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Imax pushes 3D cinema with 38-pound 4K digital camera

The new "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is the first feature film shot with the Imax 3D Digital Camera, a 3D, 4K. It's a beast, but small enough for director Michael Bay's dynamic movie-making style.

Director Michael Bay (at right) with the 3D Imax camera on set of "Transformers: Age of Extinction" in China.
Director Michael Bay (at right) with the 3D Imax camera on the set of "Transformers: Age of Extinction" in China. Andrew Cooper/Imax

Back in the film days, Imax pushed the limits of cinematography with film frames large enough to capture the kind of detail necessary for its huge screens. And now the company has gone the same route with digital.

"Transformers: Age of Extinction," which debuted Friday, is the first feature film to be shot with Imax's own high-resolution 3D digital video cameras.

The company would share only some details about the Imax 3D Digital Camera design, but evidently Imax felt it necessary to go beyond what's possible with cameras from companies like Arri, Red, Sony, Canon, and Panasonic.

"Imax uses a custom 4K-horizontal sensor that is physically the largest of all commercially available cinema camera sensors," the company said. Physically larger sensors can capture more information, in particular a better range of dark and light detail, and the 4K horizontal resolution means each frame of imagery is about 4,000 pixels wide.

The incumbent camera makers probably need not panic, though. There are only three of the cameras in existence.

Consumer photography went digital years ago. But the movie business has been slower to shift away from film. Some directors like its tones and dynamic range, others like to stick with what they know, and some argue it still offers higher quality. Among recent movies shot with film are "Argo," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "A Royal Affair," and "Edge of Tomorrow."

And digital is changing fast. "I don't want to be the R&D [research and development] department," director Christopher Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012 after shooting "The Dark Knight Rises" on film.

Michael Bay, the action-oriented director of the latest Transformer movie, went for the digital cameras, though.

"What I wanted to do with the 3D was really give the audience a special ride," Bay said in a video about shooting the movie. The camera, though weighing 38 pounds, is compact enough for use on Bay's motion-intensive platforms like cranes and a Porsche Cayenne.

"With the lightweight and compact Imax 3D Digital Camera, we are providing today's leading filmmakers with the ability to take high-resolution 3D cameras into places they've never been able to before," said Hugh Murray, Imax's senior vice president of film production, in a statement.

Imax supplies a suite of fixed-focal length lenses of its own design with the camera, and the company's own technology also controls convergence -- the degree to which the dual lenses used in 3D recording pivot inward the way human eyes cross a little bit to see nearer subjects. It uses dual digital engines to ingest the video in its raw format. It's then recorded to dual 512GB SSD storage systems, Imax said.

Given that Imax movies use an unusually square 1.9-to-1 aspect ratio, the camera's sensor probably has a resolution of something like 8.4 megapixels. The camera can shoot at full 4K resolution at 100 frames per second.

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is the third movie recorded with the cameras. A prototype was used on a documentary, "Born to Be Wild" from 2011, and on Imax's more recent documentary, "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar."