This week, I attended a special screening of The Wizard of Oz in its newly restored Imax 3D version, which will be shown in over 300 Imax theaters across North America for only one week starting September 20. Then, on October 1, it will be available in a limited-edition Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet box set. The restoration, 3D conversion, and re-release are all in celebration of the iconic movie's 75th anniversary.
The screening I saw was held at the newly renamed and renovated TCL (formerly Grauman's and then Mann's) Chinese Theatre—you know, the famous theater on Hollywood Boulevard with many movie stars' handprints, shoeprints, and signatures in concrete slabs that form the floor of the outdoor foyer. Interestingly, this theater hosted the original premier of The Wizard of Oz on August 15, 1939. (The 75th anniversary is calculated from when production began in 1938, not from the release date.) The venue now bears the name of a huge Chinese consumer-electronics manufacturer, which is somehow fitting, I suppose.
The TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, CA
Most recently, the theater underwent a conversion to Imax—in fact, it's the largest Imax auditorium in the world in terms of seating capacity (932 seats) with the third largest Imax screen in North America (94x46 feet). This didn't seem to affect the decor, which retains its 1930s Chinese kitsch look. However, the seats are now in a stadium configuration, which is much better for sightlines.
The conversion to 3D took about 16 months working with Prime Focus, one of the premiere 3D-conversion companies in the business. (Some of its other work includes The Great Gatsby, Total Recall, World War Z, and Men in Black 3.) Starting with an 8K scan of the original Technicolor camera negative, a depth map was created of each frame, followed by a long process to refine viewer distances and layer shapes and objects.
I suspect that many cinephiles will cry foul at Warner Bros. for converting such a classic film to 3D—in fact, this is the oldest movie ever to be so converted. It's sacrilege for purists, but I found it to be delightful. The 3D was quite effective without calling attention to itself—I especially liked the shots down the long hall to the Wizard's inner sanctum. Of course, there are many shots with painted backdrops, and these did look a bit flat, but not glaringly so. My only suggestion would have been to leave the sepia-tone scenes in Kansas in 2D and switch to 3D when Dorothy opens the door to see Oz for the first time. I thought this technique was very effective in Tron: Legacy.
In addition to the work done by Warner Bros. and Prime Focus, Imax applied its DMR (Digital Media Remastering) process to the image and sound. This involves proprietary algorithms and image specialists to remove visual noise and grain and "optimize the image (shot by shot) and soundtrack for The Imax Experience." Once again, most purists will howl at removing film grain, but it didn't bother me. The image was pristine and sharply detailed—so much so that you could easily see the Lion's individual hairs and the texture of the burlap on the Scarecrow's face. In fact, I was surprised that the prosthetics on the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion weren't more obvious.
The good news for purists is that Warner Bros. and Imax retained the movie's original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. And like all Imax 3D presentations, this one used twin 2K projectors, which makes for a brighter 3D image. The DCP (digital cinema package) has 4K data, but Imax uses 2K projectors for now because of their superior contrast. The company is working on next-generation laser projection that will feature dual 4K projectors at some point in the future.
My biggest disappointment was the sound, which was quite harsh and abrasive. Using modern audio-processing tools, I'm sure they could have tamed it without much damage.
Speaking of the audio, I measured an average level of 80.2 dBA with the highest 1-second maximum at 90.5 dBA. The level remained over 84.2 dBA 10 percent of the time, 80.2 dBA 33 percent of the time, and 77.9 dBA 50 percent of the time, with an OSHA dosage of only 2.9 percent. All in all, these are very civilized levels—but what do you expect from a 75-year-old movie?
The limited-edition box set includes five discs and many collectibles, such as a 52-page hardcover book and a ruby-slippers sparkle globe.
I really enjoyed the Imax 3D presentation of The Wizard of Oz, and I recommend it to all fans of this classic movie. As I mentioned at the outset, it will be in Imax theaters for only one week, starting September 20. After that, you can get the limited-edition box set and enjoy it at home. Either way, it's a joy to behold, even after 75 years.