The larger-than-life Olympics

UP FRONT

IMAX: The thrill of the Winter Olympics comes to life as never before on the Science Center's large-format screen

October 07, 1999|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN STAFF

Making any movie is hard enough, what with financing, temperamental actors, expensive equipment and location shooting to worry about.

But making the sort of film playing at the local cineplex is a walk in the park compared with making an IMAX film like "Olympic Glory," which opens tomorrow at the Maryland Science Center's IMAX Theater.

Just ask producer Frank Marshall. An impressive resume that includes "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "The Color Purple" hardly prepared him for the special challenges inherent in shooting film in 70mm -- twice the size of standard film stock -- to be shown on a screen 55 feet high. "From a filmmaking standpoint, this is a real challenge," Marshall says over the phone from his Los Angeles office. "Everything is different, right down to [the smallest detail]. If you think about it, for instance, there aren't a lot of screening rooms where you can preview your movie."

True enough. But thankfully, there is an IMAX theater here in Baltimore, meaning winter sports fans will be able to experience the 1998 Nagano Olympics like never before. Sure, you may have watched the events on television, maybe even on one of those big-screen TVs, with a screen roughly the size of your garage.

But you haven't seen skiing until you've seen a 15-foot-tall Picabo Street roaring down the slopes in search of a gold medal in the Super-G. You haven't fully appreciated the spectacle that is a ski jump until you've experienced it at the IMAX, shot from the point of view of a jumper. You haven't recoiled from the sight of a wipeout until you've watched in horror as Alpine skier Hermann Maier careens off course and tumbles 20 feet into the air.

The logistical problems Marshall and the filmmakers had to stare down were unrelentingly daunting. Cameras used to film in the IMAX format, for instance, weigh some 300 pounds -- which means they aren't exactly hand-held. Instead, they usually have to be moved along previously laid tracks, which were planned even before construction on the various Olympic venues had been completed. "We had to pick the camera positions a year in advance," Marshall says. "We had to decide what events we would cover and then decide where to put the cameras even before we had seen the locations."

Such circumstances forced Marshall and his partners to be as much prognosticators as filmmakers. "We went through the events beforehand and looked at them for two things," he says. "One, how visual they were, and two, what stories [of individual athletes] might come out of them."

Things didn't get any easier once the games started. For instance, the 70mm camera can hold about three minutes of film and takes 20 minutes to reload. (A smaller hand-held version, used for some of the point-of-view shots seen throughout "Olympic Glory," holds only 40 seconds of film.) "We could never shoot a whole figure-skating program, because they last three-and-a-half minutes. We had to know what each skater was going to do so we would know when to roll [film] to get what jumps. "And when you're at the ice hockey rink, you can't shoot the whole game, so you've got to pick and choose carefully what you're going to shoot there."

There's also little room for technical errors when shooting for such a large screen, Marshall notes. A hair on the lens or a frame slightly out of focus, errors that may slide by on a conventional-size film, could doom an IMAX sequence. "When you put the images that large, you just have to be perfect," he says. "If there's a small problem with the shot, it's magnified 100 times by the size."

IMAX is one case in which size certainly does matter. Even the noble gestures that turn sports into sportsmanship (and anyone who watches the NFL on a weekly basis knows the two don't always go together) are somehow made even nobler when played out on the huge screen.

You may have thought it classy as all heck when cross-country skiier Bjorn Daehlie, who'd just won another of his record-setting number of career medals, waited at the end of the 100-kilometer race so he could congratulate the final finisher -- Kenya's Philip Boit, that African nation's first-ever Winter Olympian. But seeing that same moment on the IMAX screen is guaranteed to cause a lump in the throat. "I think the Olympics, with the human interest, the human-spirit stories and the stories of these athletes, are a perfect subject for the larger format," says Marshall, "because you can have emotion in connection with what's on the screen."

The IMAX format, he adds, "puts you in a place you could not be, even if you went to the Olympics."

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