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IMAX's laser projectors are worth the pricier ticket

You're watching a 3D movie in 4K on a 100-foot-wide screen. What's not to love?

IMAX corp
IMAX corp
Andrew Tarantola
Andrew Tarantola|@terrortola|May 10, 2016 10:00 AM

I'm no fan of movie theater gimmicks. 3D glasses, giant screens, 4D "sensory experiences," food and drink service have simply never been worth the added ticket prices for me. That was, at least, until I sat down to watch Captain America: Civil War on IMAX's newest 3D laser projector system.

All told, IMAX invested a whopping $60 million over four years to develop its new laser projector system, making this the company's largest R&D investment to date. It's designed specifically for IMAX's largest screens -- in my case, the 100-by-80-foot behemoth at the AMC Metreon -- and marries a pair of 4K DLP laser projectors with a new optical engine. Together the system can generate a picture up to 1.43:1 aspect ratio, which gives filmmakers an unprecedented amount of space to work with, all while rendering images in 4K resolution. Of course, the added quality does also drive up the ticket price -- $19.69 per person at the Metreon in my case.

The system's optical engine is especially impressive. Conventional projectors still use prisms to split white light into its component colors. In normal cinemas, these prisms are fine; however, when you're throwing a 4K image up on a 100-foot screen, they tend to muddle the contrast a bit. That's why, according to IMAX's Chief Quality Officer David Keighley the company went a different route. It bought some IP from Kodak and ditched the prism system altogether. Instead, the new laser system uses six Digital Micromirror Devices (three per projector) to generate pure red, green and blue light, which are reflected through a thermally stable piece of invar and recombined onscreen. "It produces an extremely pure light, that's why we get such amazing contrast," Keighley continued.

What's more, because the projectors utilize lasers rather than conventional xenon bulbs, they're able to produce a 22-foot-lambert image (that's 50 percent brighter than the industry standard) with superior contrast and clarity. I noticed this as soon as the film started. Normally, the coating on 3D glasses makes the on-screen image appear darker that how the director envisioned it. However, even with glasses on, the image's whites were bright. The same could be said for the on-screen black levels. They were downright inky without a hint of graying or light bleed. This all translates into a vastly expanded contrast ratio -- that's the brightness difference between the brightest and darkest parts of an image. This in turn means that the image as a whole appears more vibrant and lifelike.

The new system also significantly expands the available color palette into HDR territory. According to Keighley, the projectors are capable of producing the Rec. 2020 gamut though no films have yet to take advantage of it. Watching the latest Suicide Squad and Dr Strange trailers were a delight, both practically exploded off the screen in hyper-saturated hues. The clarity was equally impressive: I could have sat through Civil War and counted Robert Downey Jr's pores if I'd wanted.

The new projectors are joined by a new 12-channel surround-sound system built to compete with Dolby Atmos but without the need for 40 individual channels. IMAX demonstrated this capability during a pre-film walkthrough. Still, the 12-channel sound isn't quite as nuanced as a 40-channel Atmos. As Keighley explained that was intentional. By using wider channels and reducing the number of required speakers, the IMAX system requires less upkeep and therefore costs less to maintain and operate. That said, the 3D sound profile was still quite impressive. Combined with 3D visuals, the on-screen action breaks the fourth wall more often than Schwarzenegger did in Last Action Hero.

The new technology is currently available in 30 of IMAX's 1,067 theaters worldwide and is generally going to be limited to the company's marquee locations. Still, seeing a blockbuster film like Civil War or The Jungle Book in this format will be well worth the trip.

IMAX's laser projectors are worth the pricier ticket