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Film Systems Offer Visions to the Max : San Diego Prototype Helped Put Omnimax on Route to Success

January 12, 1988|KEVIN BRASS

When the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater opened in Balboa Park in 1973, the first permanent theater to feature the revolutionary "Omnimax" film system, Newsweek magazine hailed it as "the forerunner of mass entertainment centers of the future."

Fifteen years later, 53 theaters in 14 countries use Omnimax and its sister system, Imax, including the Omnimax theater in Tijuana. The list is growing. Omnimax theaters in Boston and Chicago were just two of 10 theaters built within the last year.

Museum and science centers such as the Fleet Space Theater are the big users of Omnimax, and science and nature subjects have become the main fodder for Imax and Omnimax films. The success of the San Diego theater and others like it have proven the film system's ability to compete for the public's entertainment dollars and to attract people to science-oriented complexes.

San Diego One of First

"San Diego was very much the prototype," said Graeme Ferguson, president of the Toronto-based Imax Systems Corp., developer of the Imax and Omnimax systems.

Omnimax and Imax use extremely wide film, the largest film frame in the business, which allows for exceptional clarity when projected on a large screen. The film is run horizontally through a projector designed to firmly hold the film steady, frame by frame, with the help of a patented "rolling loop" system. The steadiness and the amount of light the system allows to illuminate the frame produces an incomparably large and clear image.

With the help of a fish-eye lens, the Omnimax system displays the picture on a dome, such as the 76-foot dome in the Fleet Theater; the Imax system projects on a flat, but very large, vertical screen.

Larger Than Life

The result is something people can't get from their video cassette recorders or neighborhood eight-in-one movie house. The clarity of the image--and its sheer size--tends to overwhelm viewers.

The films are usually designed to take advantage of this effect. There are always wide, panoramic shots with plenty of camera movement, designed to make the viewer part of the action. One film made viewers feel as if they were riding along on the space shuttle, another put them in the seat of a helicopter sweeping through the Grand Canyon.

None of this was part of the original concept of the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. Building a traditional planetarium was the first and foremost goal of the group of influential San Diegans who incorporated as the San Diego Hall of Science in 1957.

The first indication something different was in the works came in 1965, when Dr. Edward Creutz, a nuclear physicist, and James Crooks Jr., an electronics engineer, developed a model for the proposed planetarium with a dome tilted at a 25-degree angle in front of spectators sitting in tiered seats--a radical new concept. Traditionally, planetarium domes were horizontal above people seated on the floor.

Imax, meanwhile, had been experimenting with its new film system, a departure from the multiprojector systems commonly used for large screen shows. Early versions of the one-projector Imax system premiered at world fairs in 1964 and 1968. The first Imax theater was built in Toronto in 1971.

Preston (Sandy) Fleet, son of military aviator and Convair founder Reuben H. Fleet, a Hall of Science member, is given much of the credit for approaching Imax about using its new film system in their new tilted dome.

"Some of the board members were a little more conservative, hesitant to spend money (an estimated $1 million) on something that hadn't been proven," recalled San Diego attorney Joel Estes, a member since 1968 of the Hall of Science, now called the San Diego Space and Science Foundation.

$1-Million Donation

The Reuben H. Fleet Foundation and members of the Fleet family donated $1 million for special equipment for the space theater and exhibits for the science center, to supplement $3 million in revenue bonds designated for the center. Ferguson of Imax Corp. credits Sandy Fleet with thinking of the name "Omnimax" for the new fish-eye version of Imax. "I think Sandy gave it to us as a present," Ferguson said.

The space theater was built on city land in Balboa Park, with the San Diego Planetarium Authority--an appointed body, similar to the San Diego Stadium Authority, created through a joint powers agreement of the city and county in 1971--overseeing the issuance of the revenue bonds. The Hall of Science (the San Diego Space and Science Foundation) was designated to operate the facility. The city guaranteed the repayment of the revenue bonds--approximately $235,000 a year until 1997.

Under the terms of an agreement reached eight years ago, the Space and Science Foundation gives 8% of the gross revenues from the center to the city.

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