Here’s my report of two competing 3D systems, using Avatar as the test subject.
First, some preliminary reading: This report from the 3D Vision Blog is a rundown of the three 3D systems in widespread use in the US.
Right after it came out, I saw Avatar 3D in Santa Rosa using the Dolby 3D system, and then in February at the Metreon in San Francisco using the IMAX 3D system (this is a real IMAX theater, not a dinky IMAX Lite theater). Afterwards, I struggled (still am, actually) to quantify the difference. But I enjoyed the movie both times.
OK, the IMAX screen is way bigger and the sound was better. But we were a little too far off center axis, so the 3D effect was probably not as great as it could have been. On the other hand, I noticed a lot more detail in the frame than I did the first time. Perhaps that was because the image was so large, or perhaps because it was the second time seeing the film, so I wasn’t quite as overwhelmed with the action. I noticed in IMAX that if you raised your glasses you could tell how much brightness was being washed out of the picture, due to the different polarization method used to achieve the 3D effect.
I was also amused by the constant smell of pot smoke in the IMAX theater, but I can’t pin that on James Cameron or IMAX.
One thing that I should have expected, but was surprised when I saw it, was that the movie did not take up the entire height or width of the IMAX screen. Instead, it appeared at the bottom of the screen, with black bars above and to each side. In retrospect, this is obvious, as it was shot to be shown in regular movie theaters. Interestingly, IMDB states that it is distributed and displayed in two aspect ratios:
1.78 : 1 (IMAX 3-D version) (2K 3-D version: constant image width venues)
2.35 : 1 (2-D version) (2K 3-D version: constant image height venues)
The first time, with the Dolby 3D system in a normal sized theater, was perhaps more immersive. We had perfect theater position, and the Dolby system provides excellent, better color reproduction and a brighter picture. I remember thinking, about five minutes in, “Damn, I’ve gotta see this movie again.”
We also saw Coraline 3D and Up 3D in the Dolby 3D format, and the main thing that I took away from that was how Coraline used 3D to push stuff out of the screen at you, and Avatar and Up used it more often to create more of a sense of depth within the screen, as though you were looking through a window. I like the latter approach better (I hasten to add that we still loved Coraline)
So: I’m glad that I saw it in both places. But what I mainly learned was that the IMAX 3D experience was not that much better that it is worth a special trip down to San Francisco just to see a movie. If I’m in town (we were there for Macworld Expo) and a movie I want to see is in IMAX, then it’s worth doing. For me, I’d say that with 3D movies, a brighter picture and more vivid colors trump screen size; as long as the screen is big enough, super big doesn’t make the experience that much better.