To get the maximum visual effect for his upcoming World War II movie "Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan relied on a $1-million, 54-pound Imax camera that was mounted to the front of a fighter plane and submerged off the coast of France.
"They've taken these cameras into space and into the oceans, so there's great precedent for what we're trying to do," said Nolan, who has filmed with Imax cameras since the 2008 movie "The Dark Knight." "There's a genuine difference in the way, as a filmmaker, you are inspired to tell the story."
"Dunkirk," filmed mostly in Imax, may be the most striking example yet of how the 50-year-old Canadian company is getting more involved in the making of the movies that play on its giant theater screens. Imax is recruiting Hollywood's biggest names — including Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson — to use its digital and film cameras on productions.
Four Hollywood releases this year were shot with Imax cameras, up from three last year and just one in 2015. Currently, less than 15% of the roughly 30 movies released annually in Imax theaters use the company's film and digital cameras, partly because they are more expensive than conventional equipment. But Imax is aggressively marketing its high-end cameras to filmmakers in an effort to boost that share.
The reason: Movies filmed with the company's cameras boast higher image quality, crispness and color, and take advantage of Imax auditoriums by filling the screens to the edge, directors and producers say.
To shoot the upcoming "Transformers: The Last Knight" in 3-D and Imax, Bay used newly built rigs to allow two Alexa Imax digital cameras to shoot simultaneously.
Marvel and Imax used the digital cameras to shoot the first two episodes of their "Inhumans" television series in Hawaii, which will screen in Imax theaters in September before they hit the small screen. Marvel is filming its upcoming movie "Avengers: Infinity War" completely in Imax. And director Johnson used Imax cameras for parts of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" due out in December.
Imax, which has offices in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York, is making the push at a time when fewer people are going to the multiplex. As television screens improve and TV quality enjoys a "golden age," films need to promise a bigger and better experience than audiences can get in their living rooms. Imax also faces growing competition from other large-format brands created by its own customers. AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment — the companies that house Imax auditoriums — have developed their own premium-brand theaters.
"In order for the consumer to leave the couch and go out to the movies, they need a reason. When you use the Imax cameras, it supercharges the Imax experience" said Imax Corp. Chief Executive Rich Gelfond.
Each camera costs Imax about $1 million to build. The segment that includes camera rentals totaled $19.4 million in 2016, or about 5% of Imax's annual sales. For Imax, the priority isn't to make money from camera rentals, but to make their movies a bigger draw for consumers.
"For Imax, the upside is pretty substantial," said Eric Wold, a media analyst for B. Riley who follows Imax. "It becomes another reason you have to see the film in Imax to get the full experience."
Imax hopes injecting itself into more movies will give it a larger share of ticket sales. Screenings in Imax tend to account for about 10% of the opening weekend box-office grosses for the major blockbusters. For movies with Imax "DNA," that percentage can be much higher.
Movies that incorporate Imax technology also spend more weeks in the company's theaters than the typical film does.
"When there's a filmmaker who actually designs their movie with Imax in mind, that's when we get really, really excited," said Greg Foster, Chief Executive of Imax Entertainment.
Beyond encouraging filmmakers to use the cameras, Imax is working with studios such as Disney and directors such as James Gunn of "Guardians of the Galaxy" to specially format their movies to make them fill more of the screen than the typical Imax screening, meaning no more black bars at the top and bottom.
While all movies for Imax have enhanced visuals and sound, the special formatting allows the movie to take advantage of the size of Imax screens.
In March, Gunn said "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," opening Friday, would feature taller shots for Imax theaters, giving audiences 26% more imagery than what viewers would otherwise see on the screen. Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" was formatted for the greater aspect ratios in its entirety, as is the upcoming "Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales."
Six Imax movies this year are set to use Imax special formatting without using the cameras, up from just one in 2016 — Marvel's "Doctor Strange."
Other specialty cinema companies are also working more closely with filmmakers. Belgian cinema firm Barco is teaming with studios and producers to make films that work with its immersive, three-screen theaters. "Need for Speed" director Scott Waugh has made the first feature film shot entirely for Barco Escape, called "6 Below." The format uses three screens to show different parts of the action.
"If you really want to deliver something special, you really have to work with the filmmakers," said Ted Schilowitz, chief creative officer for Barco Escape.
But Imax has been in the game for much longer. For decades, Imax cameras, first developed in 1976, were primarily used by documentary filmmakers and NASA astronauts for educational films screened in science centers and museums, long before they were used on Hollywood sets. The cameras went 2.5 miles below sea level to shoot the Titanic, and they've been used in space more than two dozen times. But that's not to say they're invincible. One was severely damaged during production of "The Dark Knight Rises" when the Catwoman stunt driver crashed into it with a motorcycle.
Imax cameras can present unique challenges for directors. Particular lenses are difficult to come by, and directors have gone to extremes to procure them, sometimes retrofitting existing parts. Nolan has been known to mail lenses from his personal collection to fellow directors to use on movies including "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."
Additionally, the film cameras, of which there are only 10 in the world, are much louder than traditional cameras, making it difficult to pick up live sound on set.
"The machinery inside is so much louder, but the image makes it all worth it," said Bryan Burk, who produced movies including "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" with Abrams. "I can't imagine doing one of these big Hollywood films without using Imax."