Today’s the day that Skyfall, the latest and arguably greatest James Bond film in all of fifty years is released across the US… at least, on IMAX screens. The ‘standard screen’ release is happening tomorrow.
This isn’t the only way that Sony have bedded in with IMAX for this release, however. They’ve teamed up for some pretty wide-reaching promotional activities.
Let’s consider the materials IMAX have released online as part of their campaign to encourage Skyfall viewers to choose their premium-price and supposedly premium-experience format.
Here’s a comparison image that they sent out to various blogs and sites like Bleeding Cool.
Skyfall is being released to standard screens in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. This is a widely used format, but it’s not universal. Many films are released in the narrow 1.85:1 or 1.78:1, something like the 16:9 shape of your modern TV.
If Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins had wished, they could very easily have filmed and released Skyfall in that aspect ratio. But they didn’t.
What Mendes and Deakins did is compose the images for the 2.40:1 frame, knowing this is how the film would be seen in the vast majority of cinemas – ie. the non-IMAX ones – and then, eventually, on its DVD and Blu-ray release. This was the paradigm they were working to, and which they had chosen to best suit this material and the aesthetic they wanted.
But the Alexa camera that Deakins was using to shoot the film records a 16:9 image. This means that, while the filmmakers would be cutting some of this off in postproduction to reach their desired 2.40:1 ratio, the data would still exist. And so it is that Sony were able to set up an agreement whereby the film would screen in 1.9:1 at IMAX cinemas.
The image above is deceitful in that it’s a specially chosen image that makes the 2.40:1 sample look cramped and claustrophobic, and the 1.9:1 image look better composed. They’re even showing off the full-height 1.43:1 frame size of a film shot natively for IMAX – the same shape of your old TV set that you couldn’t wait to get rid of – though this isn’t relevant in Skyfall‘s case as the film is not being released in that format.
And, importantly, that is not an example from Skyfall, though it is being used to market the benefits of seeing Skyfall in IMAX format. They’ve cherry picked, if not designed, an image that seems to suit their case and not, as would be honest, used a sample from the film in question.
Of course, if you look at Roger Deakins’ actual Skyfall images in 2.40:1, they look great. Here are eight screen captures from one of the trailers.
The black area in each of those images is the approximate difference the 2.40:1 and a 16:9 image, very close to the IMAX 1.9:1 release. The images have been very clearly designed for the 2.40:1 frame. Do you think they’d benefit from somebody putting extraneous information in place of the black space there?
So, yes, in the IMAX version, the image has been opened up so you get a bit more Sky at the top and a bit more Fall at the bottom, but you’re not getting closer to the filmmaker’s best compositions. You’re getting further away.
Many of us remember the era of pan-and-scan VHS films all too well. TV sets were, until really rather recently, made with screens of a 4:3 aspect ratio. When a film shot in 1.78:1, 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 was released onto VHS, this would require the modification of the image to fit the frame.
Some of the time this would mean that information from the sides of the image were cut off. Other times it would mean that the “mattes were unpicked” and more, if not all, of the image from the original negative would be used to fill the screen. Oftentimes this resulted in booms appearing at the top of the shot – a very visible clue that something was up, so this kind of mistake was widely noted.
Other times the unpicking just resulted in a baggy, badly composed image. Extra headroom and extra space at the bottom of the frame change the image from how it was originally conceived into something else.
All you have to acknowledge is that films have close-ups, midshots and longshots of all kinds of sizes, designed by the filmmakers, and that this framing is chosen specifically to help convey the meaning or feeling of any given moment. Then you will realise that, actually, just opening up an image and changing this framing is making a significant alteration to the film and how accurately the intended tone, if not message, is being conveyed.
Film fans were up in arms about the alterations made to films on VHS. Geeks like me made sure we bought the widescreen releases of videos whenever possible. The black bars at the top and the bottom of the screen didn’t bother us, because we knew we were getting the film in its purest format. We were seeing the compositions that the filmmakers had worked hard on. The images we were seeing were the ones designed to underline and convey the story and emotions of the scenes.
Now, with IMAX, so many of the same nerds are rushing to embrace alterations that similarly distort the original image to fit a shape of screen it was not initially designed for. I dare say they’re impressed by the sheer size of the image, and a little drunk on that “scale” and so-called “immersiveness.” They’ve been aggressively marketed to, as well – not just in the case of Skyfall, but in general. During Comic-Con this summer I was driven off to an IMAX for drinks and canapes and schmoozing before being shown the premiere of Skyfall‘s IMAX trailer. Money was being spent on trying to win me over.
Below is a video that IMAX have made as part of this same, ongoing Skyfall campaign. They have Sam Mendes offer up a lot of platitudes for the form – but let’s not forget that every actor goes around singing the praises of every film they appear in, and that the web is filled with “featurettes” in which folk talk up every last aspect of the films they’re associated with. It’s more telling that every single clip they use here is in the wider, non-IMAX aspect ratio. They’re selling a cinematic experience with precisely composed, co-ordinated images that you won’t even get as part of that experience.
Skyfall was not fine tuned for IMAX, it was fine tuned for 2.40:1 screening. The 1.9:1 format is an afterthought, almost a compromise, something that the filmmakers had to keep in the back of their mind when deciding where to put the boom.
Size isn’t everything. I recommend you see Skyfall on a good, big 2.40:1 screen where you can appreciate Mendes and Deakins specific, effective use of the frame.