IMAX Enhanced Home Theater Certification: What We Know So Far

A joint announcement by IMAX and DTS at last September’s CEDIA Expo stirred up a bit of a hurricane, or at least a tropical depression. The two companies are launching a new home theater certification program called “IMAX Enhanced.” In order to use that designation, an audio or video product must pass a battery of tests conducted by a committee of Hollywood tech specialists along with IMAX and DTS engineers. The program will cover both software (streamed and packaged) and hardware. IMAX Enhanced software releases will remain as close as possible to the aspect ratios used in IMAX theatrical presentations.

The history of theatrical IMAX is complicated. The first IMAX theaters used 70mm film with an aspect ratio of about 1.43:1, together with huge screens in specialized venues, to present a variety of museum videos and documentaries rather than traditional commercial movies.

But the need for expansion prevailed, and most of today’s IMAX theaters (critics sometimes call them LieMAX) present theatrical films, nearly always with digital projection, on screens larger than in normal theaters but significantly smaller than in the original IMAX installations. A prime example of both the positive and negative of this is the TCL (originally the Grauman) Chinese theater in Hollywood (shown in the photo above). It’s a spectacular venue, remodeled a few years ago to accommodate stadium seating, and offers IMAX theatrical films on a 90-foot wide screen (the positive) at an aspect ratio of 2.00:1 (the negative).

Most theatrical IMAX films today employ a mix of higher aspect ratios (closer to the 1.85:1 of your flat screen HDTV than to 1.43:1) and combine true IMAX-shot footage with standard widescreen. The aspect ratio shifts from one to the other and back during the course of the movie, sometimes for no obvious story- or action-related reason.

Some but not all current home video releases of films shot this way retain these aspect ratio shifts, but not all. Dunkirk, for example, does, while Avengers: Infinity War is cropped to 2.39:1 throughout. IMAX Enhanced appears to be insistent on releasing IMAX home content with all such aspect shifting intact. But scenes shot with 70mm IMAX cameras will have an aspect ratio 1.43:1. If displayed on your screen uncropped, such images would have black pillarbox bars on the left and right sides! A home IMAX Enhanced release will therefore most likely crop that portion of the film to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of most home screens, far from the original IMAX footage (to be fair, the latter might well have been shot “safetied” with an eye to a presentation closer to 1.85:1)

But nothing as yet has been clearly stated about plans for IMAX Enhanced releases to include films shot in conventional widescreen with conventional cameras. That will likely be needed to fill the IMAX Enhanced software pipeline, as the population of films shot in whole or in part with IMAX cameras is small. IMAX cameras are too bulky and impractical for most commercial productions.

So what will be special about IMAX Enhanced releases of films shot at roughly 2.35:1 apart, most likely, from higher sales prices (don’t bet against that!). Yes, there’s a lot of blather in the early IMAX Enhanced press releases about, “brighter colors, improved image sharpness and clarity, and a re-mastered soundtrack…the sharpest 4K HDR images and powerful sound as the filmmaker intended…[making] available a steady stream of enhanced versions of blockbuster movies and additional programing.”

But what, exactly, does all of that mean. My first experience with an early presentation of a conventional film upconverted to IMAX, on a full-sized IMAX theater in LA, was a monumental disappointment. The image was big but riddled with edge enhancement, likely added to avoid a visible lack of resolution from the huge blow-up required.

That’s no longer an issue with average-sized IMAX screens, and I certainly wouldn’t expect it to be a concern for home-sized screens. But video transfers have run into problems in the past with edge enhancement and/or removal of noise (and fine detail!) in pursuit of a “better” picture. Hopefully the transfer techs who produce these theoretically “superior” IMAX Enhanced transfers (giving us the opportunity to buy our favorite movies all over again!) won’t make that mistake.

Another risk is that less than perfectionist home viewers, seeing the IMAX Enhanced image shift between aspect ratios, will be reminded that while they’ve learned to live with those widescreen letterbox black bars they’ve never really liked them. The “why can’t the picture fit my screen” meme might be given a new life. Pan and Scan redux, anyone?

Lastly, IMAX Enhanced, with its shifting picture sizes, will not be a boon for those of us (admittedly a small sliver of videophiles) favoring 2.35:1 screens for their ability to present widescreen films without the black (more often gray) bars constantly calling attention to themselves. An IMAX image at 1.85:1 would sit in the middle of such a screen, producing a smaller image with black bars on the sides. When that image changes to 2.35:1, in a multi aspect-ratio movie, it would then have black bars on all sides, using only a fraction of the full screen!

IMAX Enhanced software will, in theory at least, also require some specialization in the video products offered to the public in order to fully realize its claimed benefits. How this will effect both video and audio products on the playback end is unclear, but the source material should at least be compatible with existing hardware. So far the only companies on board the home IMAX train are Sony, Paramount, Denon, and Marantz, but there may soon be more.

There’s a lot more waiting to be said on this subject, and I’ll look at the audio side at a later date when the currently fuzzy state of information becomes more focused. Will IMAX Enhanced prove to be a real plus, or simply part of the passing parade of new formats that ultimately either failed (the jury is still out on high frame rate movies) or faded into the background noise? THX is still with us, but is rarely mentioned in today’s product promotions. And 3D may soon be gone, at least until it’s resurrected yet again in 2050.