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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Screen saver

Today the British Film Institute regains control of the IMAX cinema it built at Waterloo twenty years ago, a decade after being forced by the government to cede management of the venue to the Odeon chain. That story is interesting enough, but does this belated sequel mean the potential of a unique resource will finally be realised? As with all movies, rewinding to the beginning is helpful...

As the turn of the Millennium approached, the BFI was making ambitious plans. There would be a tech partnership to establish a library of classic films and a ‘cinema centre’ in the West End, whilst on the South Bank the National Film Theatre and Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) were to be joined by a new structure containing the first IMAX cinema in London. Invented in Canada in the late 1960s, 15/70 IMAX cameras and projectors run industry-standard 70mm film horizontally rather than vertically – using a proprietary transport mechanism and fifteen registration perforations per frame – to produce a square, very high resolution image (roughly equivalent to 18K) that is ten times larger than that of 35mm. When shown in a venue with steeply-raked seating placed close to the screen, the audience’s field-of-view is almost completely filled with such a high quality image that the mind and body are tricked into thinking one really is ‘there’, sometimes triggering mild vertigo as a result.

Although camera weight and bulk limited the length of films to 40 minutes, meaning documentaries predominated, the format was growing in popularity and had already arrived in Britain at the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television in Bradford. The BFI felt that an IMAX cinema in SE1 would “reach out to new audiences, of all ages and backgrounds” and envisaged it housing “exhibition space for educational and cultural displays”. That short running time was not seen as a disadvantage; before or after a screening patrons would be encouraged to visit MOMI, which itself would be enlarged. Both stood ready to welcome people arriving at Waterloo via the planned extension of the Jubilee line on the London Underground.

The plan was highly controversial. The BFI received a significant portion of its funding from the government and the National Lottery, and many felt that the £15 million capital cost should not be covered by those same sources. Arts journalists were snobbish – Alexander Walker, film critic of the Evening Standard, called the decision “a matter of agonising regret” and IMAX “a popular entertainment [not] remotely part of its cultural remit”, whilst Richard Morrison of The Times slated the idea as “fairground frippery” and a “glitzy palace of bland thrills”. Even the site was problematic. The notorious ‘Bullring’ or sunken pedestrian interchange lay at the heart of Waterloo’s busy gyratory system, was not connected to the BFI's Waterloo Bridge site at ground level and had long been the haunt of the homeless.

Nevertheless, the BFI pressed ahead. Brian Avery, architect of MOMI, was commissioned to design the new IMAX cinema. An adherent of the High Tech movement, as seen in MOMI’s Meccano-like forms, Avery was also passionate about urban greening well before green walls and other sustainability measures become common in architecture. He initially conceived of the building as a drum wrapped with a spiral of flora, comparing the idea of a rotunda showing films to a zoetrope, an early precursor of moving pictures. “With a zoetrope, you spin it and see action frozen inside,” he said. “But, this is the opposite: you put a building in the centre of a roundabout.” With Anthony Hunt Associates as structural engineers, construction began with piling between existing obstructions to establish the building’s foundations.

Anti-vibration spring dampers were then installed to isolate the auditorium from the tube tunnels before a steel and concrete drum forty metres in diameter and seven storeys high was erected. For the exterior treatment Avery’s green dream was abandoned, leaving only some planting supported on wires which it was hoped would tumble into the sunken pedestrian spaces over time. Instead a glass skin was stood off from the structural envelope to act as an acoustic buffer and a home for large-scale illuminated artworks. Inside, 500 seats were arrayed in front of the largest cinema screen in Britain, 20 metres (67 feet) high and 26 metres (87 feet) wide, backed with speakers driven by a 14,000 Watt digital surround sound system.

When it opened in 1999 Avery’s design was well received as a piece of architecture, garnering several awards. A mix of IMAX and 35mm screenings was initially successful and the whole project contributed to the revival of the South Bank that had been intermittently underway for some years. But MOMI actually closed that same year as a result of poor attendance figures, whilst at the new venue the lack of native IMAX material, especially dramatic subjects, became a limitation and those 35mm prints looked grainy given the proximity of seat and screen. The criticism in the media continued. Disclosing this story to me years later, one BFI executive described the IMAX venture as “a millstone” for the organisation at the time. Several thousand miles away, however, possible solutions were appearing.

A small but growing number of Hollywood features began using 15/70 IMAX cameras to film certain scenes, including Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight. The wider shift to digital capture prompted the IMAX Corporation to introduce its own systems that could achieve a resolution of about 3K and be employed in conventional auditoria. The firm also invented Digital Media Remastering (DMR), a process that converted traditionally-shot films into a viewing experience closer in scale and resolution to 15/70 IMAX. The implications for Waterloo were obvious, and the BFI acted accordingly.

The IMAX screen was replaced and a digital projector installed, and runs of new films that employed 15/70 sequences or were DMR conversions of other titles proved highly successful, this last evoking the once-common practice of ‘70mm screenings at selected cinemas’. Box office takings rose and additional revenue was obtained by selling advertising space inside the glass skin, which had only seen limited use as London’s biggest easel. All seemed well. And yet this very success triggered a remarkable attack from an unexpected source.

Cinema chains, especially Odeon, now felt the IMAX operation challenged their own profitability in London, especially the BFI’s practice of joint first runs with West End cinemas. Attention was also drawn to the BFI’s charitable, tax-free status, two advantages not enjoyed by commercial exhibitors. The argument intensified, pulled in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and culminated in the BFI being ordered to contract out the running of the IMAX venue even though this gifted to private enterprise a revenue source whose start-up costs had been covered by the taxpayer (and then only because no business was felt likely to want to spend money on such a difficult site).

The BFI had little choice but to accept, although the organisation also realised it “would be mad to lose” such a unique asset, as that same executive put it. The result was a tender exercise that was concluded in favour of Odeon. The BFI was to retain “a substantial degree of control over the operations and management” of the IMAX, including “agreement on aspects, such as, the film exhibition programme and guidelines”, but from 2012 the building was in effect added to the Odeon’s screen count and run accordingly. This is why even BFI members have had to book their IMAX tickets through the Odeon website rather than the BFI’s, and why the cinema is full of Odeon branding rather than the BFI’s.

Or was. Starting today, then, the organisation that gave London its first IMAX venue once again has the freedom to use it as it sees fit. What might that mean for film fans?

Some ideas can be found in those original proposals. One was for the BFI’s National Film and Television Archive to “copy some of its extremely rare and early large-frame films on to the IMAX format” to make them “live again in a spectacular way”; another was for the BFI to actually make its own IMAX productions via a “special commissioning scheme” involving Samuelson Films. Neither suggestion came about, but luckily there are now decades’ worth of those 40-minute-long 15/70 documentaries available for hire, and this is an obvious starting point for a revived programme at Waterloo.

In fact daytime educational screenings of some of the newer examples – mostly in 3D and mostly computer-animated – are already open to the paying public, albeit unadvertised. Of more value are the 2D live action films made from the 1980s, which modern viewers have simply not had access to. That these films are factual rather than fictional will, I think, matter far less in an era where Man on Wire, Inside Job and Free Solo have garnered much acclaim, whilst the sheer range of subjects is also appealing. New screenings would showcase the original 15/70 format and create a real point of difference for the BFI to build a new ‘offer’ around.

The early portraits of the natural world – Grand Canyon, Antarctica, Blue Planet – are classic IMAX shorts and a good introduction to the more specialised productions. Marking NASA’s ‘return to space’ after the Challenger disaster, The Dream is Alive opens dramatically with a Space Shuttle on the pad seconds before launch, which event we then experience in a single shot. After 'Top Gun Tom' Cruise’s recent return, the real-life Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag air combat training documentary would surely go down a storm, whilst for Special Effects the blockade runner scene from the first Star Wars film was reshot in 15/70 IMAX using the original props and matte painting (the same film also includes the destruction of the White House from Independence Day, which was recorded in 15/70 IMAX as well as 35mm).

Unsurprisingly, film-makers with an established background in conventional formats have brought their own skills to IMAX. Julien Temple’s concert record Rolling Stones: At the Max plays over two reels and is still the longest IMAX film ever made; James Cameron’s dives on the Titanic are combined with careful use of 3D in his Ghosts of the Abyss, which acquires extra poignance when participants discover what else has been happening on September 11, 2001; and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wings of Courage, a historic biopic of pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was the first dramatic film shot in the format.

That connects nicely to those contemporary features with 15/70 IMAX sequences, which could certainly stand re-booking at Waterloo. It would also be instructive to see them contextualised within the development of large-screen film generally, which idea is helped by the fact that many late-Victorian 68mm films, which the BFI itself recently described as “the IMAX of their day”, are now available for screening. This would be especially appropriate since the IMAX Corporation no longer manufactures 15/70 equipment, meaning the BFI’s venue will remain the ultimate home for the ultimate in film technology.

Recognising this, installation of a digital IMAX GT Dual Laser projector at Waterloo must be a priority, to complement the existing suite of digital equipment and allow productions such as Denis Villeneuve’s Dune to be shown in its native 1:43 IMAX digital ratio. This is taller than can be achieved with a single laser projector, which cannot illuminate the top and bottom of the screen sufficiently, and brings the IMAX story up to date.

With active speculation over the use of such IMAX-certified digital cameras for ‘event’ films, multi-part films released over many months and – my own suggestion – IMAX episodes of television series that could be enjoyed independently from or in sequence with those on the small screen, the BFI’s decision more than two decades ago seems prescient indeed. It now has a golden opportunity to finally turn the Bullring into the magic roundabout.

The BFI IMAX will re-open its doors on Friday 22 July with Thor: Love and Thunder (and now appears on the BFI's own website...)

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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