“The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively—because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?”
– Frank Zappa
At this year’s CinemaCon, projector maker Barco has revealed “Escape,” a projection system that adds screens to the sides of an otherwise ordinary movie theater. Ted Schilowitz, formerly of Red Digital Cinema, demoed the system for me a few weeks ago. Here’s what he told Variety:
“The goal is to provide a bigger, more intense, more encompassing canvas,” Schilowitz says, “to extend the boundaries of cinema, to open the possibilities of what happens when you break out of the rectangle.”
If you can’t make it to CinemaCon, just check out the photo accompanying the Variety story. That’s exactly what it looks like in person. The side screens stick flat to the walls, and can show whatever the filmmaker chooses, from naturalistic periphery to juxtaposed imagery.
Dome on the Range
Growing up in Minnesota, one of my favorite treats was a trip to the Science Museum of Minnesota, with its awesome dinosaur fossils, interactive exhibits, and, most memorably, a combination planetarium and Omnimax theater.
Omnimax is a special kind of IMAX that uses a domed screen. You shoot on the same 65mm, 15-perf cameras as IMAX, but with a special off-center fisheye lens. A similar fisheye lens on the projector throws the image onto the 180-degree domed screen. And it’s a big dome—just walking into an Omnimax theater is an experience.
We’d gleefully soak up a rather dry documentary about the Grand Canyon, because each new scene would begin with a helicopter shot racing down the Colorado River. Below you, white water. To either side, craggy rock walls racing by. Above you, clear blue sky—and even a glimpse of the helicopter’s whirling rotor.
It was like flying.
An Omnimax movie is much more of a ride than a film. In fact, one of the most popular Omnimax theaters isn’t even billed as a theater—it’s the “Soarin’ Over California” ride at Disney’s California Adventure park. Adding suspended seats and scented wind to an Omnimax film feels as natural as popcorn in a traditional movie theater.
At its best, the experience of Barco’s Escape felt a little like Omnimax, but with some notable technical issues yet to be resolved. In an Omnimax theater, it takes you only a minute or two to get used to the distortion of the image if you’re not siting in the “sweet spot” near the center of the theater. In the prototype Escape setup I experienced, I never quite got used to the way peripheral images played on the side screens. Horizons kinked at the large seams, and I was often more distracted than immersed, no matter where I sat. There was no “sweet spot.”
Between Escape and all the excitement around the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, it seems clear that some in the cinema world feel the natural next step for movies is to break free from the confines of the rectangular screen. Maybe 3D flopped (for a third time) because objects leaping out of the frame wasn’t “immersive” enough. Maybe the problem is the frame itself.
Sauce for a Steak