AVENGERS: ENDGAME in IMAX: What does that mean?
As the marketing machine turns the dial to 11 this month for Avengers: Endgame, there’s one part of the campaign that might be difficult to parse amidst the noise: IMAX. “See it in IMAX!” “See it the way it was meant to be seen!” “See it on the biggest screen possible!”
The variations go on and on — even though they don’t really say much. It’s all a vague sense of “big.” Avengers: Endgame, however, is a film that offers something very specific in the format.
Both Marvel and IMAX have pointed out that the movie was “shot on IMAX cameras,” but they are not the same ones that Christopher Nolan uses — those being IMAX 70mm film cameras. (Other filmmakers like Damien Chazelle, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird have used these on First Man, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, respectively.) What the Russo brothers used are IMAX digital cameras, specifically IMAX specialized versions of the Arri Alexa 65. (It’s odd, as there isn’t much noticeable difference between the Alexa IMAX and the regular Alexa 65, which can also accomplish many of the technical details below.) These are the same cameras that they employed during the airport fight in Captain America: Civil War and for the entirety of Avengers: Infinity War.
Films that use IMAX 70mm cameras can be projected — in theaters with either IMAX film projectors or IMAX Laser projectors, and screen sizes big enough — in an aspect ratio of 1.43:1, which offers 40% more visuals than the usual 2.39:1. So, for a film that uses these cameras, even if the projection is digital, as long as it is in IMAX Laser and on a true IMAX screen (those that are roughly 70 ft by 50 ft or larger), the full 1.43:1 can be projected.
Films that use IMAX digital cameras cannot reach that size. In IMAX theaters, those films can be projected in a 1.9:1 aspect ratio, which offers 26% more image. Since all of Avengers: Endgame was filmed on those cameras, the entire film will project in 1.9:1. For any film that only partially uses those cameras, like Captain America: Civil War, the rest will project in, likely, 2.39:1.
IMAX 70mm cameras capture close to the best possible quality (if not the best) out there. That quality is then translated in full through an IMAX film projector. Through the IMAX Laser system, the film is downgraded to dual 4K projection, though the perceptual quality — the level of quality the eye is capable of perceiving — is still rather high. A film’s IMAX 70mm-shot sequences would also likely be scanned at more than 4K — First Man’s were scanned at 6K — meaning that a lot of the native quality is retained. And capture quality is often more important than projection quality. (The other way around, such as a 2K film projected in 4K, and it doesn’t really mean anything or may even look not that great.)
IMAX digital cameras do not come close to IMAX 70mm. One can’t properly compare digital to film, but some experts have said that IMAX 70mm is roughly equivalent to as high as 18K, but possibly closer to 12K. (However, that comparison takes an interesting turn when considering that most people see IMAX 70mm-shot films in IMAX digital.) The Alexa IMAX can record in about 6K, which is good news as, in IMAX Laser dual 4K projection, Avengers: Endgame will look particularly great.
The film will also likely play well in IMAX Xenon. There are a few differences between Laser and Xenon, the most significant being that most IMAX theaters out there, at the moment, have IMAX Xenon and not IMAX Laser. (And plenty of true IMAX screens don’t have Laser systems.) The company is currently working on installing over 100 Laser systems, some of them on screens only capable of 1.9:1, but that won’t be completed for a few years. IMAX Xenon can only project in 2K and can only expand to 1.9:1, so any film shot on IMAX 70mm cameras will not reach the full 1.43:1.
Despite the 2K limit, though, capture quality is what’s more important. Mission: Impossible — Fallout filmed its IMAX sequences on Red cameras, which can capture at 8K. And in IMAX Xenon, the filmed still looked phenomenal. But much of Mission: Impossible — Fallout was done in-camera, while Avengers: Endgame will be visual effects-heavy, and visual effects don’t translate at the same perceptual quality as in-camera visuals. Still, however, the practical images in the film will look great, and the visual effects will potentially look as good as they can.
What is not that flexible between Xenon and Laser, however, is color and brightness, as projection can be integral in maintaining aspects like that. Laser is said to be 60% brighter than Xenon, and has much deeper blacks, for example.
So what does this all mean you should do? Well, you should see Avengers: Endgame however you’d like — in standard digital, IMAX Xenon, IMAX Laser, RealD 3D, Dolby or on your TV/computer in about a year. This was simply to break down what “in IMAX” will mean for Avengers: Endgame. Plenty of these other formats offer better things. Standard digital is much, much cheaper, and less overwhelming to the senses. And Dolby, depending on personal taste, may offer more immersive sound and/or sharper images and more eye-popping colors. But if you are interested in seeing the film in IMAX, seek out a theater with Laser projection, not only because it’s, to put it simply, better than Xenon, but also because the ticket likely won’t cost more than Xenon.
It’s key to note, however, that how a filmmaker uses IMAX is more important than the simple fact that they’re using it. If used poorly, the film will come across as bigger just for the sake of being bigger. If used effectively, the film might immerse you even deeper into both the emotions and the scope of the journey.
And the Russos have a decent track record with this. IMAX mainly has an impact on the scope of the airport sequence in Captain America: Civil War, and doesn’t really draw us deeper into the emotions of the conflict within the Avengers. Avengers: Infinity War is a whole other beast, though. Not only does the aspect ratio enhance the visceral impact of the massive Thanos, but it also intensifies the film’s emotional envelopment, as Infinity War is structured and styled as an epic.
Avengers: Endgame will likely blend the adventure storytelling of the first Avengers with the epic edge of Infinity War. And considering that it’ll likely feature the sign off, or even death of, major characters, wrapping up their arcs of over a decade, it’s very possible that the film could work just as well in the format.