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The Big Picture: Filmmakers Assess the State of the Giant Screen

Just a few years ago, the overwhelming majority of large-format films wereIMAX documentaries that typically explored wild kingdoms or outer space.Screened at science centers and natural history museums, most looked likethe Discovery Channel writ large. The big picture today is much morediverse.

While Greg McGillivray’s awesome Everest was the king of the hill among theyear’s large-format releases, this classic IMAX documentary now representsjust one genre in an expanding medium. Competing for screen time,especially at the increasing numbers of commercial theaters, is morefanciful fare such as Brett Leonard’s T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous, andBen Stassen’s Encounter in the Third Dimension. Add to that thelarge-format attraction films playing in Las Vegas and at theme parks–fromDisney’s It’s Tough to Be a Bug show to Universal’s “Spiderman” ridefilm–and it is evident that the medium is as wide open as it is big.

Technology is driving this to some extent, as 3D stereoscopic films havebecome an increasingly feasible option and 3D computer-animation depictsimpossible realities on huge–even domed–screens. The players arechanging, too. IMAX is no longer the sole purveyor of 15perf/70mm equipmentor the only producer of films. Iwerks Entertainment is now offeringcompeting hardware, has entered large-format film distribution, and hopesto maximize its investment by spinning off short attraction films as ridefilms. And the push is on by Sony and others to build theaters inmultiplexes instead of museums–which, to most filmgoers, is probably themost noticeable development of all.

Greg MacGillivray, MacGillivray Freeman FilmsEverest director Greg MacGillivray says: “The big change is that the vastaudience out there is finally paying attention to this industry, which Ilove. It’s nice to see validation for an opinion I’ve had for 25 years.”MacGillivray, whose MacGillivray Freeman Films has produced giant screenclassics such as To Fly! and The Living Sea, sees new challenges and higheraudience expectations as the medium expands from its documentary roots.

While MacGillivray plans to tackle a 3D stereoscopic film, his company’supcoming slate of films-including Dolphins and Amazing Caves-remainsdecidedly non-fiction. He says that he has been wrestling with the questionof how fictional stories work on the large screen. “When people go into aIMAX theater they’re intimidated-they don’t automatically drop theirthreshold of disbelief as they do with a 35mm film,” he asserts. “They’renot conditioned to accept a visual that large as a normal movie. We’ll haveto develop new rules to entertain within this format, which is moredissimilar to traditional filmmaking than it is similar.”

While the “holy grail” among many large-format filmmakers is to develop the”crossover” film that will work in both institutional and commercialtheaters, MacGillivray is skeptical that you can reliably expect that. “Ifyou make a film with a great story and with great action, you’ll getancillary use and a huge primary use. If you try to serve too many masters,you’ll dilute each one.”

He notes that the proliferation of projects today makes “a lot of highquality films get squeezed out.” To help plan for its own future,MacGillivray Freeman has forged alliances with theaters and other partnersto fund a 10-year, 10-picture “Great Adventure Film Series.” The partnerswill share rights and contribute to the marketing of the films. Newbusiness models will undoubtedly emerge, as MacGillivray predicts that thecurrent building boom of IMAX theaters-both in museums and commerciallocations-will continue. “The number of theaters will end up climbing untilwe get to about 450. At that stage, most metropolitan areas will have twoor three theaters, so you’ll have a nice, even coverage. We’ll also haveextra expansion in places like China where there are no theaters. We’llprobably reach 450 in the next seven or eight years.” As for the type ofcontent that will succeed on these giant screens, MacGillivray isphilosophical: “Probably only one out of 50 films fits this medium, butthat’s plenty!”

Stephen Low, The Stephen Low CompanyLarge-format veteran Stephen Low brings the benefit of diverse experiencesto his assessment of the business today. During the past 13 years, theCanadian director has taken IMAX cameras underwater for Titanica and intoIndy 500 cars for Super Speedway. He has also completed several 3D stereofilms including the semi-fictional Across the Sea of Time. “This industryis in a period of transition, especially regarding the entertainmenttheaters,” he remarks. “In those huge multiplexes, documentaries are notreally appropriate. Greg did a marvelous job with Everest, but it’sunrealistic to think that success will be repeated very often.”

“What audiences want to see are dramatic Hollywood movies in 3D IMAX,”suggests Low. “Drama doesn’t work in 2D because that’s never lent itself toclose-ups. When you get intimate, the scale gets too big. 3D is much moreappropriate because the scale naturally reduces as the interocular distancebetween the eyes grows, so a close-up of somebody in 3D looks fine.”

However, Low does think that the conventions in 3D are unclear. “It’s goingto require a lot of experimentation and some technical improvements to makeit usable,” he states. “But 3D IMAX has proven to be a marvelous exhibitionmedium. The questions are almost entirely economic. Are people going to bewilling to pay the cost of dramatic films? Can these growing numbers ofcommercial theaters be fed enough dramatic material to keep peopleinterested?”

“The costs of 3D IMAX are enormous. Stock costs are twenty timesHollywood’s, and you may get three shots a day, not 50,” he observes. “Evena 30-million-dollar film is difficult when there’s only a couple hundredtheaters, since a distributor gets less than 20 percent of the gate.” Low,who says “we always explore ways to help defray our costs,” sold footagefrom his documentary Super Speedway to Iwerks for a ride film. But he feelsthat most ride films do not bring in enough revenue to be financiallysignificant. Despite the fiscal challenges, he is planning a 2D underwaterfilm with Jim Cameron for 2000 release. Filmmakers may have to realizetheir big-screen dreams with a lot less money, but, says Low, “It’s still amarvelous canvas to paint on.”

Ben Stassen, nWave PicturesBrussels-based filmmaker Ben Stassen has moved his nWave Pictures intolarge-format film production via a unique route: ride films. Parlaying anexpertise developed making simulator attractions, Stassen has directed boththe 2D documentary Thrill Ride and the 3D film with Iwerks Encounter In TheThird Dimension.

“Digital technology is the answer to the problems of 3D filmmaking,” saysStassen, who composited 3D-CGI with actors filmed against green screen forEncounter. Creating the film digitally has enabled nWave to readilyre-configure parts of the film for different platforms in the attractionmarketplace, which Stassen views as essential to supporting an independentcompany. Encounter has one ride film spin-off, and a summer release withIwerks called Alien Adventure has four. “It’s mind-boggling to see howlittle cross-fertilization there is in the different areas of large-formatfilmmaking,” he says. “There must be over 100 attraction theaters notcounting Disney’s. There’s a ready-made market with people starving forproduct.”

While Encounter managed the feat of opening simultaneously in museums andmultiplexes, nWave won’t be betting its future on theatrical revenuesalone. “In 1999, 24 new titles are scheduled to be released-much more thanthe most productive year ever, which was ’97, when there were eight,”observes Stassen. “Having 17- or 18-percent growth in one year is going tobe a real problem for producers-a lot of them will bite the dust.”

Bert Terrari, Rhythm & HuesGambling on box-office success has not factored into the large-formatprojects done by the computer animators at Rhythm & Hues because they haveworked for clients like Disney, IMAX, Caesar’s Palace, and Paramount Parks.Along with the ride films Star Trek, Seafari, and the 3D Race For Atlantis,R&H recently completed a 5perf/70mm film for Disney’s new Orlandoattraction It’s Tough To Be A Bug. Inspired by Pixar’s feature A Bug’sLife, the film utilized R&H’s skill with 3D-CG character animation in 3Dstereo.

Making 3D characters appear to float out over the audience is one of thefilm’s effects. “Computers allow us to mock up a room and take a characterand have it address literally anyone in the audience,” explains BertTerrari, who supervised the project for R&H. “You can’t do that withreal-time photography.”

Though CGI is malleable for 3D films, Terrari cautions that it isexpensive. “There are no cheats in 3D,” he states. “It’s also verydifficult to check your work. People think you can put on 3D glasses andjust look at your monitor, but it would take you 100 hours to load up theframes to play it back at speed. Another problem when you do CG in largeformat is catching your mistakes. Just the pure surface area of the filmbeing larger allows more light to go through it, so it reveals all theerrors you can’t see on your monitor. You have to have the experience ofknowing what you’re looking at, and that’s why doing one project leads todoing two and then three-because you’ve made all the mistakes!”

While there have been ride films created in large-format, stereoscopic3D-CGI before, a new attraction at Universal’s Islands of Adventure calledThe Amazing Adventures of Spiderman has certainly raised the bar. Combiningelements of a dark ride and a simulator film, the “Spiderman” film set toopen next month carries its audiences past 13 screens in cars thatrock-and-roll in synch with the animation. The film’s creators, overseen byJeff Kleiser and his partner Diana Walczak, spent three years producing theimages.

Kleiser notes that the challenge of creating CG stereo animation becameespecially complicated by the curved screens used in Spiderman. “They’remonstrous hogs of computing time. You have to compute four different cameraviews and combine those into a fisheye view for each frame. It’s a veryhard process, but the end result is some of the most amazing imagery youcan put in front of your face. In the end scene inside this dome, you arefalling 400 feet toward a sidewalk with the car tipped forward and airblowing in your face. Since your entire peripheral vision is filled withstereoscopic buildings flying by, it’s utterly convincing. When I rode it,I was screaming-and I’ve been looking at this for three years!”

Kleiser and Walczak, who also created large-format stereo CG for the PhilipGlass/Robert Wilson opera Monsters of Grace, see increasing opportunitiesfor their expertise in the attraction marketplace. “I know of at least fivenew parks opening across the country,” says Kleiser. “We’re talking withDisney as well because they have a massive amount of theme park workplanned for next year.” And despite the fact that opportunities to makelarge-format Expo films have declined dramatically in recent years, Kleisernotes that the Hanover 2000 millennial world Expo in Germany will provide11 pavilions to create entertainment for. “They have tons of money-thoughthey’ve waited so long, they may be in serious trouble,” he says.

The experience gained with Spiderman convinced Kleiser that tremendousfuture opportunities exist for those who can create 3D imagery for domes.”It’s really astounding to look in all directions and see stereo out to thehorizon. It gives you a massive feeling of space, like you’re outside.That’s the kind of experience that people will continue to leave theirhomes to see.”