4 Directors Talk IMAX 3D

January 1, 1998



At the NFB since 1960, McNabb is renowned for specializing in non-conventional cinematography and frequently collaborates with Colin Low, as on the 1980 70mm/15-perf OMNIMAX (now IMAX Dome) film Atmos. McNabb helped pioneer the prototype stereoscopic IMAX camera rig used for Transitions, and was behind much of the equipment design for the first large-format film shot in 48 frames per second.


In film for over 50 years, Low was a design consultant on Tiger Child, the first giant-screen single projection production from Imax Corp. Among other projects, he consulted on We Are Born of Stars, the only analog IMAX 3D film, and Echoes of the Sun, the first film from the full-colour 3D IMAX Solido system, and co-directed Transitions. He was instrumental in pushing forward the 15 perf.


Nominated for an Academy Award for the 1976 documentary Blackwood, moderator Tony Ianzelo co-directed the historic Transitions with Colin Low. Ianzelo also co-directed Urgence, a docudrama on cardiology and neurology, which was the first IMAX film to use multi-track synch-sound recording. Ianzelo joined the NFB in 1960.


After being thrown out of the U.S., Stephen Low was cornered in a coffee shop by a rolling-loop-obsessed Roman Kroitor. Low directed The Last Buffalo, Titanica and Flight of the Aquanaut, and produced and directed Across the Sea of Time and Mark Twain’s America in IMAX 3D technology for Columbia and Sony. In 1986, he founded The Stephen Low Company, and helped push development of specially designed equipment for the giant-screen format.


Over 30 years ago, Roman Kroitor and Colin Low were considering the big picture – literally. Expo ’67 organizers wanted the National Film Board of Canada to produce a film specifically for the fair in Montreal, so Kroitor and Low came up with the multi-screen show Labyrinth, a three-and-a-half-year adventure of experimentation which over 1.3 million people saw in a three-chamber pavillion.

When Expo ended, Kroitor left the nfb to join forces with another multi-image expertimenter, Graeme Ferguson, forming Multiscreen Corporation (predecessor of Imax Corporation), along with Bob Kerr. The seeds for IMAX technology were planted when Ferguson, engineer Bill Shaw and the IMAX team produced the first IMAX projector just in time for the Osaka World Fair in 1970.

Large-format imax technology has since spread to 32 countries, picking up an Academy Award along the way. With giant-screen technology poised to get even bigger, and new screens popping up around the globe, IMAX 3D is the latest and greatest advance. While IMAX 3D filmmaking opens up opportunities for innovation, it also brings with it a host of new complications.



TONY: What frustrates you most, Stephen, about shooting in IMAX 3D?

STEPHEN: It has to be the most difficult, complex system used of anything ever developed, short of the nine-screen Disney thing. It’s really hard to say. It’s like an accumulation of things ganging up on you – none of which are overwhelming – but when you take them all together, they are.

One is the size and the weight of the camera, and the depth of field issues with those big lenses, the absence of being able to use convenient things like zoom lenses, the inability to handhold at any time, which you can now do quite nicely in 2D IMAX with a 50-pound camera. We’re talking about trying to alleviate that now by having bigger mags, maybe not 2,700 feet, but maybe 2,000. So, it’s all of those things ganging up on you and the inertia those things create.

We were shooting Mark Twain in his Hartford house in Connecticut, and we needed a nice shot of an empty rocking chair on the porch to dissolve into a still shot of him sitting in the rocking chair, but we were working two stories up in this building. Every time we would come down the stairs to get a shot, the sun would go down, for instance. And then we’d shlep all the stuff back up, and then the sun would come out, and we’d go all the way down. In three days, a simple shot – so simple, normally you could send your assistant cameraman to get a spare 35mm in the trunk and do it himself – is a nightmare.

The need to have more beautiful light is much more acute in imax probably than it is in a smaller screen. So to shoot a muddy shot – you don’t even conceive of that. The difference between a beautifully lit rocking chair and an ugly, flat, hot-lit or overcast shot is the name of the game.

TONY: What about dealing with performers in 3D?

STEPHEN: I don’t have much experience with that, I did Across the Sea of Time, and I found it probably was easier to do than anything I’d ever done. . . My philosophy in the film was – if you take the well-known fact that if you have to project or exaggerate in theater, in film, you reduce that radically – my feeling was to reduce it even more in 3D IMAX, to almost nothing.

COLIN: I think that’s true. I think if the person is at the end of your arms length, you really see every muscle in the face, and you don’t want projection. It’s an intimate performance in a sense. I think there aren’t a lot of actors that can do that.

TONY: We’ve talked about things that frustrated us in IMAX 3D, what do you love about it?

STEPHEN: Oh, it’s the greatest tool ever. I guess the fundamental frustration is, on one hand, you’ve got the best tool ever built in the history of imagination of any kind – and that’s not exaggeration either. But against that is the extraordinary difficulty of using it properly, and even worse than that is being compared to the very, very easy-to-use formats. It’s frustrating. Films, 35mm, with the refinements of it: zero loadtime, ten-minute mags, fantastic depth of field, high-speed lenses, zoom lenses, hand-held equipment, and on and on and on. . . It’s a hundred years of film development there. Film is so cheap that, on Hollywood sets, I’ve seen directors get the camera up to speed and then give the actors their instructions.

Anyway, it’s frustrating. For example, in the case of Mark Twain, we were working with a $6 million budget, which is about enough to pay for the stock and a fairly modest crew. On Across the Sea of Time, we had a little more, we had around $7 million. But people are comparing you to tv, and it’s 20 or 30 times more difficult to do in 3D IMAX. On the other hand, you sit in the theater and say, ‘Wow, those are great images.’ But everything else being equal, it’s never going to be as good as 35mm. . .

It’ll have to have a lot of development.

ERNIE: And a lot of years.

TONY: There is a lot going on. We’re just now into synch sound with imax.

STEPHEN: Not really, Tony. I don’t know any synched sound – documentaries have to be synched.

ERNIE: We did synch on Urgence, and we did synch on First Emperor.

STEPHEN: Yeah, and Titanica we did synch.

ERNIE: But as you said, it’s nothing like picking up a Panavision 35mm or a B.L. camera.

STEPHEN: That’s another reason why drama is in some ways more doable than documentary, because there is no synch and actors are much more skillful at looping than a non-actor. I think the future of it all is in drama, really. Modestly engineered for quite a few years, but. . .


TONY: How far away do you think the feature-length film is in IMAX 3D?

STEPHEN: Well, Across the Sea of Time is 53 minutes; the early Disney movies were also. The animated films were only 70 or 80 minutes, so 20 minutes longer than Across the Sea of Time. That’s plenty for 3D. Just over an hour, I think, would qualify for feature length – you don’t have to be two hours. So we’re right on the edge of that, but the problem is economics. It’s that we’re expected to keep raising the bar and make better films with, in fact, shrinking budgets, everything else being equal.

COLIN: But there are now 30 3D theaters. . .

STEPHEN: But no films.

COLIN: But you probably need 100 theaters to really give you the kind of budget resources.

ERNIE: What’s happened is that the prices paid to producers are not increasing along with the costs of making the films.

STEPHEN: Yeah, there’s continuous pressure from the theaters to reduce the costs, and to run weaker and weaker films because they just don’t want to pay for them. And that’s a huge problem. So is that going to happen in 3D? I think it’s happening right now, although people are more desperate for 3D, so they’re willing to pay a little more. The costs are almost double.

COLIN: There’s much more public interest in 3D.

STEPHEN: I think once people see that you can really pull something off. . . It’s just like having a sound movie. After going to a sound movie, who the hell wants to go to a silent one? Or a color movie, who wants to go to a black and white after? Once you’ve seen 3D. . .

ERNIE: At the [International Space Theatre Consortium], all the theater owners who had 3D theaters were just desperate for product; they’re really looking for films.

TONY: With more and more 3D theaters being built, there’s going to be one hell of a crunch in the near future, isn’t there?

STEPHEN: We’re on the edge of it right now – in the next few months, or in the next year or so – it’s already happened. I mean, there aren’t enough 3D films being made. Somehow that has to be addressed by the whole community, and I don’t think it’s just Imax that can do that.

ERNIE: There’s a bit of a bottleneck right now.

Matters of Perspective

TONY: Colin, what were some of the pioneering benchmarks that you and Ernie brought to the imax screen?

COLIN: I think what we felt at the very beginning was that the big-screen, IMAX format was wonderful, but if you’re watching it with two eyes that work, it’s too flat when you come into close-ups – not if your camera is moving strongly – if you’ve got a lot of parallax movement in the shot, then it looks three-dimensional. But, in some situations, when you’ve got close-ups of people, they look like they’ve been steamrollered onto the screen, and suspension of disbelief is difficult. So it seemed to us in the beginning that, with 3D, you returned a kind of intimacy to the big screen that 35mm has, simply because it’s a window.

3D is certainly more than a window; I mean, the objects come right through the window and sit on your lap. But it has to be controlled in a way that you really, truly can suspend disbelief. My problem at the moment is that there hasn’t been enough experimental work done with the relationship between the inter-ocular of the cameras, the distance apart of the cameras, and where you want the drama of the action to take place. I would like to see more work done with narrower inter-oculars in close-ups.

STEPHEN: Well, it’s hard to do that with an IMAX Solido [former term used for 3D] camera, which is. . .

COLIN: Which is just one fixed inter-ocular of three inches, and it tends to miniaturize the close-up. I’d like to be able to use the first system we used, which is the mirror system. But Solido is excellent in terms of case of use, it seems to me.

STEPHEN: My shoulder was shot, actually my collar bone, from carrying the Solido camera.

ERNIE: Humping that bar?

STEPHEN: It’s four of us on the bars – if somebody slips. . .

ERNIE: [The camera system]‘s very delicate. . .

STEPHEN: It’s only 2,000 pounds!

ERNIE: But at least the old system you could break down into small components.

COLIN: I’m not talking about the weight now. I’m talking about what I want to see on the screen. And I believe you have to have an adjustable inter-ocular and that is the distance between the lenses. In the case of the old system, the mirror system, we had everything from zero inter-ocular right up through quarter-inch, half-inch, one inch, two-and-a-quarter inches – which is normal – to five inches.

ernie: We could actually only go to about four-and-a-half inches.

COLIN: Yes, you’re right. We could go to four-and-a-half, and that gives you a really nice working range on the inter-ocular, and the Solido camera doesn’t have it. So, in one sense, the films that I would be interested in doing in 3D – I would use the old system. But that in relation to what is rentable and what is. . . It’s hard to put the old system back together, but I miss the range of inter-ocular. And I see it in the films. . .

STEPHEN: Well, it’s also a function of lenses because they’re not all equal.

ERNIE: It depends on your distance to your subject.

STEPHEN: But it’s the 40 that gave us the problem. The 60′s okay with miniaturization.

COLIN: The 60′s a longer lens. But the longer you get, the more cardboarding you get on the screen.

ERNIE: You’re back farther, trying to bring things up to you. The longer lens helps. . .

STEPHEN: But the 40 is a good close-up lens anyway. A reasonable lens.

ERNIE: I prefer the 50.

COLIN: 50 is my favorite lens. One of the problems with the IMAX 3D, is that you don’t have a chance to do as much experimentation as you need in order to develop the whole system, not just develop a film. You might have the film that’s ideal for the equipment that’s available, but you go to another film and you’re missing equipment and you’re also missing expertise in terms of how things look.

3D has seen the light

TONY: What did you learn from the test that you and Ernie shot in IMAX 3D at 48 frames a second?

COLIN: When we said we were going to do 48-frames 3D test everybody at Imax looked at us as if we were totally mad. In 48 3D you learn that you eliminate strobing, and strobing can exist not just in high-speed car shots, but in fast action with a gesture of the hand. And strobing is more noticeable in 3D than in 2D IMAX. And Imax has for years wanted to eliminate the strobing. The large screen gives you strobing because there is just so much distance for an object to move across the screen. At 48 3D, the strobing is diminished. 48 3D is not viable right now the way it is, because you double your costs and it’s outrageous. The second thing is everything becomes exponential – the lenses, the loss of a stop, the doubling of your noise level, the doubling of your stock weights.

STEPHEN: And you really have to use 2,700 foot loads, but they’re brutal.

TONY: And what about the amount of power that we needed for that one sequence?

COLIN: You’re quite literally doubling your lighting costs. We poured the lights on there, and you fry; you really cook the actors.

STEPHEN: I don’t think there’s any point in doing 48-frames-per-second 3D when you can’t afford 24 3D.

COLIN: This group has never believed that it was possible to go commercially into 48. We did a test, but all it told us is that we believed; it’s economic insanity.

STEPHEN: I’ll tell you, on Mark Twain I ran my camera to try to shoot the fireworks. Every time I tried to do 40 frames with that 3D Solido camera, the film would break.

ERNIE: We had no trouble at all doing 48 frames with the Solido on Wings of Courage a number of times.

STEPHEN: Well, it’s the luck of the draw. It depends on temperature and moisture.

COLIN: Did you get good fireworks?

STEPHEN: Yes, the fireworks are great, butÉ

COLIN: They still strobed?

STEPHEN: They’re okay, but, it’s just when the film breaks – every time we try it, something goes wrong.

COLIN: With a Solido camera?

STEPHEN: We had a different Solido camera.

ERNIE: You’ve got number two.

STEOHEN: Yes, but we didn’t have any problems at normal speed.

COLIN: At one point working on Momentum, which is just 2D at 48 frames a second, Ernie got very good at making that camera work under incredible conditions. 40 below zero at 48 frames per second.

STEPHEN: I like the idea of doing 48, but it’s just the economics, period.

ERNIE: I think the economics are okay for a World’s Fair.

STEPHEN: But keep in mind, if you’ve got six or seven or eight million to do a film. . .

ERNIE: You’re eating up a lot of money in film.

STEPHEN: You’re now taking whatever opportunity you had to make a good movie, and you’re increasing your behind-the-camera as opposed to your in-front-of-the-camera costs. You can’t do anything, except buy your film.

TONY: One last point. Do we need faster stock?

ERNIE: We’ve got 500 – 50 now.

STEPHEN: I’d love to have 2,000 – 50!

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.