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Larger Than Life.

IMAX camera technology brings you Michael Jordan like you've never seen him before --eight stories tall!

Fasten your theater seatbelts: you're about to take flight with legendary Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan. Liftoff starts at the foul line, 15 meters (49 feet) away from the basket. You both soar skyward. Then in mid-flight--Jordan freezes. You spin almost 360 degrees around him, marveling at his gravity-defying technique. Then your flight resumes, and you sail downward as Jordan slam-dunks the ball through the rim.

If catching a close-up with the ultimate basketball all-star seems like an impossible dream, check out the IMAX-theater movie Michael Jordan to the Max. Using cutting-edge visual effects and film 10 times the size normally used to shoot movies, IMAX-theater projects Michael Jordan onto cinema screens up to 25 m (82 ft) tall and 30.5 m (100 ft) wide--so big a whale can appear life-size! "The giant screen makes you feel like you're actually on the court with Michael," says co-director Don Kempf from Giant Screen Sports in Evanston, Ill. "It's the closest you can get to him without actually meeting him."

How did To the Max filmmakers capture Jordan's unrivaled athletic grace on the world's largest cinema screen? Turn the page to find out.


No, this isn't a golf course--it's a movie set used in the making of the IMAX film To the Max. Why is Jordan surrounded by green? "We wanted to make it look like he was slam-dunking in a real stadium, instead of in a studio," explains cameraman James Neihouse. "Green is the color found least in flesh tones, so it's easy to separate the background from the foreground."

Filmmakers use the green-screen technique to shoot an object or a performer against a green (or blue)-colored background, in postproduction (work done after film and audio elements are complete), computer graphic artists electronically remove the green color recorded by the camera and replace it with another image. A popular example of green-screen trickery: your local TV weather report. On your TV, it looks like a meteorologist (weather expert) points to a weather map, but in reality he or she indicates a blank green screen while weather maps are digitally superimposed.

In films, the green-screen technique is especially handy when a director needs to make an impossible stunt--like an actor dodging a barrage of bullets--look real. So when To the Max filmmakers wanted to show Jordan dunking in ultra-slow motion--with Matrix. style special effects--they draped the background set in green. After the shoot, film images are scanned into a computer, which eliminates everything green; then Jordan's image is superimposed onto an image of a basketball court. "If Jordan had a lot of green in his skin, or in his clothes, the computer would eliminate parts of his body," adds Neihouse.

Supersized Film

Standard movie film is 35 mm in length with four sprockets lining each edge.

VistaVision film is standard 35 mm film flipped horizontally, with eight sprockets on each side. It captures more detail than a regular frame.

IMAX film is 70 mm in length, with 15 sprockets on each edge--the largest film size created so far. It captures extraordinary detail but requires a giant screen for viewing.

The IMAX film frame (above) is 10 times the size of a conventional movie frame. So images onscreen reveal far more detail than normal movies. Filmmakers must scrutinize each shot, since even a tiny flaw, like an actor's pimple, will be magnified. Right, with all of its attachments, an IMAX camera can weigh up to 91 kilograms (200 pounds). Its enormous size made it difficult to maneuver around the courts in To the Max.


To create the 45-minute IMAX feature, Don Kempf and his crew spent more than 18 months filming courtside shots of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago, Ill. "We had great seats, but the IMAX camera can be a real beast to work with," admits cameraman James Neihouse. "With all of its attachments, it can weigh up to 200 pounds!"

Ten pounds of that weight comes from the film itself. Each reel contains 305 m (1,000 ft) of jumbo-size film. Each flame of most conventional movie film is 35 mm in length, with four sprocket holes lining each edge (sprockets help the film advance in a camera or projector). But IMAX film is 10 times larger, measuring 70 mm, with 15 sprockets at each edge (see left).

Why go XXL? Images captured on jumbo film can be enlarged to fill the enormous screen without losing clarity, explains Neihouse. With smaller film, Jordan would appear blurry when drastically enlarged. That's because film is made of tiny light-sensitive metallic silver crystals. When the camera captures Jordan on film, light from the bright parts of his image bombard the crystals and break them down into silver dots or grains. Chemicals used to develop the film burn Jordan's silver-dotted image onto a negative, an image in which light and dark spaces are reversed.

In the final stages of development, chemicals are used to reverse the image back to its original color and position, creating a positive print.

The challenge comes when the image is projected onto the giant screen. Light from a projector passes through a curved magnifying lens, enlarges the image on each frame of the film, and casts it onto the screen. But if the image is blown up too large--without increasing the number of silver grains that compose the image--it becomes distorted. Jumbo film prevents image distortion by capturing more information in the form of tiny silver grains. "It's like painting the screen with 10 cans of paint instead of one," says Neihouse.


One of the most stunning scenes in To the Max captures Jordan gliding through the air in super-slow motion. In mid-jump he freezes, as the camera appears to wheel around him.

How was the scene created? Kempf recruited the visual-effects team that masterminded slow-mo stunts in the recent flick The Matrix. The team specializes in a new camera-technique called "bullet-time," which relies on rapid-fire photography and computer animation. "The action is designed to look like it was filmed with one roving camera circling Jordan mid-leap," says visual-effects producer Diana Giorgiutti from Martex Entertainment in Alameda, Calif. "But in fact the action is pieced together using photographs from 90 stationary cameras and a computer."

Building the bullet-time rig (see photo on p. 17) and aligning cameras for the 15-second Jordan slam-dunk scene took four days. First, an artist drew a series of three-dimensional sketches based on previous film footage of Jordan flying through the air. Then graphic artists scanned sketches into a computer and used them to generate a map detailing Jordan's position during various stages of flight.

The computer calculates a series of equations that pinpoint the exact location and angle of each camera. Based on the math map, a technical crew arranged cameras in a 220-degree circle around the basket, where Jordan performs his magic.

The highest camera is mounted atop a 4.3 m (14 ft) steel pole to capture Jordan at the peak of his jump. The remaining cameras slope downward--with the last camera perched at .6 m (2 ft) to capture his landing. A cable snakes from the back of each camera to an electronic firing panel controlled by a photographer.

Again, using the computer-generated math map, technicians determined each camera's focal length--the distance from the camera lens to the image of a distant object (in this case, Jordan). Painstaking adjustments are then made to each camera's aperture, an opening that controls the amount of light entering the camera


Finally, the cameras are ready for Jordan. "The first thing he said when he walked onto the bullet-time set was, `Cooool,'" says Giorgiutti.

When Jordan leaps into action, an electronic signal triggered by the photographer commands each camera to fire fractions of a second after one other. The result: a sequence of 90 still photographs, aligned in a comic-booklike strip.

The photos are developed like normal pictures, scanned into a computer, and converted into a digital format, or series of numbers called binary code (numeric computer language). This allows Jordan's image to be synchronized from one pose to the next. "After the photos were digitized it took us another three months to prepare the shot for the IMAX screen," explains Giorgiutti. "It's a lot of work, but it's worth it!"

You can catch To the Max at over 57 IMAX theaters nationwide. To find a theater in your area, or to peruse cool images from the movie, check out:

Larger Than Life * Physical Science: Technology * Visual Effects * Film

Cross-Curricular Connection

English: Have students research an outstanding athlete in history and write a mini-biography on his or her life.

Did You Know?

* An IMAX movie Camera runs through 102.5 meters (336 feet) of large-frame film per minute. A standard movie camera uses only 27.5 m (90 ft) of film per minute.

* Characters never exit scenes in IMAX films because it draws the audience's attention to the side of the giant screen--away from the center of action,

* Michael Jordan left college to join the NBA, but returned to finish his bachelor's degree in the off-season.

National Science Education Standards

Grades 5-8: abilities of technological design * understanding about science and technology * science and technology in society * science as a human endeavor

Grades 9-12: abilities of technological design * understanding about science and technology


For more information on IMAX, visit the web site:

"IMAX: The 15/70 Filmmaker's Manual," by the IMAX Corporation, 1999

The Way Things Work, by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin, 1988)

Larger Than Life

1.g 2. c 3. e 4. b 5. a 6. h 7. f 8. d


1. Chicago Bulls 2. binary code 3. meteorologist 4. seventy

5. green 6. focal length 7. aperture 8. negative 9. bullet-time 10. post-production Bonus: eighteen

Larger Than Life: Michael Jordan Meets IMAX

Directions: Match the word(s) on the left column with the correct definition at the right.
-- 1. negative a. series of numbers
 called binary code
-- 2. bullet-time rig b. an opening that controls how
 much light enters a camera
-- 3. focal length c. a circular setup of 90
 stationary cameras
-- 4. aperture d. helps film advance in a camera
-- 5. digital format e. the distance from the camera
 lens to the image of a
 distant object
-- 6. green-screen technique f. a negative image reversed
 back to its original color
 and position
-- 7. positive print g. an image in which dark and light
 spaces are reversed
-- 8. sprocket h. special effect for film and TV

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Title Annotation:production methods of IMAX films
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 27, 2000
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