How IMAX Creates Experience – Dunkirk and the Brilliance of 70mm

In 1512, Michelangelo completed his fresco on the ceiling on the of the Sistine Chapel. A four-year endeavour that depicts some of the seminal moments of the Christian doctrine, from the creation of Adam to the great flood to David slaying Goliath. The chapel itself, which is now visited by an estimated 25,000 people per day, who have payed around €15-25 depending on whether they have purchased a fast-track package, is designed to the same dimensions of the Temple of Solomon which are laid out in the Old Testament: the vaulted ceilings reach a peak of 68ft and Michelangelo’s infamous work covers 12,000 square feet which is around 1/6 of a football pitch. Ever since its completion, cardinals from around the world have gathered under the image of mankind stretching out to reach its jacked creator to select their new Pope.  And, as you stand there looking helplessly up at the work, you are hit with an unwavering belief that the traditions that spawned this fresco’s creation and the ones which it now oversees are older than you will ever be and will last, like mankind, far beyond your existence. The room itself knows this.

When you leave the Musei Vaticani and the warmth of Rome hits you like a prize-fighter, and you walk, with no real purpose, in the direction of the Supreme Court and the Tiber, these feelings circle away in the back of your mind until you pass a somewhat nondescript gift shop just off Marianna Dionigi, in which you see a must-be-designed-using-Wordart sign saying ‘Cartolina 3 X 2’. You stop and, in typical tourist fashion, proceed to inspect the typical images ranging from the Colosseum to a pixelated ‘I *Heart* Roma’ card that is rather bewilderingly close to being sold out. In the middle of the rack is the thing that caught your eye in the first place: a 3.5 x 5 rendering of Michelangelo’s fresco. It is all there: God, Adam, Eve, Noah, David, Joel, Jerimiah even Jonah. It is all there, yet the experience is not; the image is the same yet the feeling it evokes is diluted, even quite banal. It is no longer the case that you are infantilised by the art, more so that you, and your unwillingness to spend the €3 on ‘tourist tat’, are now superior and you can thankfully now carry on the rest of your day pretending you matter.




As I found out this week, the difference between the full 70mm BFI IMAX experience and a regular trip to the local cinema, which utilises digital projectors, is analogous to the aforementioned scene – when going to a film like Dunkirk, that being one shot for IMAX using IMAX cameras, on the biggest screen in the country, your capacity to give yourself over to the film is increased to a near porous point; you succumb to the experience and let it direct every ounce of feeling within you.

The key distinction here is that between spectating and experiencing. (And I am by no means saying that regular cinemas are equivocal with ‘tourist tat’)

Now, to claim that I experienced the horrors of Dunkirk from land, sea and air, whilst siting in the comfort of a tiered seat, snacking on a rather poor pick n’ mix along with 500 other people all doing the same, would be a rather insensitive assertion. Those traumatising moments of war are incalculable to those who remain removed from them, and to say out rightly – like some journalists have – that any film capture’s the full extent of the devastation of war is a sheer oversight.

That being said, certain attributes of the IMAX form and cinema are distinctly designed to increase the grandiose nature of watching a film and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make it more real because of those additional elements. Christopher Nolan does not just utilise these elements, however, he wields them like Michelangelo did a paintbrush. And like the Italian painter, the British/American filmmaker had to bare in mind a specifically large canvas.

Designed by Bryan Avery in 1991, the BFI IMAX was completed in 1999 and is situated on the roundabout junction on the Waterloo Road. Its completely circular design and its location in the capital makes it oddly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe, both structures being the centre of their respected forms of entertainment for when they were designed. It is built on anti-vibration bearings, which are necessary given that it is surrounded by traffic and above a busy tube line. Even the outer casing of glass provides acoustic separation from the surrounding city. The only way of accessing the cinema is via underpasses, meaning that the BFI truly exists as an island unto itself in the centre of London; a space specifically designed to tear you away from your world, separating you from the mundane rumble of everyday life, and throw you into a new one. Dunkirk was my first ever 70mm film, let alone my first ever trip to the BFI – my expectations were high.

70mm is the key here, as although film may be projected on an IMAX screen it is not worth toffee unless it has been shot in using this film (toffee here being synonymous with your time and extra money). Previously, films sold as IMAX films, like the latter two parts of Nolan’s own Dark Knight trilogy, only shot scenes in the true IMAX format using genuine IMAX cameras – the Joker’s opening bank heist, for instance, was shot entirely in IMAX along with a few other scenes equating to only 20 minutes of the entire film. Shooting vast quantities of a film in IMAX was, up until Dunkirk, seen as too impractical and cumbersome to do despite its innate rewards – a 12 to 18k resolution compared to the average digital camera’s 4k, and a greater amount of image compared to a 35mm film stock. The first of these challenges is that the cameras are far from light weight: weighing just over 30kg, making it difficult to transport without a rig and complicating the manoeuvrability of the camera and cameraman – this meant that around 25 percent of Dunkirk is instead shot in a Panavision 65 system, so there are brief moments when the aspect ratio does change, moments that were noticeable mainly due to the shift in resolution. However, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and other engineers were able to design a system which meant that for the first time in a feature film, IMAX cameras were being used in a handheld capacity. Another setback of the format is that the camera can only hold three and a half minutes’ worth of film. Nolan remarked in an interview with USA Today, that this meant that during the aerial shots the planes  that were being used for filming would repeatedly have to land and restock with film, a laborious task that would have been completely eliminated by using a digital format. The final length of the film reel for Dunkirk is around six miles.

Nolan IMAX


The fact that such a high percentage of Dunkirk is shot in IMAX is truly outstanding and a testament to the ingenuity of the film’s crew, and when this form is coupled with the benefits of the IMAX projection and sound systems things really do start to get special.

When the time comes for you to take your assigned seat –  mine was J3, in between two couples, and one that I was truly terrified would be ‘bad’ for viewing seeing as it was one of only two seats available for the quarter past nine showing of Dunkirk on a Wednesday, any time before then was completely sold-out – the initial response is that of awe: your neck jerks upwards as you pass through the door, and realise that the screen keeps on going at an inconceivable rate. It spans from wall to wall and from ceiling to floor, covering in total 520 square meters. This is even more impressive when considering that the average cinema screen is usually between 7-8 metres wide and 5-6 meters tall. And as the film stock can take in more detail than conventional forms, there is more going on screen, so every corner is now filled with even more detail rather than just scaling up a smaller image. Because of this sheer size, the curvature of the screen, it proximity to the audience – IMAX screens are closer to the viewer than regular screens for a greater field of view –  and the unimpaired sightline of every seat, due to the tiered seating, a rather impressive effect is achieved that enhances the ‘experience’ of a 70mm film.

The average human has a central vison of between 10 and 18 degrees, anything beyond that up until 30 degrees is considered near-peripheral, 30-60 mid peripheral, 60-110 far peripheral. The quality of image, as you would expect, becomes less defined the further away you are from central vision.  Typically, a regular cinema screen will hit around 54 degrees of your field of view, some of which may be obscured if there are no tiered seats or the distance from the screen, whereas, with an IMAX screen and 70mm you are consistently hitting around 70 degrees of your field of view, meaning that your far peripheral view is constantly being provoked. As a result, you cannot process clearly all the information that your eyes are detecting. This results in your brain sensing motion that you must adjust your eyes to digest. This, when combined with the BFI’s 12,000-watt laser aligned surround sound system – which is peacocked before the feature film, showing you how it mirrors the progressive movement of sound from left to right, forwards to backwards – has led many, including myself, to agree with Nolan’s own perspective that the IMAX experience is ‘virtual reality without the goggles’, as you are constantly enticed to move around the screen to lock on to the screeching approach of the German fighter.

IMAX works because all these strokes of technical genius culminate in the transition of what is usually just spectacle in regular theatres – an observable moment that can be digested almost passively – into experience – a moment where you too must consciously and  subconsciously participate in the overall effect of the scene. It is a form of subtle, cerebral virtual reality that relies on manipulating your visual and auditory field in order to create a greater sense of proximity to the events being depicted. Be it hearing the approach of falling bombs rapidly get near to your location, or trying to lock on to a swirling spitfire that burst into your peripheral view a few seconds ago and is now racing over to your right, IMAX creates experience and it is evidently clear that filmmakers should follow in the shoes of Christopher Nolan and embrace this format in its entirety.





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