The new Imax laser-projection system at the TCL Chinese Theatres is a quantum leap in commercial-cinema image quality.
Movie projectors that use red, green, and blue lasers instead of white-light lamps have long been promised, but until very recently, they've only been demonstrated in prototype form. That's about to change—big time. This month, Imax installed its laser-projection system in the main auditorium at the TCL Chinese Theaters in Hollywood, CA, just in time for the world premiere of Furious 7, the latest in the Fast & Furious franchise. When I heard about it, I made a beeline to the theater, not because I wanted to see the movie—far from it, I'm no fan of movies that have nothing but explosions, gunfire, and roaring cars—but rather because I wanted to see the laser-illuminated projector in action.
Actually, as with previous digital installations, Imax uses two projectors, even for 2D movies such as Furious 7. Each one weights about 1600 pounds, and the laser engines are incorporated into the body of each projector with outboard liquid-cooling units. Each projector is tuned to produce a peak brightness of 22 foot-lamberts on the screen, which requires the lasers to run at only 30% of their capacity on the TCL Chinese Theatre's 90-foot-wide high-gain screen.
The Imax laser-illuminated projection system consists of two projectors and an outboard liquid-cooling system—no conventional venting required.
Speaking of the screen at the Chinese, it's currently a silver polarization-preserving material. With lamp-based digital projectors, Imax 3D uses linear polarization to isolate the left and right images, which requires such a screen. By contrast, the new laser-illumination system uses what's generically called 6P (6-primary), in which the image for the left eye uses slightly different wavelengths of red, green, and blue than the image for the right eye, and dichroic-filter glasses isolate each image accordingly. This is the same idea behind Dolby 3D, but Imax uses different wavelengths.
I must admit that I'm not thrilled by this change—I'm bothered by reflections between the inner surface of these glasses and the outer surface of my prescription glasses, a problem I haven't noticed with polarized 3D glasses. On the plus side, the current screen could be replaced with a white screen, since this type of 3D does not depend on polarization. A white screen would be better for 2D presentations, and the projectors output so much light, there's no need for a high-gain screen, though it would cost the theater some serious coin.
One of the biggest issues to overcome with laser-illuminated projectors is speckle, which looks like—well, speckling. It's especially visible in flat areas of color, particularly red and green. There are several ways to reduce the appearance of speckle in laser-illuminated images—Imax installs acoustical transducers behind the screen, which vibrate the screen and effectively eliminate visible speckle. I saw no speckle during the movie.
I won't go into the movie itself, except to say it's pretty silly—and loud! I measured an Leq (average level) of 97.4 dBC over the course of the movie plus trailers, an Lmax (1-second maximum RMS) value of 114 dBC, an L10 (the level above which the sound stayed 10% of the time) of 101 dBC, and an L50 (the level above which the sound stayed 50% of the time) of 91 dBC. Needless to say, I expected to need my earplugs, and I sure did!
Furious 7 is the latest in the successful franchise, starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, and the late Paul Walker.
As fans of the franchise know, one of the stars, Paul Walker, died during production—ironically, he was a passenger in a car that was speeding along at over 100 MPH—and he was digitally re-created as needed to complete the movie. I did not notice any evidence of that wizardry—it was entirely seamless. At the end, there's a touching tribute to Walker that fans will no doubt appreciate. (For more on how Paul Walker was digitally integrated into the movie, see this article at The Hollywood Reporter
As for the image, it was spectacular! The projectors are 4K, and the DCP (digital-cinema package) file was 4K as well. The blacks were much deeper than any other commercial-cinema presentation I can recall, and shadow detail was excellent. Likewise, the color was exceptional, with entirely natural skin tones and no hint that slightly different wavelengths of red, green, and blue were used to paint the picture—in fact, that might actually help to reduce speckle. The movie's aspect ratio is 2.35:1, while the screen is somewhat less than that, leading to unmasked letterbox bars that were far darker than any I'd seen previously in a commercial cinema.
Interestingly, Imax recently finished installing its new immersive-sound system in the TCL Chinese auditorium—it's 12.1 with four additional ceiling speakers and two additional side-height speaker arrays along with two 16-foot-tall subwoofer clusters. However, the Furious 7 DCP was 5.1 only, so the new speakers were not used for this presentation.
The TCL Chinese installation is the second Imax laser-illuminated projection system to be deployed for public viewing—the first is at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, Canada, where The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was the first movie to be shown on the system last December. Imax reports that more than 71 systems have been sold, and the next planned installations are at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, WA, and the Smithsonian's Airbus Imax theater in Virginia.
I was extremely impressed with the Imax laser-illuminated projection system—super-deep blacks, great shadow detail, and superb color. I can't wait to see other movies at the TCL Chinese Imax theater. It's a great time to be a movie-technology geek!
Check out this featurette about the Imax laser-illuminated projection system:
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