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Oppenheimer launched a new debate about ‘true IMAX’ — but does the format matter?

What is true IMAX? Where can you see Oppenheimer in true IMAX? Is fake IMAX obvious? We explain

Oppenheimer plays on a giant format screen for an audience in a dark theater, the projector casting a faint light over the crowd Graphic: Matt Patches/Polygon; Source images: Tong Yu/China News Service/Getty Images, Universal Pictures

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Christopher Nolan said it himself: Watching his movie Oppenheimer will basically ruin your life, and might even make you feel like you’re being blown up. If Nolan fans really want that kind of overwhelming experience, they likely want to watch the film in Nolan’s preferred format. His biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb, asks the audience to stare the destroyer of worlds right in the face, and Nolan thinks the best way to do that is in 70mm IMAX film — or as some die-hards call it, “true IMAX.”

The director calls IMAX film “the Gold Standard of motion picture photography” and suggests that it’s the best way to see his movies. The IMAX website promotes 30 screens across the world that are showing the explosive film in IMAX 70mm for a limited time. (For contrast, there are roughly 39,000 screens in America.) But 15 years after Nolan’s The Dark Knight introduced Hollywood to the format, which was previously used primarily for science, education, and showcase movies, it seems as though it’s getting harder and harder to parse what “true IMAX” really means.

There are three aspects to the label. IMAX is a mode of presentation: the specific proprietary projection and sound systems that the IMAX company uses to display a film. As Nolan states, it’s also a mode of motion picture photography — specific types of cameras and film stock typically used to capture spectacular imagery. And finally, IMAX is a brand — a corporation that has changed its self-definition over time, whether through the digital medium’s takeover of cinema or as IMAX has expanded across the world, engaging in the grand capitalist tradition of offering an increasingly diluted product in exchange for an increasing amount of money.

So as the Nolan nihilists settle into their late-night dungeons, or as the egalitarians embark on their Barbenheimer double-bill weekend extravaganzas — at one of those 30 IMAX screens or at any number of other IMAX screens across the world — what are they getting themselves into?

What is true IMAX?

In an undated file photo, a silhouetted figure walks down a hallway at the Regal Spectrum Irvine in California, with rows of screens on both walls showing the IMAX logo in blue Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Let’s get it out of the way: Fans can experience Oppenheimer in “true IMAX” on those listed 30 screens and nowhere else. “True IMAX” doesn’t have an official definition, but it’s commonly understood to mean a movie that was shot on IMAX film and is being projected on IMAX film, in a theater that’s a stadiumlike venue with a giant, squarish screen with an aspect ratio of 1.43:1. Oppenheimer checks all of those boxes — but only on those 30 screens.

IMAX film, which runs horizontally through the projector instead of unspooling vertically like other types of celluloid, is gigantic — roughly nine times the size of 35mm film. One approximation says IMAX film displays something between 12K and 18K resolution.

But that only holds for movies using an IMAX film projector on a traditional IMAX screen. Those screens are massive, with many coming in around five to seven stories tall. The IMAX theater in Melbourne, Australia, currently has the largest traditional IMAX screen in the world, measuring 32 meters wide by 23 meters tall. (A theater in Leonberg, Germany, features the world’s largest permanent IMAX screen, but it doesn’t have the typical 1.43:1 proportions.) Melbourne’s IMAX screen has a surface area of roughly 7,922 square feet. If the average movie screen is around 50 feet by 20 feet, its 1,000-square-foot surface area would mean Melbourne’s IMAX screen is nearly eight times larger. And the IMAX film footage fills the entirety of such screens, transfixing first-time viewers in ways they never even imagined.

Christopher Nolan has used IMAX in every film he’s made since The Dark Knight except for Inception. The opening IMAX shot of The Dark Knight was the first time many people across the world saw a real IMAX frame, and it elicited gasps — and earned applause at the 10-year anniversary screening at AMC Universal CityWalk. Nolan calls it “3D without the glasses.”

When is a movie not true IMAX?

An exterior view of the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, with a banner announcing the new Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images via Getty Images

If a presentation doesn’t meet the above standards — shot at least in part with IMAX film cameras and presented in IMAX film on a 1.43:1 screen — it isn’t “true IMAX,” at least colloquially speaking.

If the movie is projected digitally? Not true IMAX. If it was shot entirely with digital cameras? Not true IMAX. It isn’t possible, or at least not ideal, to project IMAX 70mm’s 1.43:1 aspect ratio on a screen that isn’t suited for it. (For instance, the IMAX screen at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre, which is listed as an IMAX 70mm venue, measures 94 feet by 46 feet — so the theater needs to mask the sides of the screen, reducing the overall square footage, to achieve the format’s full aspect ratio.)

This is where things get tricky. Very often, a film being presented as an IMAX release fulfills none of these requirements. Take Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny — it was shot digitally and projected digitally, and it has a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Other films meet none of the base requirements, but at least offer a larger aspect ratio in IMAX; Avengers: Endgame was shot on the Arri Alexa 65 digital camera, which allowed it to open up to 1.9:1 for the entirety of its IMAX run time. (1.9:1 is 26% more image than standard, while 1.43:1 is 40% more image.)

A number of films fulfill one of the requirements, but not the others. In 2016, Disney released IMAX 70mm prints of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The film was presented in traditional IMAX venues, like AMC Universal CityWalk. But it wasn’t true IMAX, because the movie was shot digitally. With film projection becoming a greater and greater rarity, it’s hard to imagine an IMAX 70mm conversion of a digitally shot movie happening again.

In 2018, Damien Chazelle’s First Man drew interest in the IMAX fan community because cinematographer Linus Sandgren used IMAX film cameras for the lunar sequences. Many expected an IMAX 70mm release, especially since director Damien Chazelle was inspired by Nolan and had already shot La La Land on 35mm film. But First Man never got an IMAX 70mm release. The same thing happened in 2021 with Daniel Craig’s final James Bond installment, No Time to Die, also shot by Sandgren, and in 2022 with Jordan Peele’s Nope, shot by Nolan’s usual director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema. Even though both movies were shot partly with IMAX film cameras, neither of them could be experienced in true IMAX.

There are a couple of rare instances where some parts of the formula are missing, but the viewing experience might still be considered true IMAX. J.J. Abrams shot parts of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness on IMAX film. The movie was released in IMAX film on traditional IMAX screens, but was converted into 3D and had a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which used IMAX film cameras, received an IMAX 70mm release on traditional IMAX screens, but was framed in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The deciding factor on whether these were true IMAX releases comes down to the aspect ratio.

What’s the difference between true IMAX and filmed for IMAX?

James P. Bagian, STS-29 mission specialist, stands behind an IMAX camera while preparing for a flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1988 Photo: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Mere weeks after No Time to Die, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune roared into IMAX screens around the world. Many viewers who traveled to traditional IMAX venues for the film saw it in grand 1.43:1 aspect ratio. Surely this is what everyone means when they talk about true IMAX, right? Even IMAX’s website says that the movie was “filmed for IMAX.”

Except Dune was shot and projected digitally. The “filmed for IMAX” label is a new wrinkle: a program the company introduced in 2020 that certifies high-resolution digital cameras that weren’t made by IMAX, and that allow digitally shot films to be captured and presented in aspect ratios of 1.43:1 or 1.9:1.

Alongside Dune, Top Gun: Maverick was one of the first releases via this program, shot with the IMAX-certified Sony Venice and expanding to a 1.9:1 aspect ratio for some scenes in IMAX. And in spite of reports that Dune: Part Two was shot entirely in IMAX, the trailer ends with that same tag: “filmed for IMAX.” The reports likely indicate the movie will be presented entirely in 1.43:1, not that it was shot with the IMAX film cameras Christopher Nolan uses.

On top of the 30 screens that IMAX lists for Oppenheimer, there are many other traditional IMAX screens across the world. The only reason that they aren’t all presenting the film in true IMAX is because a whole swath of them got rid of their IMAX film projectors in favor of a digital version called IMAX with Laser.

Just over 10 years ago, IMAX 70mm prints of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises hit at least 83 screens in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Some of those venues — like Chicago’s Navy Pier theater — have since closed down. Many of them still present films in 1.43:1, but with digital projection, capped out at 4K. And this may present dilemmas for certain folks.

Audiences in Georgia can see Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm at the Regal Mall of Georgia theater in Buford. But about four hours away in Pooler, they can catch the film in IMAX with Laser on the “world’s tallest IMAX screen,” coming in at 76 feet, 2 inches tall, with a width of 101 feet. (Its square footage comes in just under the size of Melbourne’s IMAX screen.) If you choose to go to Pooler, you still get the 1.43:1 aspect ratio, and you get more screen. But you sacrifice on image quality and the other intangibles of film projection. It’s a hell of a Sophie’s choice.

What is the future of true IMAX?

A masked woman rides an escalator up in an AMC theater, with a giant IMAX sign and a series of backlit movie posters behind her, and reflected in a mirrored wall next to her Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hollywood had to choose between Oppenheimer and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One for summer IMAX dominance. The seventh Mission: Impossible film (which has a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and was shot with the Sony Venice) left IMAX screens after only a week. Tom Cruise reportedly called around to ask for more premium large format (PLF) screens for the film, pointing to Top Gun: Maverick’s cinema-saving box office performance, particularly on PLF screens. But Nolan is the IMAX king around town. His name is nearly synonymous with the phrase “true IMAX,” and Oppenheimer is scheduled to hold a firm grip on IMAX screens for a rare extended run.

That may be important. Like film in general, IMAX 70mm is facing a greater and greater threat of extinction. As long as Nolan keeps championing the format, IMAX film will likely continue to exist. In fact, IMAX is developing four new film cameras to be available starting at the end of 2023. But as seen with First Man, No Time to Die, and Nope, it’s now an incredible hurdle to secure IMAX 70mm presentation even for movies that were shot with IMAX film cameras.

Oppenheimer’s box-office success (including many sold-out IMAX showings) might help convince a now-PLF-inclined moviegoing audience that true IMAX is worth their time, studios might see the economics in it. Not only that, but Oppenheimer is the first film to ever shoot with black-and-white IMAX film — a type of celluloid literally invented for this movie at the request of Nolan and his cinematographer. There’s a historical importance to Oppenheimer’s IMAX film presentation that Dead Reckoning Part One just can’t compete with. (Sorry, Tom Cruise.)

Why does it matter whether a movie is true IMAX?

A blank screen in an empty IMAX theater, distorted into an angular shape by being shot at a sharp angle Photo: Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

With everything said, it simply has to be acknowledged that true IMAX is outrageously exclusive. Thirty out of 39,000 movie theater screens is virtually nothing. It’s hard to say that IMAX film itself is elitist, but the Hollywood powers that be, the ones that have made it so rare, have turned the true IMAX label into a form of social currency, something film buffs can weaponize against people who saw a movie any other way. Not everyone can afford to drive hours to one of those 30 screens, let alone afford the $20-plus price of a ticket. That simply isn’t fair.

Some viewers won’t even notice when an IMAX film shifts between aspect ratios, with the movie taking up varying portions of the screen. Others notice it too acutely, to the point where they find it annoying. To those who appreciate it, the picture quality of true IMAX is unparalleled. There’s something operatic about seeing 50-foot-tall faces, which feeds into the grandeur of narratives like The Dark Knight and Oppenheimer. That might be the one intangible advantage of true IMAX — the way the giant screen and razor-sharp detail enhance a film’s themes. But that’s also frequently accounted for in other versions of a film — such as Dune, where the filmmakers did not crop the frames of 29 IMAX shots, but rather expanded their sides to get a 2.39:1 aspect ratio for standard versions.

True IMAX is an event worth some hype, but it certainly shouldn’t be weaponized to the detriment or degradation of other experiences. Dune showed that a “filmed for IMAX” digital presentation can feel groundbreaking and transportive, and can even reach 1.43:1 heights. And some experts have suggested that viewers can’t even perceive 18K.

Even without a 1.43:1 aspect ratio, big movies can be outstanding and immersive in IMAX. Tom Cruise’s latest run of Top Gun: Maverick and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One proves it. But some unexpected films also benefit from IMAX. Films like Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born and the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo — seemingly fit for better sound and bigger image, respectively — received a limited IMAX release.

And during the 2018 festival circuit, Barry Jenkins, director of 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight, screened his follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, on an IMAX screen a couple of times and was ecstatic about the results. Martin Scorsese’s epic drama Killers of the Flower Moon is set for an IMAX release as well.

IMAX also offers a great way to see old classics in grand fashion. In 2022, Jaws and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial were screened in IMAX, the latter for its 40th anniversary. And in 2018, 2001: A Space Odyssey received a limited IMAX release, including in IMAX 70mm.

Are any movies entirely in true IMAX?

Banners for The Dark Knight on display at the exterior of the IMAX theater in Chicago Photo: Tasos Katopodis/WireImage via Getty Images

In 1970, a few years after the company was formed, the first IMAX film was released: Tiger Child, a short documentary described as “a travelogue of the human spirit.” For decades, this is the kind of film that made it to IMAX, often on gigantic IMAX screens in science centers, museums, and similar institutions. Many were fully shot and presented in true IMAX during their time.

As far as Hollywood movies go, however, none of them have been shot entirely on IMAX film. (Only a handful of films outside of Nolan’s, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have used the cameras at all.) The Dark Knight features about 28 minutes of IMAX film footage out of its 152-minute run time. The Dark Knight Rises has 72 minutes; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, roughly 50 minutes. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol has about 30 minutes; Dunkirk, nearly 80 minutes.

The remaining minutes of those movies feature other types of footage, whether that be various film stocks (such as 35mm) or digital video, which is converted to IMAX film for an IMAX 70mm presentation. The true IMAX sequences are interspersed within, but the other footage usually doesn’t have the native capture quality or 1.43:1 size of IMAX 70mm.

How do you tell if a movie is true IMAX?

Christopher Nolan stands in front of a dark screen projecting the title of his movie Interstellar at the film’s premiere at the IMAX theater in Hollywood
Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan.
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The technical specifications section of a film’s IMDb page is one of the easiest ways to check its true IMAX status. IMDb isn’t always right, but in that section, you can usually find a number of details that will lead you in the right direction. The aspect ratio, clearly, needs to be 1.43:1 for some scenes. Under “camera,” you’re looking for the IMAX MSM, the IMAX MKIV, or the IMAX MKIII. But the key point is the “printed film format,” where it needs to say “70mm (horizontal)” or “70mm (also horizontal)” — indicating an IMAX 70mm release. If a movie checks all of those boxes, you’ve got true IMAX.

When a film has an IMAX 70mm release, it’ll also usually receive an official IMAX website promotion detailing the theaters that will screen the film in the format. However, taking Rogue One into account, you’ll also want to make sure that you see “shot with IMAX film cameras” somewhere in the article, on posters, or in trailers.

Not everyone has the time to pore over the details, and all these promotional slogans sound extremely similar. In fact, IMAX confusion is a tried-and-true profession by now, with the conversations and debates dating back more than a decade. The company seems intent on muddying its own specialties to the point where IMAX doesn’t really mean anything consistent from one screening to the next — especially in the era of “LieMAX,” where some venues are calling their presentations IMAX showings even if they’re screening stretched-out 2K films on significantly smaller screens.

Maybe confusion is the point. The company has obviously never stated why it takes this approach. It seems plausible, though, that building true IMAX screens en masse across the entire globe would be incredibly expensive, especially if each one was a traditional 1.43:1 screen. So why strictly define the origins when the mass product will be something else? Retain the ability to sell “true IMAX” to those who care, and then cater to the rest.

At this point, all viewers can do is go see Oppenheimer in “true IMAX” if they can and want to. If they can’t, going to the movies at all to support things like the medium of film (Oppenheimer is being projected in 70mm and 35mm at select locations) — to support real actors, to support real writers, and to support theater workers — seems just as important right now.

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