The TCL Chinese Theater Brings IMAX Tech to Old Hollywood
By Brian Walton on September 20, 2013
Beginning today the film aficionados of Los Angeles will finally be able to watch movies in one of the most storied theaters in the country without sacrificing seeing it in the best format possible. The TCL Chinese Theater, originally Graumann’s Chinese Theater, has been retrofitted to house one of the largest IMAX screens in the country. With state of the art digital IMAX projection, added stadium style seating and a custom built sound system, TCL Chinese Theater is now a destination worth fighting through tourists and costumed panhandlers to see.
To accommodate the new oversized screen in the historic landmark, the company dug out the floor of the cinema and went down through the original orchestra pit and basement. Luckily the floor and seats had been modified before the Chinese became a historic landmark, allowing it to be dug out and retrofitted. The theater is reopening this weekend with one of the films it had given a red-carpet premiere in 1939, the IMAX remastered, 3D upgrade of The Wizard of Oz. We talked to Brian Bonnick, the Chief Technology Officer at IMAX, about the companies push to lead digital projection, the upgrades they’ve done to the TCL Chinese and how servers are replacing projectionists.
NERDIST: IMAX shifted gears toward being a leader in digital projection about six to eight years ago. What steps are you taking to insure that you’re leading the way?
Brian: I think that a lot of what that is… really comes from the filmmakers. They’re the best customer and the best critic. They’re the ones that get what makes a good experience or what doesn’t make a good experience and the thing we always look at nowadays, or what’s everybody talking about, is that they talk about prices, prices are important, or they talk about resolution and resolution is important but by themselves, they are just two variables. I think we try to take the more organic approach and say: what are all the things that work together to make a better experience in the theatrical environment and can we tackle each and every one of them. My analogy would be a car. We both go out and buy a car but I go and change the exhaust, change the pistons and I change the timing. Any one of them by themselves give me a little more horsepower but if I start doing them all, I start getting a better car and a better experience. It’s that analogy we’re trying to do. So we’re in there everyday, we’re looking at things saying: what can we make work better than what it does now.
There are some things on our list where we don’t know how to do it yet but maybe it two years time we can because technology can change. Our laser system is a good example: we designed a component and I couldn’t find anybody in the world to build it to the tolerances that we needed, so we had to say, here’s the design we can implement down the road and we’ll implement this design in a slightly more costly and complicated manner. I can still get from A to B, just not in the cool way I initially thought I could. So it’s those things like that we’re constantly looking at that you have to focus on and consider. That contrast is so important to the filmmaker and if you look at what’s happening in the industry right now, in my personal opinion, is that people out there are pushing a whole bunch of new things for the sake for generating revenue, which is fine, people need to do that, but more is not necessarily better in all these different areas—so how many speakers in a room is the right number?
NERDIST: You said that the sound in this particular theater is acoustically tuned to maximize the efficiency of the space and this is a theater that’s known for having amazing acoustics—they’ve had full orchestras – then you have systems like ATMOS which are getting built into some IMAX theaters and you see some changes in these super theaters. What’s the benefit to being able to approach it the way you did here, versus having a chain say, well we want to be able to add this feature and this feature because it’s a part of what we’re building as a chain versus the IMAX approach?
Brian: A chain can do whatever they want and the way I look at it is: if somebody else is doing something that has merit, I don’t have to be the guy who thought it up, I think it’s a good idea to implement. So, for example, we pick the loud speaker. Our laser system will come out or our next generation sound system will come out, and we will have some additional loud speakers—two on the sides and we’ll have ceiling ones too. The one on the sides, funny enough, are a value to us because with a large volume venue like this, because of this technology we use in our loud speakers, proportionally point source technology, we can create phantom image. The other loud speakers you see in the wall there—the sheer size of them, they’re not full range, they don’t have dynamic range. You can only get so much out of something like that. (4:20 ?? right off the bass), so what if you get tons of it, you’ve lost something else. Now, the benefit of having many like that, is that they will mix the track so that they can create a sound from a particular point. That’s a real positive thing but we can do the same thing but we do it a different way, by using phantom imaging, and that goes back to how you design the loud speakers. So our belief is that you want to reproduce sounds the way it was recorded, which means that you need to have full dynamic range, which means that every loud speaker through that room has to be a full range loud speaker. It can’t go from 100 per side and count on just your sub bass to fill in, it’s got to go down quite low so then your sub bass will cover the really low range.
NERDIST: Projection in the exhibition industry was very stagnant for a very long time. It was like this is how you do it, you were showed by the union guy and you were an operator. But digital has created, for lack of a better term, a bit of a land rush. You are doing an amazing job of being just ahead, right now ,and a lot of people are then mimicking your processes. What’s your commitment to the theaters about upgrading as you find a better way?
Brian: We do it all the time now. We sign contracts with the clients for a multiple period of years and we support that while they break through that. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll come in and put in completely brand new set of loud speakers when the next generation comes out, for free. On the other hand, is the example with our tuning system. It has gone through multiple alterations and enhancements as we develop new algorithms and those automatically put it in the systems, so we’re constantly upgrading clients’ systems. The big thing that we have done is, when we first started doing digital, we had this network operation set up so we were collecting data. We were collecting it more like everybody else: Does the system have a fault? I’ll get a [notice] sent to me saying it won’t boot or something like that, but I’m also going to find that out in 20 minutes when I get a call from the client. We’ve completely flipped that around saying, we’re one in eight who collect data. We don’t even know why we’re collecting, we jokingly said that we were monitoring the CPU temperature—we do, we can tell you the temperature of the system everyday since it was installed—but what I can’t tell you today is why I’m doing that and I may never be able to. On the other hand, the example I use for measuring current of the fans, I didn’t know why I was doing that either, but suddenly we were able to, on a preventive basis, looking at why things failed—is there a trend—and then suddenly you realize, “Whoa, I’m collecting a piece of data and I know how to use that.“ Not every piece will be done that way.
The other side of that is preserving the quality of the presentation and before you know it, you can put in a system and tune it. Then again, other people are coming up with new sound systems, but not one of them is talking about how to tune them. So, I can give you a billion dollar set of loud speakers in your home but if I don’t tune them properly, they sound like what your car sounds like and in a car you can have one car that sounds awesome and the other, not so good. Having been in the business, you know you go into one theater and it sounds great, an acoustical system, but others don’t have specs like you do. We adhere to these specs. So one, the room has to be treated before equipment even comes in, and when we tune the room, the others come in, for example, they’ll take the microphone and swing it, and they’ll walk down that center aisle and they’ll take readings and they’ll use an equalizer, that has a 31 band equalizer for each channel. Great. If you’ve ever looked at the frequency response, they are so much over the spot that you’ll have 31 graphic equalizer or maybe some parametric bands, if they’re lucky, maybe four or five. Our system collects tens of thousands of data points from over 20 locations within the theater so now we’re dealing with mobile analysis to get rid of those, “I sit here and I can’t hear the bass and I move here and suddenly I get the node and hear the bass louder.” We try to minimize that as much as possible. But more importantly, I’ve got over 800 points that I can adjustments to slightly. So, I can take that response curve and now I’m not only say that I can pick the 31 worst peaks and valleys and fix those and say, I’m done, I have 800 places to play with and we’re actually increasing them even further and then we’re using algorithms that put substantially more intelligence into this tuning system. At the end of the tuning process, we still do the proverbial “golden ears will listen to it and make sure that what we’ve done is under a computer software is accurate,” we don’t totally rely just on push a button and it’s all good. You always have to go and listen that you’ve done everything right. The other things we worry about are matching loud speakers. Your ear is extremely susceptible to noting differences in frequencies. So, if I’ve got 64 loud speakers throughout this room and I play a tone from one to the next to the next—that same tone—and see if you can see if the volume and the frequency is identical of each. The answer is no, they wont be, because what happens there is that you’re coloring the experience. What we’re trying to create is a pure experience and not color it.
We even tried testing the shape of speakers and the funny thing was, when we tried that, some liked it and some didn’t like that but what we realized is that it’s not reality. Reality is that low frequency sound coming into your body. So, lets go and design some bass speakers that go lower in frequency than anything that’s ever been used in the industry because that’s how you reproduce a natural low end sound like a rocket ship taking off. That’s how you hear, you hear through your body not through your ears. We’re really trying to take a very purist approach to it.
More is not necessarily better and you have to be careful, especially with special effects—stuff on the ceiling and things beaming around—that’s cool, but for the greater part of stuff, 3D is a good analogy: Remember when it first came out, every shot had that 2 by 4 and when you watch it now, you go watch an IMAX film, one of our documentaries, they bring objects from behind, from infinity, literally, up to right in front of your face; that’s partially because we give you this massive field of view. We draw a line from the tip of your nose to the four corners because 3D can only sit on those corners, so if that screen is very narrow and far away, you’ve got a very narrow 3D viewing range whereas if it were wide, you’ve got a much broader one, you can bring things that much more realistically out of the screen. When you bring things out of the screen, you create anomalies, you create a ghosting problem. So what’s everybody doing now is push images out of the plane of the screen to behind so when you take of your 3D glasses, it doesn’t actually look 3D. It works for the general population but it doesn’t necessarily reproduce content, not everything sits at the plane of the screen or behind it, things do come forward of that convergence point. Those are philosophical things. There isn’t a right or a wrong, there’s a way we look at things we thing we’re trying to reproduce—visual experiences and audible experiences—the way they occur in nature, the way they should be. Then there are other ways you can do it and again, I don’t think you can go so far as to say that there’s a right or wrong because I don’t think there is, there are just different experiences. We’re trying to reproduce reality to the point where if you’ve never been skydiving, perhaps our theater is as close as you’ll get to experiencing that guy jumping out of that plane and feeling a little sick in your stomach, and I think that’s cool.
NERDIST: You get so much data from this system that it’s kind of incredible, you could really use that data to do everything from how to build out that theater for maximum acoustics in the theater or you could use it to just tweak your own systems… where else do you see that data going for IMAX, do you see being able to use that and move into other ventures?
Brian: Like other market opportunities? Oh yeah. If you take a look at our image enhancement technology, there are opportunities to use that, in my opinion, in a whole bunch of fields such as restoration. The byproduct of our digital mastering technologies is that it removes data that you don’t want. You’ve taken your file that’s this big and you’ll make it this big. So, you no longer have to compress it and therefore, there are opportunities to use that in standard broadcast. You run your content through this thing and not only are you enhancing it but you’re making it smaller. And when you jam it down the pipe to your home, it’s not being compressed as much and you’re not having the same compression artifacts, and therefore, you get a more pristine image. So there are all sorts of things of that nature that you can do. A lot of stuff we want do, or what I’d like to do, you can do post, I want to do it real time. There’s an image enhancer and right now, what we do is, if you can compare it to any other system, put a brand new lamp in your projector and you get the DCI spec of 14 foot-lamberts, what happens is that that lamp degrades and that 14 goes down to 10, it goes down to 9, and for some operators it’s money, 8, 7, 6, so let it go. Which is an oxymoron—why is everybody pushing more brightness when nobody takes advantage of what’s available today? In our system, they can’t do that, we’re 60% brighter with 22 foot-lamberts to start with and our system is designed, with that camera, to monitor what’s coming off the screen. So if the screen gain gets reduced because of dirt in the theater, if it goes from 2-4 to 2-1 and you’re not getting as much to your eyes—our system knows that because it’s not seeing much, it’ll adjust. As your screen degrades, our system takes that into account. Nobody else does that. So we’re guaranteeing to you 22 foot-lamberts for the life of the lamp and when that lamp finally hits that point of no return, and it just can’t meet that number, we get an alert and we’ll phone the client up and say look, you need to change that lamp. And if they don’t, I’ll make a decision, I may actually choose to send somebody out to change the lamp, deal with the financials at a later date and ensure that our brand reputation isn’t tarnished because people are now watching something that doesn’t represent the quality experience that you get in IMAX.
As soon as we start letting stuff degrade, we lose that differentiation so that’s why we’ve invested so much money on how we monitor sound. Some theaters turn down sound and the question’s well, why? You’ll get the odd irate customer, that’s going to happen, that’s fine, just make sure you turn it back up. If there’s a problem, is it the soundtrack? Is it something in our theater? Do we have something not working in our theater? We want to know about that. You don’t want clients walking out and that’s why at the end of every single IMAX movie, the credits come by and there’s a statement that says that if there’s anything that you didn’t like about this, call this number or send an email here and we will respond. It’s the little things. What we’re trying to do is make sure that every single show is as good as the next and every theater is as good as the next—where the acoustical treatments are critical. I don’t want you going into an IMAX theater and say that this one is way better than that other one or that it sounded way better. It shouldn’t. There’s always some anomaly some variation but we don’t want very much of that because they’re all representing the IMAX experience.
And you can get that IMAX experience at the upgraded TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood starting today for the Wizard of Oz IMAX 3D.