Hong Kong’s IMAX solitude [part 2]

After watching THE DARK KNIGHT RISES two times, both on IMAX, a couple of new points arose and some local observations on the state of IMAX in Hong Kong have to be added to my previous post.

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Why do we fall?

First I saw Batman at the brand new  IMAX @ Airport . While being caved in to tight seats and little leg room the film unfolded in its digital IMAX 2K glory. I will not go into detail about the film itself and possible interpretations to the story, there are plenty of reviews and blogs out there feasting in those issues already. I’m rather concerned about what Warner HK and UA Cinemas present the local audience  and to give you the skinny right away: It’s a disaster!

As I outlined in the previous post, all HK IMAX screens run on digital 2K and use exclusively DMR versions of selected films. Now, I have already seen severe and horrible DMR blow-ups from 35mm on HK IMAX screens. PRINCE OF PERSIA and PIRATES 4 were the worst to date. DARK KNIGHT RISES however, is supposed to be a real IMAX produced film with its 72mins of actual IMAX footage. While those supersized scenes and sequences are almost in presentable image quality the 35mm parts simply fall into the shadows of blurry out-of-focus-ness.  Even though the difference in image size between both formats is hardly visible, due to the severely cropped digital IMAX aspect ratio as shown below, you can always tell when an IMAX scenes is up. It’s like putting on your glasses and the world around you sharpens up.

Paa3n

Hold your joy! The IMAX scenes present a tremendous downside when it comes to camera movements. Welcome our new digital friend, the jittering. Most apparent in the wide aerial shots of Gotham’s skyline the entire image starts to deconstruct. One shot, when fighter jets fly across the city the IMAX images vanishes into a mash of colors and abstract forms. Buildings? What buildings? It’s all just digital information displaced. Digital jittering usually appears when shots have too much information to be rendered for the compression codec. Details get either lost or aliased. The result is a jumping image content instead of smooth camera tracks.

But why do we have to deal with such technical issues? Isn’t IMAX supposed to be the most advanced projection system in the world? Don’t we are willing to pay a huge ticket premium to be served with top-notch quality content? So why do I pay more than double a ticket price for Batman when the DVD will be technically more stable than anything shown at a HK IMAX theater?

Imaxtix

It gets worse, and yes, this one is for you UA Cinemas. My second viewing was at MegaBox as I wanted to compare how the digital projection deals with the different screen aspect ratios. Airport got the new widescreen standard while MegaBox is still in the original IMAX screen aspect ratio. As expected a large portion of the screen simply remained black at MegaBox. No, the image did not extend to fullscreen like it did 2008 at the DARK KNIGHT shows. What I didn’t expected was a tremendously dirty screen. the entire lower left corner had black stripes and full black areas. See UA, when I want to have a nostalgic cinema experience with a dirty screen I go to the Dynasty!

Then there is something very local to the image, Chinese subtitles. On regular theater screens they are  barely noticeable after getting used to. On IMAX they become 1m monsters. Double line subs occupy the entire lower third and during the first act of the film you’ll find them mostly spreading over actors faces.

When it comes to sound, both venues had flawless presentations. MegaBox however, had a far more profound impact on the bass and subwoofers which made the seats rumble and your guts vibrate during action scenes. On this aspect, it was a most immersive experience.

Shadows betray you

All this (except for the sound) is by far not what Christopher Nolan intended and how he wants us to experience his work. HK’s IMAX screens proof digital 2K is inadequate, simply false advertisement and a mere rip-off in ticket prices. But where should you go to see Nolan’s $250million spectacle in real 70mm IMAX projection? Wikipedia holds a list of all IMAX theaters around the globe with indication on what venue still projects in the 15 perf colossus. But be careful, basically every venue with the words “space”, “museum”, “dome” or “science” is most likely an older OMNIMAX screen which will not show feature films. If you have the needed change, catch a flight to Bangkok, Taipei or Seoul, cause that’s the closest real 70mm IMAX projection gets to HK.

I found another screen size comparison of different venues. This time it focuses on IMAX screens in Taiwan in comparison to the Sydney one. Just so you get an idea how IMAX defines its latest generation of giant micro screens within the region. China is seeing quite a lot of those small, newly setup theaters.

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Image legend (from top right, going down and to the left):

– Vieshow Big City Hsinchu & IMAX – 17.76m x 9.71m

 

– SunVieShow IMAX, Taipei – 21m x 11.3m

 

– Vie Show Cinemas Banciao Mega City IMAX – 21.4m x 11.45m

 

– Standard IMAX screen – 22m x 16.1m

 

– Miramar IMAX – 28.8 x 21.16m

 

– LG IMAX Sydney – 35.73m x 29.42m

 

– Kaohsiung VieShow IMAX – 15.9m x 8.2m

 

– Kaohsiung Dream Mall Cinemark Cine X house (not IMAX) – 20m x 8.2m

 

– Kaohsiung E-Da World Ambassador Cinema Sky House (not IMAX) – 20m x 8.5m

 

– Taipei Ambassador Theater 3DX House (not IMAX) – 22m x 12m

 

– Vie Show Cinemas Taichung Top City IMAX – 18.25m x 9m

 

– Vie Show Cinemas Taichung Tiger City IMAX – 16m x 9m

Ultimately, the big question is: Despite all the shortfalls of all 3 IMAX screens in HK why do people keep flocking in to DARK KNIGHT RISES shows? It’s fairly simple. Despite all cinema chains’ agenda to decrease th
e size of new screens audiences want it big. Why would you go to a theater like UA Shatin when your TV set at home is even bigger in size and the BluRay player offers even better quality? The local theater policy turned the mini-IMAX screens into giants amongst the dwarfs.

Let me close with the following advertisement I found in the Bangkok Post. The city’s Paragon cinema explains the advantage of its superior screening system. An ad that comes from the cinema itself, not Warner. I also like the “2D” indication, which by now seems to be a selling point to audiences, cause after all Batman 2D competes with Spiderman 4D here.

Imaxthai

Hong Kong’s IMAX solitude

Alright, 2 days to go till the Batman rises upon HK theater screens. There has been a considerable debate yesterday on UA Cinema’s Facebook page about a post where the company advertises the IMAX 70mm image size compare to a regular 35mm print. Just in time for the big scam, UA is now running 3 IMAX screens in this city. But why did this post create such a discussion? A discussion that goes on for quite a while now. Simply because of 2 points:

1) There is NO 70mm IMAX projection in HK, whatsoever!

2) IMAX tickets are far more expensive, double or even more.

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(source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150952491412756&set=a.102366122755.92559.46446727755&type=1 )

But let’s get some perspective here. I compiled a couple of links, videos and background intel to give you the full picture:

1) LieMAX

HK got 4 IMAX screens, 3 of them are operated by UA.

a) HK Space Museum (an old form of a half-sphere OMNIMAX projection system from which IMAX started off, some decades ago)

b) UA MegaBox IMAX

c) UA  iSquare IMAX

d) UA Airport IMAX (recently opened and formerly known as the 4D Extreme Screen)

Now, all of the UA screens run on digital IMAX which is basically two times 2K projectors, giving you a 2K image ultimately. Variations are only in screen size of each theater and seat numbers. This blog entry provides a good comparison chart between the screen sizes and how the HK screens are compared to the IMAX in Taipei and Sydney. It gets even more frightening when you compare it to the mega screens in India or the US.

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You will notice the aspect ratio change between the yellow and red on the left and the blue, violet and green on the right. MegaBox was the first IMAX screen in HK that was not a half-sphere and hence was erected under the “old” IMAX standards with a screen aspect ratio around 1.43:1 while the newer screens follow the recent standards and go for a more widescreen-like aspect ratio of about 1.89:1.

Those new IMAX standards came into action when the company realized it could convert every Hollywood blockbuster with a blow-up treatment into their IMAX formats. This procedure is called IMAX DMR and provides its devoted audience with a mostly blurry experience. Since those DMR versions are all sourced from standard cinemascope movies the new IMAX screen sizes go for a wider aspect ratio. However, this would mean a movie that was actually shot in IMAX 70mm format (yes, that would refer to DARK KNIGHT & DARK KNIGHT RISES) and hence got a 1.43:1 aspect ratio would need to be projected either cropped on top and bottom to fill the screen or simply shown much smaller with blank space on the sides. Either way, why would you want to go for an IMAX screening when you essentially just get projected a framing nightmare? Especially in a movie like the new Batman that swaps between aspect ratios throughout.

It gets worse for HK audiences. As mentioned above, all IMAX screens run on a digital 2K projection. There are no 70mm prints as UA advertises. A 70mm print would equal a digital resolution of about 11-12K when scanning the original negative. In fact it is said that IMAX might actually accumulate to a real resolution of about 18K, only there are no digital scanners that go beyond 11K yet. So what happened to the other 9K of finest viewing experience that you can only get at an IMAX theater??? Well, it’s simply lost within the nasty sinkholes of economic downsizing in favor for the “benefits” of digital projection.

Let’s put that into a perspective for non-IMAX screens. Most digital screens in HK also run on 2K, but 4K is catching up quite fast. The Grand, The One or MCL JP got already a couple of 4K screens. Industry standard is, a 35mm print would equal a digital resolution of around 4K. (More on why 4K is relevant in Sony’s legendary white paper.)

However, keep your joy restrained, don’t think you could opt out and go for a 4K screening of DARK KNIGHT RISES. Warner HK only distributes the film in crisp 2K all over the city. Resolution-wise, you’re left in the dark eventually.

(watch how real 70mm IMAX prints get loaded, you won’t be able to see this in HK anymore.)

2) Ticket price explosion

So when you thought the technical aspects of your DARK KNIGHT RISES viewing options in HK are a desperate format dessert than your brain will fry when you look at your ticket pricing options. At this moment the IMAX pricing via online pre-booking won’t come below HK$ 100. And keep in mind, this is NO 3D film, it’s simple 2D on a slightly bigger screen with a projection system that shows you half the resolution than other screens in HK.

Morning show

Regular show

UA MegaBox IMAX

HK$ 100

HK$ 120

UA  iSquare IMAX

HK$ 120

HK$ 140

UA Airport IMAX

HK$ 100

HK$ 120

 (source: http://www.uacinemas.com.hk)

You will notice iSquare is the most ruthless of them all. When we compare a regular 2K screening, also at UA iSquare cinema then we have the following price range:

morning show: HK$ 60

noon shows: HK$ 85

afternoon/night shows: HK$90

Thursday midnight special: HK$50

(source: http://www.uacinemas.com.hk)

Average ticket prices of HK$ 60-70 for a night show are becoming  a rare miracle. Mostly local films are getting granted this honor. The cinemas and distributors always find ways to charge a little more and a little more and a little more. When you recently bought a ticket for AVENGERS you will know the pain your wallet endures. Here, it was even worse. Some cinemas charged up to HK$ 5 more on a regular screening than the most expensive IMAX DMR ticket cost.

I found my old tickets from the DARK KNIGHT screenings back in 2008. Back then, there was only 1 IMAX screen (MegaBox) and it ran on a 70mm projection. The experience seeing the opening sequence blasting into my eyes with this full 70mm IMAX projection was breathtaking and no movie moment came close to this, ever!

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(left: DARK KNIGHT RISES ticket, originally HK$ 140 but down to HK$126 due to membership concessions. right: DARK KNIGHT tickets from 2008)

 Also, in 2008 there was not that much DMR conversion going on and the screen had to be filled somehow, which made UA re-run DARK KNIGHT in September after its original release. On top, UA applied a pricing policy that would make the tickets shrink from the original price of HK$ 85 to HK$ 50. I haven’t seen UA running this pricing model ever again since the spring of 2009 and I don’t think we’ll see it this summer with Batman either.

I also remembered back in December 2009 when the new iSquare IMAX opened with AVATAR the most expensive ticket in town came in at HK$ 140 and that film was 3D!

Some more readings:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/movies/how-the-dark-knight-rises-makes-use-of-imax.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IMAX

venues with 70mm projection of DARK KNIGHT RISES: http://www.thedarkknightrises.com/imax.html