News that IMAX is backing away from stereo 3D, citing a lack of audience interest and set against a backdrop of weak earnings, comes as little surprise. It is a lot of buck for some fairly disappointing bang.
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is an unusual film in many ways, deliberately written to include a minimum of dialogue and eschewing the conventional concerns of characterisation and parallel plotlines in favour of a brutally straightforward depiction of events. Without wanting to publish a spoiler regarding a film that's currently on general release, there is, of course, craft behind the way it's been written and edited, and while the film has received a few negative reviews because of all this unconventionality, the overwhelming response – both critical and financial – has been highly positive.
That's good news for IMAX, being as the production is one of the first shot overwhelmingly on their cameras in the 15-perforation 70mm format for quite some time. The stage is set for success, but one technical point that's easy to overlook in the excitement is that Dunkirk is in 2D.
We discussed the sheer enormity of the stereoscopic 15/70 projection system at London's Science Museum, mainly in the context of the stereoscopic production A Beautiful Planet. IMAX has never been about moderation or restraint and there's a certain joy in seeing a pair of two-ton projectors sitting side by side behind air-cooled polarisers. 3D and IMAX are natural bedfellows. Now, though, it seems that the company is, at least, drawing back somewhat from stereoscopic presentation, citing a lack of audience interest. Whether this announcement was kept back for the release of Dunkirk, we can only guess, but it's certainly something of a coincidence if not.
IMAX's CEO Greg Foster has also been quoted as saying that the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 will be released in 2D in IMAX-branded venues, although the company's site still notes that the film will be “digitally re-mastered into the image and sound quality of An IMAX 3D Experience.” Either way, it's no secret that stereo 3D in general has always suffered a very mixed reception, and the opinion of widely-admired filmmakers like Christopher Nolan seems to matter to audiences. Nolan's traditionalism, at least in the context of Dunkirk, seems to appeal to people in much the same way as microbrewed beer or oil paints, which are all liked despite the fact that cheaper, easier alternatives exist.
That, though, is an entirely subjective concern. If there's a technical concern, it's that the 15-perforation, 70mm frame of traditional film-based IMAX is arguably not that well suited to stereoscopic presentation in any case. Film has registration issues, even enormous film with pin-registered projectors, and there can be noticeable problems with registration errors between the two eyes even on 15/70 systems. The dual 4K laser projection systems which represent the current state of the art are possibly about as capable as 15/70 in terms of resolution and brightness and have no such registration issues. As such, it may be that IMAX's best-loved technology is actually the least-suited for 3D movies, and their laser systems are more capable of making stereoscopy look its best.
Still, the number of 15/70 auditoria in the world is small, and Dunkirk is as often shown in conventional five-perf 70mm. The subset of venues which are equipped for stereoscopic presentation in 15/70. is smaller still. It would be no great risk to assume that those people who'd most like to see 15/70 projection survive (which is effectively everyone, at some level) are also those who'd be least bothered about the departure of stereoscopy.