. Immersion takes you out when you're expecting there to be two distinct roles -- performers or presenters, and the audience. You're slipping into your role as spectator, and then wait a minute, are we being dragged into the physical world shown on the screen?

    And despite movies' attempts to be virtual reality or amusement park rides, they are still images projected on a screen, without our input a la VR, and we aren't moving physically through space a la amusement parks. In the latter environment, we expect to get sucked in, and immersion works. In a movie theater, it's out of place and alienating.

    But then today's audiences *like* alienation -- it makes them crave and appreciate the comfort of their cocoons even more.

  5. The shallow focus in Hannibal is only there if you're looking for it. I'm not sure if it's due to the lighting, or it being shot on digital / video, or something else, but it's not very striking.

    It has that washed-out look that seems like it will never die, and that softness blunts the stark contrast between focus and blur. The colors are desaturated (intentionally, plus shot on video), and the lighting is a bit too even (narrower dynamic range of light levels since video clips highlights) and given that pale green tint.

    My hunch is that most of that owes to it being shot on video rather than other choices the DP made. If you want cool-looking TV shows, you can't avoid film just to pinch pennies. Most striking TV show ever made? Twin Peaks -- shot on film. The first four seasons of Mad Men were shot on film, too (I haven't seen it since then, but it's switched to video). And that looked richer than Hannibal.

  6. Another "edgy" horror show whose shallow focus shots are wasted from being shot on a washed-out digital medium, In the Flesh:

    I think the vogue for shallow focus and nerdgasm-ing about "bokeh" is because it's one of the few stylistic techniques that you can still do on digital. Lush colors? Nope. Striking chiaroscuro? Sorry. Opening up the lens aperture and shooting close-up to the subject? Oh yeah, I guess we can still do that, so it'll only look 95% dull rather than 100%.

  7. Could it be also that cocooning audiences prefer technology and graphics, whereas outgoing audiences prefer movies that have an emotional impact(in a previous post, you argued that movies made in rising crime times maximize emotional impact, whereas movies in falling-crime times minimize it)?

    New Wave(1960-1990) movies weren't known for awesome graphics. And there weren't advances made in movie graphics during the time, either.

  8. Yeah, David Slade complains about having to use digital here. "Beyond the Black Rainbow" however was intentionally shot with 70s-era film to achieve the same look. Their cinematographer even contacted some people who claimed it must have been shot on digital (and then processed) in order to correct them.

  9. 2001 wasn't considered hobbled old dinosaur studio stuff, it was very off its time "ultimate trip". And Kubrick was one of those golden-age of directors 60s/70s types.

  10. Midcentury people liked drive-in restaurants and movies because they had a lot of small children, who are ill-behaved. You can take a two year old to a drive in, but taking one to indoor restaurant or theatre is somewhere between unpleasant and impossible.

  11. In 1980 there were 16.8 million children age 4 or under. But there was no drive-in industry catering to their parents, who took them out to normal restaurants, movie theaters, malls, and so on, without much of a problem. I'm sure we weren't perfectly behaved, but our parents don't say that they could never take us out, the way that the average parent does today.

    Introducing us to the public sphere and the genetic strangers (community members) who made it up was one of the most important things our parents did to make sure we grew up with an intuition for boundaries. Act like a brat in public, and you're shunned -- maybe even getting your ear pinched by a stranger. Before long, you've learned how to behave in public.

    Now with cocooning, it's the nuclear family vs. the community -- imagine someone in a public setting stepping in to back up the parent who's trying to make their kid behave. These days, that's felt to be a violation of the seal around the domestic unit. The parent will resent it and push the helper back, and the helper will sense that they shouldn't try to help in the first place.

    It's amazing how everyone's just sitting around ignoring disruptive behavior problems in public places these days. We have the helicopter parents to thank for that. But we should start to override their protectiveness and shun them in public if their kids are acting like brats.

  12. How is this going to play out with the upcoming 50%+ Non White Youth racial mix? Hispanic and Black parents often have very different child rearing and life strategies than even lower class (but functional) Whites. I can more than a little friction possibly enough to stifle outgroup openness.

    So you may get less cocooning but more separation of groups as well which will change the normal ebb and flow of american culture is not very positive ways

  13. I think 3D is mainly a gimmick to compel higher ticket prices, but I'd be interested in your take on this, regarding literary vs. visual culture:

  14. Hey Agnostic,

    Totally OT: what is your opinion on the new sharing-economy trend? Services like Uber, AirBNB, Lyft, etc. encourage strangers to trust each other in order to enter a mutually benefical transaction.

    I read a big article about the sharing economy in the Wired magazine and was struck how people trusting random strangers could perhaps begin reversing the cocooning trend that I absolutely loathe. Any thoughts? Maybe a post about the sharing economy?

    Here's the article:

  15. I read the lefty complaint and still remain unconvinced. If you want to improve the rent situation in San Fran, you need to increase the housing density.

    I'm especially unconvinced by the black argument.

    Anything to shake up the various hotel and taxi cartels I find good. Ultimately I think this shared economy will peter out, but not without a few of the cartels improving their efficiency and performance. I think some sharing firms will be sticking around for the long haul, like Lynx.

  16. "literary vs. visual culture"

    It sounds like there's two separate dimensions you're looking at: verbal vs. visual, and orderly / ornamented / pithy / memorable vs. jumbled, indistinct, rambling, and forgettable. (Dibs on the latter as the title for my debut album.)

    If we make a 2-by-2 table, we find a good deal of examples in the "verbal, jumbled / forgettable" box, and in the "visual, orderly and memorable" box.

    Poetry and rhetoric is orderly, ornamented, and memorable, but most prose is not (or not nearly as much), and Twitter / Facebook updates not at all. Ancient and pre-historic art, design, crafts, and architecture have an orderly, ornamented, pithy, and memorable quality.

    Given how far back the orderly visual culture goes, I wouldn't attribute the contemporary jumbled verbal culture to aping the visual culture. It seems more like both cultures used to be more orderly, and have both become more jumbled. (Because of mass society, atomization, etc., though affecting both cultures rather than shifting the balance from verbal to visual.)


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