Presentation is an important part of going to the movies. There’s something about being in a darkened theater, surrounded by sound and viewing images cast on a larger-than-life screen. Bigger really is better when it comes to watching movies.
That’s what makes the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater an exciting venue in Chattanooga. It’s the only true IMAX screen in the city, meaning it’s six stories tall and designed to show movies filmed using an IMAX camera. (The IMAX screen at Carmike East Ridge 18 is much smaller than a traditional IMAX screen, although it still offers an enjoyable big screen experience.)
As impressive as the IMAX experience at the Tennessee Aquarium was, the powers that be decided to make it even better. And they appeared to spare no expense in doing so. For $1.2 million, the Tennessee Aquarium got a spanking new screen, two 4K laser projectors, and a 12-channel audio system.
Aquarium officials have been bragging about this equipment for months. And with good reason. Having seen one documentary and several trailers projected via the new format, I can say it was money well spent.
First, I want to temper your expectations. One of the selling points of the 4K laser projectors is image clarity. Without getting technical, the projectors can deliver higher resolution images than a film projector. Since more and more filmmakers are using high resolution digital cameras (including 4K, 5K, and even 6K), content is being produced that will take advantage of the capabilities of the new projectors.
However, a film made using older technology doesn’t magically transform into a crystalline wonder when projected via the laser format. Rather, it looks slightly better. To provide a point of comparison, the jump in image quality from DVD to Blue-ray was more apparent. At least that’s the impression I got while watching “Hubble 3D.”
That said, when viewing images built to take advantage of the laser projectors – wow! The 3D IMAX logo trailer (the one that plays before every IMAX film) looks off-the-charts gorgeous. The brightness, colors, and clarity are phenomenal, and made me hope the Aquarium will someday start showing movies made using the modern digital cameras I mentioned earlier. (Someone email Pixar and tell them to make an IMAX short.)
The laser projectors have one other HUGE plus: brightness. (I’m going to pull out my soapbox for a moment and get something off my chest.) A big problem at multiplexes is dimmed illumination. To save money, theater owners turn down the brightness of their projector bulbs, resulting in darker, murkier images than the filmmaker produced. I know bulbs are expensive, but when you’re not showing a movie as the filmmaker intended, you’re doing your patrons a disservice.
For example, I’ve watched “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” in multiple theaters and in different formats. In the non-premium formats (no IMAX and no 3D), entire sequences taking place at night or at dusk are so dark, I could barely see what was going on. And even scenes that take place during the day looked muddy.
Not so with the Aquarium’s IMAX laser projectors. The images are not just bright, they’re intensely vibrant. A shot in a trailer of a cave filled with sparkling blue stalactites jumped off the screen; I felt as though I could reach out and touch the Harrier Jet that hovered in front of the camera while watching another trailer; and the thick plumes of white smoke that spread out under Space Shuttle Atlantis as it lifted off looked extraordinary.
The audio system knocked my socks off, too. Speakers are mounted on the walls and ceiling, literally surrounding you with sound. The clarity of the audio is remarkable, of course, but even more impressive is the sense of space. Before starting the trailers or the film, IMAX senior operator Corey Cobb turned out the lights in the theater and played an audio clip of what sounded like a forest at night. The hooting of what might have been an owl literally sounded far away, not just quieter. My favorite moment, though, was when the roar and whoosh of three Harriers jets went from behind me to deep into the screen in front of me as they traveled toward an aircraft carrier.
One last point before I wrap this up. The Aquarium received new glasses to go along with their new laser projectors. While they’re durable and fit snuggly, there was a bit of ghosting at the extreme edges of the screen. This didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the film I was watching, but it was mildly distracting.
Enough about my experience; I hope you go see the new technology for yourself. A documentary celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, “National Parks Adventure 3D,” is showing, and if the footage I saw in the trailer is an indication, it’s a looker.
In addition to its slate of IMAX documentaries, I hope the Tennessee Aquarium regularly shows full-length theatrical films. Director J.J. Abrams filmed portions of “The Force Awakens” with an IMAX camera, so unless you’ve seen the film on a true IMAX screen, you haven’t seen all of it. Just the opportunity to see films projected at their intended illumination would be worth the price of the ticket.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.