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Liftoff on Imax

'Apollo 13' reopens Friday, this time on the gigantic screen, an attempt to bring more mainstream films to the format.

September 19, 2002|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Watching "Apollo 13" in Imax (opening Friday), you'd think that Ron Howard's 1995 movie about the heroic rescue of three NASA astronauts on an aborted mission to the moon was made for the giant format.

It's not only the sharpness and clarity of the increased film image (10 times the size of the frame of conventional 35-millimeter film and three times that of conventional 70-millimeter film) and how it's projected on the enormous Imax screen (ranging from 70 feet wide by 52 feet high to as large as 120 feet by 90 feet), but also the way in which the sense of drama, intimacy and spectacle are enhanced.

From the exhilarating liftoff to the claustrophobic anxiety of Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, from the intense mission control maneuvers led by Ed Harris to the deeply moving close-ups of Kathleen Quinlan as Hanks' wife and the miraculous landing and recovery of the capsule, this is not the same "Apollo 13" we've experienced. Nor is it the same Imax.

Thanks to the company's new $2.5-million system called digital remastering, or as Imax calls it, DMR, "Apollo 13" is the first 35-millimeter live-action feature to be digitally repurposed in the large-screen format. This breakthrough takes the commercial film-going experience to a new level. That's right: film.

Even George Lucas, Mr. Digital Cinema, is so impressed that he's agreed that "Attack of the Clones" will be the next feature to undergo digital remastering. "Episode II" in the "Star Wars" saga opens Nov. 1 in Imax theaters. It's part of a strategy to take Imax into the more profitable and prestigious mainstream, beyond the institutions and theaters that play "T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous" or "Space Station" and beyond the animated experiments with such Disney features as "Fantasia/2000," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" (opening Dec. 25).

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"This has been an ongoing process for the past five years, and it's only been in the last nine months that we've obtained the software breakthrough to make 'Apollo 13' work," says Brad Wechsler, co-chairman of Imax with Richard Gelfond.

"It's the perfect Imax feature emotionally and aesthetically. What we've been doing since then is knocking on a number of doors at the studios and with directors to show them the results of DMR. Their response has been, 'Well, let's see how our franchise films work.' And they've given us the most difficult scenes to repurpose, and we've taken their best shots."

Except in one instance. Imax tried running a snippet of "The Wizard of Oz" through the digital remastering process and found that it couldn't remove enough grain from the 1939 classic to have it work effectively Imax-size.

Wechsler credits Greg Foster, Imax's president of filmed entertainment and a former production and marketing executive at MGM/UA, with cultivating closer ties with the Hollywood creative community and landing both "Apollo 13" and "Attack of the Clones." In addition, Imax recently signed an agreement with CAA to help negotiate releases of new movies for digital remastering.

"Could you imagine the next 'Matrix' or 'Harry Potter' in Imax?" Wechsler asks.

Profitability remains to be seen, but Wechsler contends the process would add a new revenue window and help differentiate the film-going experience, even among event films. Meanwhile, "Apollo 13" and "Attack of the Clones" will play in about 22 commercial Imax theaters and at various institutions.

"I was so blown away by the ['Apollo 13'] test that [producer] Brian [Grazer] and I were delighted but skeptical," says Howard. "I wasn't sure the film would work on such an immense scale. It was shot with a lot of detail, camera movement and close-ups--all no-no's if you look at the Imax playbook.

"I've been a fan of Imax for more than 10 years but, as a director, I wanted to make sure that the process enhanced the film experience for the audience. I was surprised by how well the performance and close-ups worked. It reminds you how fortunate I was to have such a good cast. Everything is going on with those eyes. Honesty is imperative when you come under a greater microscope. Looking at Kathleen Quinlan's eyes during the launch sequence to me was more impressive than watching the launch itself. I sat there and realized that I had unintentionally made an Imax film."

It should be noted, though, that because of the physical amount of film involved, Imax is not yet capable of handling movies longer than two hours, so Howard had to edit his film for the Imax experience, trimming about 20 minutes.

Howard says he and editor Dan Hanley "in some instances came up with what I thought were better edits of scenes."

Grazer agreed that Imax intensified the experience of watching "Apollo 13." "The relationships became more life-and-death. It became more of a roller-coaster ride.

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