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  DVD Reviews - The Big Picture: IMAX Films On DVD

      Date posted: October 29, 2001

The Big Picture Collection

Greg McGillirvray, Director; McGillivary Freeman Films/Image Entertainment Home Video; 4:3 Full Screen; Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1; 5 DVDs: Dolphins, The Living Sea, The Magic Of Flight, Stormchasers, and The Discoverers, all with Making Of documentaries; Total Time: 387 Minutes

Big Picture Collection

      I’ve been fascinated with IMAX ever since the format was first introduced. I was entranced by CinemaScope as a kid, and the big pictures at EXPO 67 also caught youthful eyes. A regular excursion every summer when we visit Winnipeg is the Portage Place IMAX theatre for an afternoon double feature. And I’m still hooked on IMAX even on a smaller screen, provided it’s no smaller than 50″.
Then came Andrew’s Big Amazon Adventure, just after New Year’s. I’d had an E-mail from an internet reader in Brazil wondering how to find out where to order Super Speedway, which got me web surfing, starting with Canadian sites like Chapters.ca and Indigo.ca; the latter had no DVDs, and the former a quite limited selection, all at $40+ prices. Next I waded into the jungle of American CD/DVD sites, ending up, naturally, at Amazon.com.

      There, typing in IMAX found me dozens of titles, and if I put one in my shopping basket, another few would be suggested as additional purchases, a sales tactic that actually made me buy one disc twice, first as part of The Big Picture Collection, and then on its own. No matter, the prices were good, between $20 and $30US, and TBPC was on sale at $69.95, so I made it my first purchase.

      However, there were a couple of other financial shoes to drop, the first being shipping by DHL, which added about $25, and the second US/Canadian currency exchange when my credit card bill came in. The overall price of the DVDs ultimately averaged around $40CA each, still cheaper than Chapters before shipping. I ended up buying 8 titles, others reviewed here purchased subsequently or before. In addition to TBPC, they were The Great Barrier Reef, The Greatest Places, and Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic. By the way, surprisingly, only VHS and S-VHS offerings are available at the official IMAX site, www.imax.com.

      Before talking about the individual films, let me offer a little background about the IMAX format. The large film frame allows for a picture on a huge screen that fully fills one’s field of vision, immersing the viewer in the experience. IMAX is distinguished from OmniMax in that its screen is curved, but not curved overhead into a semisphere, and image distortion is much less. The actual frame size is larger than 70mm, with very high resolution, running at twice the standard speed for reduced motion artifacts, such as 35mm’s backward turning wagon wheels in westerns.

      In a sense, the very scale of IMAX makes it something of a dinosaur. Cameras can hold only so much film, so they have to be reloaded frequently, and long single-shot sequences are impossible without editing. Robert Altman will never work in this format.

The Magic of Flight

      As well, the projectors are very large, as are the film reels. Most theatres have a viewing window on the projection booth, so readers who have looked in will know what I’m talking about. Most IMAX films are 40 minutes or less as a result, the large projectors seldom doubled up in theatres to allow seamless reel-to-reel transitions.

      Most of the IMAX films are also commissioned by institutions, and can be fairly described as being “edutainment”, the 35- to 40-minute duration being appropriate for class-length viewing, something that may well be occurring in schools with VHS and DVD releases. Other common characteristics, such as celebrity narrators, and sweeping, somewhat inspirational music scores are also a part of the institutional IMAX culture.

      And, of course, big sound goes with the big picture, and now that we have lots of large screen televisions out there, an IMAX DVD is almost the best way to show off a home theatre system, especially its Dolby Digital or DTS in 6 or more channels. IMAX mixes are more enveloping and exciting, with deeper, more powerful bass than heard from most movies.
This spectacular quality even applies when showing off a new digital set, though these DVDs don’t quite rival real HD video sources. It’s true, however, that front projection screens and 4:3 rear projection sets are better suited to the IMAX picture than 16:9 HD ones. But when shown through component outputs and video scalers and upsamplers, and converted to progressive scan, these big pictures can be very impressive indeed.

      I had the opportunity over several months (this project began in late December) to view the growing group of DVDs on three different video monitors: first it was our faithful and trusty Pioneer SD-P5193 rear projection TV (which has now found a new home and life), then, the impressive Seleco HT 200 front projector, which offered a 5-foot (diagonal) picture in my HT room, and finally, the new Pioneer PRO-710 HD 64″ 16:9 RPTV that has taken pride of place chez Marechal (if Jonathan Scull can be pretentious in French, so can I).

      The MacGillivray Freeman films all share certain stylistic traits: they all (except The Discoverers) have celebrity narrators, and two, Dolphins and The Living Sea, have celebrity scores by Sting. All go out of their way to place the IMAX cameras in places where they will be in motion underwater, on the ground, or in the air. All reprise the essential messages at the end, nicely summing up for student watchers, but possibly annoying adult viewers who’ve already gotten the message.

      It’s probably best to talk about Dolphins and The Living Sea together, both unified by Sting’s How Fragile We Are theme. Pierce Brosnan narrates the former with urbane bonhommie, while Meryl Streep offers a quirky child-like artifice for the latter film that becomes quite annoying after half an hour, especially when she reprises the point of it all, and repeats all the same breathy “Gee-whiz” mannerisms. Maybe she was trying to sound like an awed elementary school teacher. It’s also too loud.

      Visually, both films are wonderful, Dolphins shot in “the 15perf/70mm format”, according to the back of the DVD box, and The Living Sea “filmed using IMAX cameras”. Both Making Of documentaries were filmed in “High-Definition Video”, though the format was not identified. Dolphins has some nice computer graphics as transitions between the various geographic areas the film visits, and the sweeping aerial shots of the sea and its inhabitants are complemented by some very nice underwater photography.

      In both films the musical score underlines the natural settings, Sting’s Alien In New York serving as background as a diver makes friends with a dolphin, and Fragile’s guitar motif (da-da-da-da) popping up so often you get a little tired of it. MacGillivray Freeman actually hired guitar duo Strunz and Farrah to add guitar licks to Sting’s score.

      The overall sound of each is outstanding, especially in DTS, where there seemed to be a little more clarity, warmth, and dynamics. You do have to get used to having waves breaking around you, and the feeling of being underwater seems almost womb-like (for those with long memories), the surround gurgling rather comforting. Maybe that’s why I keep watching these two films.

Stormchasers

      Stormchasers and The Magic Of Flight also make a nice big-screen double feature. The former takes us into the eye of a hurricane, and shows us the real twister chasers, while the latter shows us how the US Navy Blue Angels train and fly, as well as offering some history of flight from the way birds do it, through the Wright brothers, to the present. In both cases there’s lots of fabulous aerial photography, with IMAX cameras attached to every conceivable flying machine, from gliders to stunt planes to aerobatic jets. A sequence on flying from and to aircraft carrier decks is an exciting illustration of how and why these pilots become and need to be “top guns”. Making the mounts for the brief shots on these F-18 jets and the Blue Angels’ planes consumed close to a year and a million dollars.

      In the case of Stormchasers, the Making Of doc is almost more exciting than the film itself, showing the realities of trying to predict and control extreme weather conditions. Stormchasers proper is narrated by a folksy Hal Holbrook, while an equally relaxed Tom Selleck talks us through The Magic Of Flight, keeping the G-forces under control. I found the highlight of Flight to be the delightful woman stunt pilot, Patty Wagstaff, who is glowingly in love with flying. The surround on both films is simply awesome, with powerful bass from both nature’s fury, and man’s jet power, and things constantly going on around the viewer. The Making Of segments tell us a lot about how to mount IMAX cameras on various kinds of planes, and detail the lengths the production team went to for each few seconds of aerial excitement. Some shots took weeks to set up and complete, while waiting for the perfect storm became a matter of months, especially finding the perfect twister.

      The Discoverers is a departure from the other “reality” films as it tires to recreate moments of discovery chronicled in a Pulitzer-prize winning book by Daniel J. Boorstin. Its set pieces range from Magellan’s discovery of the strait bearing his name, to finding cave drawings in Spain, to the Isaak Newton prismatic dissection of light. It also looks at the Northern Lights and the intelligence of dolphins as part of its fragmented focus (like Newton’s multicoloured light) in a way that I found somewhat unsatisfying. I kept thinking, “What is this film about?” Scattergun science may be somewhat educational, but this is the one MacGillivray Freeman film that went by me.

      I would have substituted Everest for it in the The Big Picture Collection, with its George Harrison score and unified theme. How much more focused can you be than trying to get to the top of the world’s highest mountain? The real stars of this film are not the casually glamorous climbers, male and female, but the Sherpas who carried the IMAX cameras to the summit, led by the son of Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary to the top for the first time.

      Talk about spectacular vistas! Watching Everest you almost forget about the sound, the mountain views filling your consciousness. This 40-minute experience could be said to be the quintessential IMAX film.

Andrew Marshall

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