Sunday, December 18, 2011

Musing Pictures: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Although there has been much talk of the aesthetic shifts necessitated by the new rise of 3D, I haven't heard too many people discuss another recent techno-aesthetic shift to the same extent, though it seems just as prevalent as 3D these days.

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is in theaters this week, but not all theaters. It's playing only on extra-large IMAX screens. (I must disclose here that I do own a very small handful of IMAX stock. It'll never make me rich, but if I sell it, I'd be able to afford a TV for my living room)

An IMAX movie is not simply a blown-up, larger-than-usual projection of a regular movie (and if it is, you've been robbed, and you should get your money back). Typically, films projected in IMAX are shot (at least in part) on IMAX cameras and film stock, a larger film stock that can pack much more detail in to a scene (which means that the projected image, despite its size, is very sharp and vivid). The IMAX screen's aspect ratio is different (1.43:1, as opposed to most movies we see, which are anywhere from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1) (see: for details). Of course, IMAX is quick to point out that the sound system in the theater is also quite robust.

These are not trivial differences, not from the audience's perspective, nor from the filmmaker's.

The most dramatic difference to a filmmaker between shooting IMAX and shooting for a regular movie screen must be the change in aspect ratio. 1.43:1 is a narrower, more box-like image than the 16x9 "widescreen" TVs that we're all so familiar with these days, and much narrower than most Hollywood cinema formats. This has a huge effect on how scenes are framed and blocked -- where are the characters or objects positioned in relation to the frame of the image. Very wide aspect ratios are celebrated for the way even a close-up can include a distant horizon -- a close-up can sometimes take up only half the screen, after all (pick almost any point in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" for examples). Square-ish images, like those seen on old TVs or even older movies (what was once called "Academy Ratio") tend to favor shots that include the entire figure -- where we can observe several people standing in conversation without feeling like we're very far away. Although the wider images seem more "cinematic" to us these days, there are plenty of fantastic movies from the first half of film's history that were shot in "Academy Ratio".

The IMAX aspect ratio, combined with the larger, finer film stock, are meant to provide viewers with an immersive visual experience. I'd be interested to speak with filmmakers who use the format about how it changes their approach to shooting their scenes. I also wonder how they approach the challenge of shooting a film for both IMAX and non-IMAX screens, where the aspect ratios are so different. The non-IMAX screens mush show cropped versions, where tops and bottoms of IMAX images are simply chopped off to re-frame scenes. This would take medium-shots and turn them in to close-ups, and it would take close-ups and turn them in to extreme-close-ups, changing the visual vocabulary of a scene, and perhaps affecting its impact dramatically.

The last scene of the film felt anemic and lacking in emotional resonance to me. It involved our central characters sitting around a table and saying the sorts of things that allow the narrative to resolve. I wonder how the scene plays out on non-IMAX screens, where it has been cropped to a wider aspect ratio. The close-ups are closer, which amplifies our characters' expressions and emotions. Does the scene falter because it's not an IMAX-appropriate scene? Because it isn't shot in an IMAX-appropriate way? Regardless, the visual "language" used on the screen felt wrong, somehow, disconnected from the content, which allowed the tone to slip and become trite and unconvincing.

That said, the film did maximize the IMAX format on a couple of occasions that really worked well. Both examples involved explosions, and utilized the extremely powerful sound systems that IMAX employs.

In one particular moment, famous now from the film's previews, the Kremlin explodes. The sequence is very, very short, and it begins with a deep, palpable vibration, a shock-wave, followed by the visuals of the building blowing up. Shock waves are neat, and they can provide for interesting visuals, but in this case, the shock wave is used not so much as a visual cue, but as an audio cue, and through that, as a physical, tangible, tactile cue. The rumble of the shock wave is so deep, it makes the entire theater shake. Timed with the shock-wave on the screen, the effect is mesmerizing, and true to the IMAX claims, totally immersive. The shock wave that we see on screen actually shakes the seat we're sitting in. It's not that it's a loud sound -- I didn't feel the need to plug my ears at all -- it's just deep and very, very powerful. There were a few other explosions in the film that achieved the same result using the same rumbling, physical sound. They helped to make tangible what the IMAX format is really capable of.

It's important to realize that IMAX is not simply a bigger screen with better speakers. It's a different exhibition format, and it demands, I think, a different cinematic approach. Filmmakers who make their films as usual, but slap them on IMAX screens to make a few extra bucks off the ticket premiums are cheating us. "Ghost Protocol" had its moments, and certainly seemed as though much of it was shot with the IMAX experience in mind, but there were some parts that didn't seem to fit. It's definitely worth seeing on an IMAX screen, but it doesn't feel like it's entirely an IMAX-worthy movie.


No comments: