Home theater can be complicated. As explained in the first two parts of this series, it’s not only as simple as putting a big screen on the wall. What shape should that screen be? Even after doing your research, just when you might think you’ve got this aspect ratio stuff all figured out, the IMAX Corporation and director Christopher Nolan had to go and toss a wrench into the works to confuse everyone.
IMAX first debuted in the 1970s as a specialty format for short-subject nature and science documentaries. Movies made for IMAX were photographed using huge, cumbersome cameras and large format 70mm film stock in a process called “IMAX 15/70” that would be projected back onto massive screens up to 75 feet tall. In their original configuration, those IMAX screens also had a unique aspect ratio of 1.43:1.
For the first few decades of the company’s life, IMAX screens were typically found in science museums, aquariums, or other specialized venues. Starting in the early 2000s, IMAX teamed up with Hollywood to also project regular feature films in IMAX theaters. The first couple attempts at this, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) and a re-release of Apollo 13 (from 1995), were actually cropped from their original widescreen ratios to fill the 1.43:1 IMAX screen, to awkward results. They also had shortened run times because the IMAX projection platters could not hold more than two hours of film at a time.
IMAX fixed the run length issue soon after, and also implemented a new policy of projecting widescreen movies in letterbox format, beginning with the IMAX edition of The Matrix Reloaded in 2003. Ironically, this turned IMAX screens into something akin to oversized televisions. Regardless, even in letterbox format, the movies were usually projected larger (and louder!) than average theaters, and audiences approved. IMAX popularity soared, and most of the Hollywood studios rushed to distribute their big event movies to IMAX theaters.
Quickly capitalizing on this newfound success, the IMAX Corporation shifted its main business focus away from science documentaries and toward Hollywood. Multiplexes around the world began retrofitting their theaters with new IMAX branded auditoriums. Sadly, in many cases, this actually meant diluting IMAX’s chief selling point – its huge screen sizes. The new mainstream version of IMAX often resulted in screens only marginally larger than other theaters, with a more widescreen-friendly aspect ratio of 1.90:1. Critics who remembered and preferred the old version of IMAX scathingly dubbed the new one “LIEMAX.” Nevertheless, the IMAX train kept surging forward to enormous growth and success.
Along Came a Bat
One artist who saw great potential in IMAX was Batman Begins filmmaker Christopher Nolan. For his 2008 Batman sequel The Dark Knight, Nolan didn’t just want to project a regular movie onto an IMAX screen. He wanted to take advantage of the IMAX format in a way prior Hollywood films had not. During production, he filmed portions of the movie (notably most of the big action set-pieces) with IMAX cameras and film stock. This gave those scenes a decidedly sharper, higher quality appearance than the rest of the footage around them. It also meant that the IMAX scenes had a native aspect ratio of 1.43:1 on the film negative, as opposed to the 2.35:1 that the rest of the movie was shot and composed for.
In conventional theaters, the entirety of The Dark Knight was presented at a constant 2.35:1 aspect ratio from start to finish. Meanwhile, playing at the same time, the film had a special Variable Aspect Ratio (VAR) presentation exclusive to IMAX theaters. On an IMAX screen, most of the talky dramatic scenes appeared in a letterboxed 2.35:1 ratio.
Then, during the action scenes, the film frame would open up on the top and bottom to fill the entire height of the IMAX screen, up to 1.43:1 in legacy theaters with the original screen ratio.
In a suitably large IMAX theater, this made quite an impact. Audiences were dazzled, as director Nolan intended. The movie was a big blockbuster hit, and quite a lot of that income came from IMAX locations.
As so often happens in Hollywood, success breeds imitation. With this new gimmick creating so much buzz, other filmmakers rushed to incorporate it into their big-budget tentpole movies as well. Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek into Darkness (2013), among others, followed the Dark Knight model of shooting select scenes in IMAX 15/70 for projection with a variable ratio in IMAX theaters. Nolan himself has so far repeated the trick for The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (2020) – in each new movie pushing to shoot as much of the running time in IMAX format as possible. (The IMAX film cameras are very bulky and very loud, which makes them impractical for small interior locations or quiet dialogue scenes.)
A number of movies have even ridden the Variable Aspect Ratio fad without actually using IMAX cameras. Tron: Legacy (2010) was photographed digitally and has no true IMAX footage, yet the IMAX theatrical release (and later Blu-ray) alternated aspect ratio from 2.35:1 to a slightly taller 16:9. Several films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe work similarly.
Some movies have played in open-matte 1.90:1 for their entire running length on IMAX screens, whereas traditional theaters showed the same titles in scope 2.35:1. Examples of this include Skyfall (2012) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The IMAX Corporation encourages this and has actively struck deals with major film studios for the rights to screen and promote exclusive IMAX versions of their movies, to the benefit of both parties.
In recent years, IMAX has largely transitioned away from 15/70 film production and developed special IMAX digital cameras that are smaller and quieter than their film counterparts, allowing directors to shoot more footage in all types of scenes with them. Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was the first feature to be shot entirely using IMAX digital cameras, and played in IMAX theaters in an open-matte 1.90:1 ratio for the whole movie.
At the time of my writing this in late 2022, around three dozen films so far have played in IMAX theaters with a Variable Aspect Ratio presentation, and another couple dozen in full open-matte. I maintain a complete list of IMAX VAR and open-matte titles on this page.
IMAX on Home Video
IMAX variable ratio movies present a special challenge when transferred to home video, especially those that utilize the original 1.43:1 format. Because modern high definition and 4K Ultra HD video is natively 16:9 in aspect ratio, any attempt to preserve the entire 1.43:1 frame must result in a pillarboxed image with black bars on the sides.
This actually works against the original intent of shooting those scenes in IMAX in the first place, as the squarish image is narrower than the 2.35:1 footage around it and no longer feels larger. (At best, it’s a net wash for screen area.) To address this issue, Nolan implemented a compromise for The Dark Knight by cropping the IMAX footage to full-screen 16:9 for Blu-ray and Ultra HD.
While this does technically remove some picture from the original photography, most often nothing significant is lost, and the image follows the intent of appearing larger than the 2.35:1 footage in other scenes (albeit to a lesser degree than before). Subsequent VAR movies have mostly followed this lead and presented their IMAX footage in 16:9 or a mildly letterboxed 1.90:1 on home video. At least, that’s been the case for those that attempt to preserve the Variable Aspect Ratio format on home media. Not all do, but we’ll revisit that subject in a minute.
IMAX vs. CIH
Any viewer watching on an HDTV or a standard 16:9 projection screen should have no problem with these IMAX VAR movies. As presented on home video, the content is mastered within a 16:9 container tailored to their displays. The letterboxed portions will look the same as any other letterboxed 2.35:1 movie, and the 16:9 portions will look the same as any other “full-screen” movie or TV show they watch.
Unfortunately, Constant Image Height viewers will have a much harder time. The IMAX VAR format is, effectively, antithetical to the concept of Constant Height. When such a movie cuts to a full-screen 16:9 shot, a CIH viewer will have no additional screen height for the image to fill. Those using the Zoom Method of projection, which normally allows black letterbox bars to spill off past the screen, will suddenly see parts of the movie on the wall beyond the screen borders. Obviously, this is not a viable option.
How, then, should a CIH viewer with a 2.35:1 screen watch a movie like this? Several possible solutions are available, some more convenient or satisfying than others. Those will be covered in our Best Practices for 2.35:1 Constant Image Height article.
Feel free to jump straight to that for practical solutions on how to deal with IMAX content on a 2.35:1 screen. First, however, I’d like to take some time to address a bigger question.
Does IMAX even matter in home theater?
You Do Not Have an IMAX Screen in Your Home
This point may not be clear from the way IMAX has been marketed, including to the home theater community. Nevertheless, as large as your home theater screen may be, it is not IMAX. The rules of IMAX presentation do not apply to other screens, especially not those in the home.
Yes, before someone feels the need to correct the above statement, it is true that the IMAX Private Theatre division offers special IMAX-branded personal theaters targeted at the ultra wealthy. (The starting price for an entry-level build is a half million U.S. dollars.) Even those, however, have screen sizes with far smaller viewing angles than a genuine IMAX cinema. Actual IMAX is its own thing, and requires a screen large enough to exceed your field of view. That cannot be re-created in the home environment short of sitting with your nose pressed against the screen.
That being the case, the existence of so-called “IMAX Enhanced” content may confuse the issue, as if any home theater could magically become IMAX-like just by watching the right material. The IMAX Enhanced label is applied to certain movie editions that undergo a quality assurance certification process not far removed from what THX used to do. The new twist with IMAX is that most of the movies given this treatment are also mastered in open-matte or Variable Aspect Ratio (VAR) versions designed to emulate their presentation in IMAX theaters.
Recently, a number of titles from the Marvel Cinematic Universe were upgraded to IMAX Enhanced status on Disney+ streaming. For example, Black Widow (2021) varies aspect ratio from 2.35:1 to a taller 1.90:1 in certain scenes, while Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (also 2021) is open-matte 1.90:1 for the entire movie. These IMAX Enhanced editions differ from other home video releases on disc or streaming, which maintain a Constant Image Height (CIH) 2.35:1 ratio like the films’ presentation on regular cinema screens. (In some cases, the VAR versions were also released exclusive to 3D editions, but make their first appearance in 2D now.)
All of these IMAX Enhanced movies are optimized for viewing on 16:9 displays, where content that would otherwise appear in a rectangular letterboxed strip will now gain extra image information to reach (or nearly reach) the top and bottom of the screen. Fill in those black bars and – voila! – suddenly you have IMAX.
Except that it’s not really IMAX if the image occupies the same size and screen area as an Oxi Clean infomercial, is it? Are infomercials and TV game shows and the evening news IMAX Enhanced? Of course not, yet a 16:9 TV or home theater screen offers no distinction between them. Any and all 16:9 content is prioritized as equivalent to IMAX.
What is it, then, about these full-screen IMAX Enhanced transfers that makes them more special than lesser content that fills the same screen in the same way? More to the point, other than some awkward empty headroom above the actors, what makes them better than watching the same movies in 2.35:1 format on a Constant Image Height screen?
Is it at all possible to replicate the IMAX experience on a screen that is nowhere near IMAX size? And if not, what’s the point in pretending that you can?
What Happens in IMAX Should Stay in IMAX
As discussed earlier, director Christopher Nolan is a big proponent of IMAX. He also takes great pains to adjust home video transfers of his films shot-by-shot to prepare what he feels are optimal presentations in both 2.35:1 CIH and home video VAR (which is different than IMAX cinema VAR) formats.
That isn’t true of all other movies, though. Many films that screened either with VAR or in full open-matte in IMAX theaters forego that gimmick during the transition to home media and instead maintain a constant 2.35:1 ratio, as they appeared on conventional cinema screens. Sometimes the VAR version is held for marketing reasons as an exclusive feature only found on 3D editions or releases on a specific streaming platform, while other copies are presented in 2.35:1 Constant Height. Sometimes, the filmmakers actually prefer that home video editions be 2.35:1 CIH.
When Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) was released on Blu-ray only in letterbox 2.35:1 without any Variable Aspect Ratio scene transitions, director Brad Bird stated in interviews that he felt the changing aspect ratio was too distracting on a home screen and he did not want it to be the definitive version for the home.
Similarly, director Scott Derrickson raised a fuss when he learned that his Doctor Strange (2016) had been released on Disney+ in Variable Aspect Ratio form without his consent. In his words, “I never intended that aspect ratio to be used for home viewing.”
But why? What could their objection be? Isn’t more picture better than less picture? Isn’t the VAR version the movie’s “OAR” (Original Aspect Ratio)? Well, yes and no.
Films like these are composed for multiple aspect ratios simultaneously during production. Remember, the VAR versions only play on IMAX screens theatrically, and IMAX still remains a small minority of cinemas worldwide. In all other theaters, these movies are projected in 2.35:1 Constant Height with no aspect ratio changes. By necessity, the photography must be composed with all critical picture information inside the 2.35:1 portion of the frame. Some directors, like Nolan, believe that the VAR experience can still translate to the home. Others, like Bird and Derrickson, consider the VAR versions to be relevant only when projected in an IMAX theater, while the 2.35:1 scope versions remain their preferred composition for all other venues.
More picture is not necessarily better picture if it affects the compositional balance of the shot. One point frequently misunderstood is that IMAX projection is not just intended to fill a viewer’s field of vision, but to actually exceed that field of vision. We human beings have two eyes arranged laterally on our faces, resulting in a naturally wider field of view. Millennia of evolution has also conditioned us to scan our environment from side-to-side more often than up-and-down, as prey and predators are both more likely to be seen in front of us rather than above or below. Widescreen photography is designed to take advantage of these physiological traits.
On the other hand, the extra height of an IMAX screen should extend beyond our natural vision, requiring viewers to crane their necks upward to take in the full height of the frame. Filmmakers composing for IMAX will (or should) take this into consideration by framing their shots with the most important viewing information weighted toward the bottom half of the screen, leaving the height mostly for less vital ambient content.
For example, in this comparison from Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), the character has a considerable amount of negative space above his head in the full 1.43:1 IMAX framing.
Composition like this works in IMAX, where viewers’ eyes are naturally drawn toward that lower section of the screen and allow the rest to spill off into the periphery. However, it may look very odd and unbalanced on a traditional screen, either in a cinema or at home. Most viewers would ask why the character’s face is so low in the picture. Why are we looking at so much ceiling in this shot? Imagine how odd and alienating it would feel if every scene in the movie looked this way.
In other, non-IMAX theaters, where the film played in Constant Height 2.35:1 format, the same image was significantly reframed to eliminate the unused headroom. (This CIH version of the movie was released on DVD and is currently available to watch in high definition on HBO Max and other streaming platforms.)
Even the compromise 16:9 transfer Nolan prepared for Blu-ray and 4K cuts out most of that empty space.
In photography, there’s a well known principle called the “Rule of Thirds,” which suggests that a portrait of a human face should ideally be composed to position the subject’s eyes approximately one-third down from the top of the image for the most visually pleasing sense of symmetry. Although called a “rule,” of course it’s not actually mandatory that every image be composed this way. Photographers and cinematographers will sometimes violate the rule for specific artistic effect. Nonetheless, by and large, you’ll find that most close-ups and medium shots involving a human face indeed tend to follow this general guideline, because it looks very natural to the viewer’s eye.
Both the 2.35:1 and 16:9 versions of this scene from The Dark Knight align fairly well with the Rule of Thirds. The 1.43:1 IMAX version does not. The character’s eyes are almost exactly at the one-half mark of the image height in IMAX. The Rule of Thirds doesn’t apply to IMAX. Due to the much larger size of the viewing canvas, IMAX has its own unique compositional rules that are only applicable to IMAX itself. Composition that works most optimally on an IMAX screen will typically not work nearly as well on other screen sizes.
Moreover, I would argue that the 16:9 Blu-ray framing for The Dark Knight is not IMAX composition at all, but rather quite standard 16:9 composition. When transferring the film to home video, Nolan adapted his visual language to better suit the new medium and the screen sizes where his work would be viewed.
Not All IMAX Is Created Equally
As the first mainstream Hollywood feature to be made with an IMAX presentation explicitly in mind, The Dark Knight has unfortunately also proven to be a relative rarity with regard to how thoughtfully it used the format. Director Nolan was very conscientious in how he composed for the IMAX screen, and took great pains to reframe the footage for both the theatrical Constant Height and the home video VAR versions. He also reserved the expanded IMAX screen ratio for moments in the movie where it would have the most impact – the action sequences and scene transition establishing shots.
Other filmmakers have not always put so much effort into it. Michael Bay’s use of IMAX footage in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) seems mostly haphazard, as though he only had the IMAX camera for a couple days and used it for whatever he happened to be working on at that time. The few scenes where it comes into play flit between scope 2.35:1 and IMAX ratios shot-to-shot in a rapid-fire editing rhythm that is dizzying and hard to follow. An argument can be made that the movie is more visually coherent in Constant Height format (to the extent that a Michael Bay movie can be visually coherent, anyway).
Even Christopher Nolan himself has changed his approach to IMAX. His subsequent movies have used IMAX cameras whenever it was feasible to do so, with less concern for the type of scene being shot. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) switches to IMAX not just for action scenes or establishing shots, but sometimes for a shot or two in the middle of dialogue scenes otherwise framed for scope. Nolan – a film purist who eschews digital photography – aims to eventually shoot an entire movie in IMAX 15/70, and comes closer to that goal with each new feature. Supposedly, about 70% of his Dunkirk (2017) was filmed with IMAX cameras.
For some movies, the use of IMAX aspect ratios feels like an afterthought, especially those that weren’t actually photographed using any IMAX equipment. Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017), for instance, played as 2.35:1 CIH in regular cinemas, while selected scenes extended in height to 1.90:1 on IMAX screens, gaining nothing but empty headroom above the characters.
In this movie (and many others like it), the alternate IMAX version is a straightforward open-matte presentation that exposes an equal amount of extra picture information on both the top and bottom of the frame. The 2.35:1 version is a direct, unilateral center extraction that does not vary at all in any shot or scene.
What this suggests is that the film was composed, from start to finish, for 2.35:1. The open-matte version was not composed specially for IMAX, and does not particularly take advantage of the extra IMAX screen space in any meaningful artistic way. And because it uses the wider (or shorter) IMAX digital ratio of 1.90:1, it doesn’t even gain much extra image compared to the original 2.35:1.
This is what you get with IMAX, a sliver more each of the clouds and grass.
Even on an IMAX screen, this small amount of extra space will barely register with viewers. It doesn’t add any critical image information, and any alleged improvement in scale or immersion is negligible at best. When watched this way at home, the extra headroom above the characters looks awkward and potentially distracting.
Notice how much better positioned Cate Blanchett is within the height of the frame in the 2.35:1 composition here:
In the open-matte version, her face is weirdly low on the screen, as if the cameraperson were expecting something to fly over her head (which never happens).
Not Everything You See in IMAX Is Actually Made for IMAX
The IMAX Corporation has further muddied the waters by propagating an idea that any movie that plays on an IMAX screen is by definition IMAX. This leaves viewers with the mistaken impression that many regular movies deserve the type of precedence and enlarged image size that ought to be reserved for actual IMAX.
As it happens, the majority of movies that play in IMAX theaters are not photographed with any concern for IMAX screen size or aspect ratio. They’re shot the same as any other traditional film, following the rules of composition discussed above. Blowing them up to IMAX size doesn’t really make them IMAX. It just makes them bigger.
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) is often cited as a film that must have been made for IMAX. It’s a huge blockbuster movie that cost $220 million to make. It has superheroes and space monsters and action scenes on an epic scale where most of New York City gets trashed. It played on IMAX screens around the world. Unlike most of its Marvel contemporaries, The Avengers was also photographed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio very close to the shape of IMAX digital screens. Surely, this is the platonic ideal of an IMAX movie?
No. Not really.
When you watch The Avengers, sure, it has some action sequences that fill up an IMAX screen impressively.
But the majority of the movie is photographed with very standard, TV-safe 1.85:1 framing, composed without any thought for IMAX. It features countless close-ups and medium shots that follow the Rule of Thirds almost to the letter, leaving little to no headroom above the actors.
Filling an enormous IMAX screen with tight close-ups, as this movie frequently does, can be uncomfortable, even unsettling for viewers who aren’t able to see the whole image at once and are left unsure where to focus their gaze. This is not at all how IMAX is meant to work.
Whedon later photographed his follow-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This movie played on the same IMAX screens in letterboxed format.
Close-ups of Tony Stark’s face inside his Iron Man helmet were filmed very similarly in both films, with the camera the same distance from the actor. A rescaled comparison reveals pretty clearly that they were framed to yield the same object size if displayed in Constant Image Height format, with Ultron gaining additional image width.
The actor’s eyes, nose, and mouth are all aligned on the same image planes when the two movies are standardized for the same picture height.
On the other hand, the Age of Ultron close-up is much smaller when letterboxed on a 16:9 screen.
This issue affects not just close-ups, but any type of equivalent shots where the camera is approximately the same distance away from the actors.
Why would the director want everything in his significantly more expensive ($365 million budget) sequel to look smaller than the last movie when watched on the same screen?
This isn’t some peculiar one-off anomaly. This is the way motion pictures are photographed. The relative size of people and objects is determined by the height of the frame. The intent of the scope format is to add more width to the image in comparison to 1.85:1, not to shrink the height.
The next time you watch a movie in an IMAX theater, pay attention to its shot compositions, especially during the slower dialogue scenes (not just the action scenes), and ask yourself if it was truly made with some mindful intention for IMAX. Very few are. Quite often, an IMAX presentation merely takes a regular movie composed for normal screen sizes and blows it up larger. Only true IMAX photography is composed to utilize the extra screen height in an IMAX theater.
Even Movies Really Made for IMAX Offer Little Benefit on a Home Theater Screen
Later entries in the Avengers franchise, by other directors, have been composed primarily for 2.35:1 with allowance for opening the mattes to expose more headroom in IMAX.
Avengers: Endgame (2019) was actually shot using special IMAX-branded cameras and was at least theoretically photographed with deliberate thought given to how it would appear on IMAX screens. (For one thing, it has fewer of those ultra-tight close-ups that Whedon favored.) Yet even here, much like Thor: Ragnarok, all necessary picture info is framed safely within the 2.35:1 area, and object sizes in medium shots and close-ups are scaled to be comparable to similar shots in other 2.35:1 movies. Watching this scene on a 16:9 screen, the two characters will appear the exact same size as they would if the image had been letterboxed to 2.35:1.
Disney+ streaming offers both versions for an easy comparison.
The IMAX Enhanced version adds a little buffer so the letterbox bars aren’t as noticeable, at the expense of the characters’ eyes appearing lower in the image height, which may call attention to the empty space above their heads.
Again, this isn’t a problem in an actual IMAX cinema, where few viewers would be looking all the way to the top of the screen anyway. At home, however, the looseness of the framing stands out.
Meanwhile, Constant Image Height viewers with 2.35:1 screens will actually lose object size, with minimal image gain, when watching this version of the movie.
Endgame doesn’t completely do away with those close-ups inside Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, but it has far fewer of them.
Admittedly, in this frame the theatrical 2.35:1 version of Endgame looks tighter and more cramped than the IMAX edition.
A shot like this must have posed difficulties for co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo. The premise of it is that we’re seeing inside the Iron Man helmet. In any framing, you have to suspend some disbelief for that, as the helmet seems awfully roomy with a lot of empty space to the sides. Pull the camera back any further, and that disbelief would surely break.
I can perhaps understand feeling that this shot is too tight in 2.35:1 and looks better on a TV screen with the IMAX framing when you have both to compare, though I personally think the face was probably too large on an actual IMAX screen for reasons explained above. Also, it’s supposed to look tight and cramped inside that suit, so the 2.35:1 framing doesn’t actually seem odd or inappropriate on its own. In any case, keep in mind that the shot lasts literally three seconds on screen in a three-hour movie, so it’s practically over before you have time to think about these things.
If I felt like it, I could cherry-pick a few shots here and there in Endgame that fill up the big frame with CGI business (plenty of which works just as well in 2.35:1), but in my opinion, for the overwhelming majority of the movie the IMAX composition adds little of consequence and just looks flabbier on home screen sizes.
Looking at this shot on a regular screen, the villain Thanos is more imposing when he fills the height of the frame. The open-matte version turns a medium shot into a wide shot, which causes a perspective shift that makes him seem smaller.
If this shot had actually been composed for 1.85:1, the character would undoubtedly take up more screen area.
The Big Question
Taking all of the above into consideration, is it really worth the effort trying to recreate the IMAX open-matte or Variable Aspect Ratio experience in the home? Some viewers will say yes, that every pixel of image content is worth savoring, regardless of what’s in it or how it affects the composition of the shot.
If that’s where you stand, the only presentation for home viewing that can preserve the extra height of the IMAX frame while maintaining comparable object scale across all formats is a method known as “CIH+IMAX.” We’ll discuss more about that in a subsequent article. The short version of the story is that it entails an extra large 16:9 screen that will be masked to 2.35:1 for Constant Image Height usage most of the time, and only opened to the full height of the frame for the rare instances of true IMAX material.
A 16:9 screen remains the worst way to watch if you care about proper image scale, as it artificially magnifies plain 1.85:1 movies (plus sitcoms and game shows and TV commercials) larger than everything, even IMAX.
Other viewers will find the 2.35:1 framing more dynamic and aesthetically appealing.
Just because the IMAX edition has more picture does not automatically make it a superior version of the movie. A film like Avengers: Endgame was shot for both ratios, and both are equally legitimate. But the IMAX version was specifically made for IMAX theaters. If you do not have an IMAX screen in your home – and, to be absolutely clear about this, you don’t – the extra picture found in the IMAX Enhanced transfer is, frankly, mostly just superfluous filler.
Some filmmakers, like Brad Bird and Scott Derrickson, will tell you that there’s little point to watching IMAX versions of their movies at home and they’d rather have you watch the 2.35:1 versions they put a lot of effort into composing. Although their directors may not have gone on record like those two did, some other significant movies that have been released on home video only in 2.35:1 despite the prior existence of alternate IMAX versions include Skyfall (2012), The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), No Time to Die (2021), and Dune: Part One (2021).
Why Do I Hate IMAX So Much, Anyway?
If it doesn’t come across in this article, I want to say that I do actually enjoy watching movies in IMAX theaters – especially those that were actually photographed for the format. That first experience watching The Dark Knight opening weekend on a big IMAX screen was quite thrilling when the whole frame opened up.
Sadly, chasing that high outside of an IMAX theater can be an exercise in frustration. These specially-formatted IMAX movies are designed specifically for IMAX screens, and (in my opinion) the IMAX versions are not as relevant to home viewing. Every one of these films was made with a 2.35:1 Constant Height version also in mind, and that is an equally legitimate way to watch them.
The point I’ve tried to convey with this series of articles is that Constant Image Height is a valid and viable method of presentation for a home theater projector owner. Although the process may require some compromises at times, even these IMAX formatted movies should not be a deal-breaker. In fact, watching the “IMAX Enhanced” versions of the same movies on a 16:9 screen has its own, different compromises.
If you disagree, and feel that preserving the IMAX aspect ratio is of critical importance, by all means choose the version you prefer on whichever type of screen you favor. At the end of the day, you should watch whatever you enjoy the way you most enjoy it. All I would ask is that you not dismiss the notion of Constant Image Height out of hand based on the erroneous assumptions that a bigger 16:9 screen would be the same thing as IMAX, or that CIH makes this small handful of genuine IMAX movies unwatchable. Neither is true.
You don’t have an IMAX theater in your home, and watching movies in “full-screen” format will not make a 16:9 screen into IMAX – especially not if you plan to also watch regular, non-IMAX content filling the same screen.
2 thoughts on “The Philosophy of 2.35:1 Constant Image Height – Part 3, The IMAX Problem”
To be able to immerse myself deeply in a film world, I need surroundings and people. If all I see all the time are heads and shoulders, I can’t immerse myself in the film world. With dramas, this doesn’t bother me, but with fantasy films, for example, it devalues the film tremendously. Avengers Infinity War is 8/10 for me in 1.85:1, but only 5/10 in 2.35:1.
Imagine if every movie and TV show were photographed with actors’ faces pushed down to the middle of the screen height with tons of empty headroom above them in every medium shot and close-up. It would look ridiculous. That’s not how composition works.
You don’t have an IMAX screen in your house. Even Christopher Nolan reframes his IMAX footage to crop out the useless headroom in the 16:9 home video transfers of his movies.