Shedd lives life IMAX-size Article from Daily Princetonian, Princeton University 1998
By HUGO BERKELEY
Amongst the star-studded roll-call of academics that densely populate Princeton, the arrival of a new name often makes little impression. The presence of Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker and IMAX specialist Ben Shedd this year has gone virtually unnoticed by the University community. Shedd is a Visiting Fellow at the Council of the Humanities and is currently studying the theoretical discrepancies between regular and large format cinema.
Usually locked away in the bowels of Firestone Library, Ben Shedd emerges today to present his research and discuss the implications of IMAX – a frameless cinematic medium so all-encompassing it leaves no imagined, off-screen space.
Daily Princetonian: What has been the nature of your interest in IMAX?
Ben Shedd: In parallel with my production work over the past 12 years, I’ve been trying to understand this interesting format that I’ve found myself working with – IMAX, large format, giant screens. I want to know whether the language of cinema that I learned at film school and from 15 years of working in film continues to function once the screen gets so big that there is actually no off-screen space any more.
When I was teaching at USC’s film school in Los Angeles, I lectured on the power of the frame, essentially how you only have to put what’s inside the picture frame on the screen.
In large part, the success of Star Wars, ET and Titanic depends on the imagination of the viewer to create what is outside of the screen. And these films are only showing you a portion of the action that occurs. They make an assumption that in the black, negative space around the screen, the viewer writes in the rest of the world of the film.
When I started making IMAX films – where the screen is 80 feet wide and five stories high or domed so that it extends around the edge of you head – I discovered that the screen completely fills the viewer’s peripheral vision. So, the question is, what happens to composition and design?
DP: Did you find an answer to the question?
BS: I started with all the ideas that I had learned and tried and used when I was making other mo-vies, and came to what I call my 180 Degree Rule. If I did the opposite of what I knew, I came up with an answer.
DP: Can you give explain further what you mean by that?
BS: Well, for large format cinema, the action is actually in the theater space and is not up on the screen. When making a film, this needs to be consistently remembered. For me, it means that everything must occur on the audience’s side of the screen.
For example, if I have a large close-up of something, the audience is shrunk. If I have a panning shot, the effect is the inverse – the audience is swung around. And the reverse angle shot does not really exist in IMAX.
Part of the filming puzzle is how to make this consistent all the way through. The IMAX theater must be turned into a space and time machine. When the lights go down, we are taken on an adventure and everything that happens inside of the theater should be consistent.
DP: So, you are suggesting that IMAX is an entirely different medium from the cinema we are accustomed to watching.
BS: Yes, but it is more complicated. The tools with which one makes a large format film are similar to those of 35mm film, but the effects are different. For example, at 24 frames per second [the speed at which IMAX and 35mm film is projected], there is persistence of vision.
However, the bigger the screen gets and the more people move from one frame to another, the more likely it is you might notice their breakup. Strobing images would show up all the time because you can never see what you’ve filmed until it is on the big screen.
It is one of those design issues that must be incorporated from the very beginning of the project. When you are shooting an IMAX movie in the field, you almost feel like you’re falling asleep as you pan the camera. And then you see it on the huge screen and it looks like a majestic swoop.
DP: Is IMAX just 70mm film? What is the technical difference between IMAX and 35mm film?
BS: There have been a lot of 70 mm films. What the IMAX group did is they took the film and turned it on its side, so that it is 3 frames wide and almost a 2.25 x 2.25 square. That’s where it gets its height and width from. Each frame is 9 times the size of a feature film frame and consequently there is a great deal more definition.
DP: This sounds like a very difficult topic to research. Where do you find material?
BS: Rudolf Arnheim has been very important for me. A gestalt psychologist from the 1930s and 40s, he wrote “Film As Art” at just about the same time as sound and color were being introduced in the movies. He was speculating about what would happen when things get closer and closer to being real. For example, he states that “The greater the surface of the projection, the more difficult it is to organize the picture meaningfully.”
For me, the central difference between sm-all screen and gigantic screen space (or framed and frameless space) pertains to what happens when the screen gets so large that you don’t perceive a frame anymore. I found that this book posed questions that I was trying to answer. In this work and others of his books, Arnheim is asking some of the principal questions about cinema that I need to consider.
DP: What is the goal of your research?
BS: The whole challenge in working in these new media formats is to find the best camera and editing experts (who have got really used to using frames) and then saying “Okay, let’s jump through the frame together!”
Ben Shedd will be speaking today  at 4:30PM in the Stewart Theater, 185 Nassau. His lecture is titled “Exploding the Frame: Designing a New Filmic Language.”