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LFCA Continues To Debate

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: William Kallay
Issue 66 - November 2001

In yet another lively Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA) conference, members of the organization continued to debate the merits of institutional and commercial large format cinema. Held in the Los Angeles area May 16-18, large format directors, producers, distributors and other delegates also debated the industry's future in regard to digital cinematography. Members come from a variety of sectors within large format, including IMAX and Iwerks short and feature films, as well as ride attractions and special venue.

The past three years have offered the industry a challenge in keeping established interests in museum and science centers content with the future of large format. But commercial content continues to temp some studios and directors to utilize the bigger frame. There have been high points with the releases of "Everest" and "Fantasia 2000". But there hasn't been a sizable moneymaker or major commercial like them since then. Of course, the re-purposed version of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" for large format might change that. But until it is released on January 1, 2002, the large format industry continues to ponder its future.

During a panel on large format's future, Christopher Palmer of the National Wildlife Federation made it clear, in his belief, that the industry should stop making "commercial" fare, and concentrate on what he felt was the core and lifeblood of large format; documentaries. He said, essentially, that the industry was losing its focus. Director Ben Stassen ("Haunted Castle"), stood up, took the microphone and issued a curt response. He defended the continued foray into more commercial fare. He believed that the industry should take risks to try to bring in more audiences into theatres.

The industry has been in a quandary as of late. Beginning early last year, a number of commercial exhibitors filed for bankruptcy, including Edwards Cinemas of Newport Beach, California. Many cinemas have closed, even brand-new ones. In a building spree, many exhibitors built lavish multi-screen theatres, often containing 20-30 screens under one roof. Some of these new complexes included a large format auditorium. 

Outside of "Fantasia 2000", a number of both commercial and documentary large format films have not done well at the box office. At night, especially on weekends where attendance is at its peak, the large format auditoriums have remained fairly empty. As a result, many exhibitors have used the auditoriums to show 35mm prints on the massive screens. Box office has increased, much to the chagrin of those in the industry who feel the screens should not be used for 35mm movies. It can be reasoned that in going this route, the reputation of IMAX and large format could be damaged. 35mm prints don't fill the enormous screens. There has also been an outcry from others who think the image quality isn't good. Thus, studios and distributors, who will not blow-up special 35mm-70mm prints for oversized 60-80 screens in existing complexes, have spent money on "specially enhanced 35mm" prints for the large format screens. The paradox is still a visually poor projected picture and increased box office attendance.

The industry is also contemplating the use of 24p High Definition cinematography in large format films. One of the issues has been the bulk of IMAX and Iwerks camera systems, especially in hard-to-reach places, or where a shot must be done immediately. Use of the smaller and easy-to-use 24p cameras by Sony enables filmmakers the option of shooting "on the fly." Another factor is the cost of shooting in 15/70, which is very expensive. In an industry with small budgets and non-blockbuster box office, the new format is starting to look appealing to filmmakers. Some are looking into using the high-def format for their "large format" projects, including Madalay Entertainment and director James Cameron.

There were camera test demonstrations at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and at Universal Studios City Walk, on their IMAX screen. The results? Scenes shot on 24p and transferred to 35mm yielded good results. Other scenes shot on 24p, then transferred to 5-perf 70mm, looked better than the 35mm version. Test footage, in an A/B comparison between large format and 24p, looked decent if the shots were cut quickly in post-production. Otherwise, shooting a "large format" feature this way would be questionable. The image quality is surprisingly good in certain shots, but not as good as traditional 15/70 cinematography. 

There were a number of films shown during the conference. They included "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure", "Journey Into Amazing Caves", "Ski To The Max" and "All Access".

The annual Kodak Vision Award was given to distinguished cinematographer, Reed Smoot. He has shot a number of large format "features" and documentaries, as well as films in television and film. He recently shot "Shackleton's Arctic Adventure" and his other projects include "Journey of Man" (3D-2000), "Mysteries of Egypt" (2000) and the upcoming "The Human Body" (as Co-DP).

The Keynote Address Speaker this year was acclaimed producer/director, Don Hahn ("The Lion King", "Atlantis: The Lost Empire"). At the time of the conference, he had just completed the final touches on the large format version of "Beauty and the Beast", originally released in 1991. He's been associated with a few 70mm versions of the films on which he's worked, including the Super Technirama 70 film, "The Black Cauldron" (1985). His other film credits include "Beauty and the Beast", "The Lion King" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996), which were blown up to 70mm. "Beauty and the Beast" had a few 70mm prints struck during its initial release in 1991, and "The Lion King" and "Hunchback" were blown-up for special premieres. He was also the sequence director on "Fantasia 2000" in IMAX.

In his address, Hahn spoke of his impressions of big screen presentations from his youth. This was his impression of seeing the 1967 film adaptation of "Camelot" at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome. 

"It was huge. Everything about it was huge. The popcorn was huge. The cokes were huge, and the screen (was huge). Vanessa Redgrave's eyes looked like sperm whales. And I remember vividly there was an audible gasp from the audience when Frank Ramiro came out dressed as Sir Lancelot. He had a cod piece the size of a Buick. These are the things that shaped my life," said Hahn. The audience roared with laughter.

Even though some members of the LFCA expressed concern and debate over the future of large format filmmaking & exhibition, it was Don Hahn who expressed optimism about the future.

"I'm the guy that showed my last film, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", in front of 60,000 people at the Superdome in New Orleans. I'm not shy about the size of my screen. And the "Fantasia 2000" experience was an education. I feel that I can confidently say I know very little about the large format experience, except we are learning everyday and it's a very dynamic, diverse, burgeoning, growing art form, and I think that's what makes it exciting. That's why it's exciting for me to come to talk to you today, because I think it's not only an art form in its infancy; an art form that has and will attract some really exciting filmmakers to express themselves in the large format."

Quotes from Don Hahn were taken from his keynote address. The complete address is available at the LFCA's website at lfca.org.

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