Get your eyes round this

Is this the shape of cinema to come? Howard Feinstein (below) reports from New York on the first ever attempt to make an Imax feature film, while Sheila Johnston (left) visits Cits-Cins 2 in Paris, an exhibition that celebrates the `future perfect' of cinema
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The Independent Culture
"It was kind of like having sex for the first time. You don't understand the mechanics of how it's working, but it's pleasing." "I felt like I was on a roller coaster." "The goggles are heavy and give me a headache." "Sony says this revolutionises cinema, but it's still a bad movie."

These four New Yorkers had just seen a preview of Wings of Courage, the first dramatic film ever made with known actors in the Imax format. The 40-minute movie, which opens in Manhattan later this month at the palatial six-month-old Sony Theaters complex, just north of the Lincoln Center, is a heavily heroic 3-D spectacle about the legendary postal pilot Henri Guillaumet's ordeal after crashing in the Andes.

The special effects are overwhelming. Spectators must wear goggles (costing Imax $300 a piece, they are disinfected after each use); infra-red signals trigger their liquid crystal lenses to open and close rapidly, alternating with each eye. The brain is tricked into perceiving two distinct images as a single three-dimensional one.

Images projected on to the 80ft-high and 100ft-wide screen are accompanied by so-called "3-D sound": speakers inside the goggles produce sound in front, behind, and around the spectator which supplements a six-channel digital system piped in from the front and back of the theatre.

Mitchell Cannold, the president of Sony New Technologies, likes to see the process as the "birth of a new medium". He says, "While no one is claiming that the film is perfect, everyone thinks of it as a giant leap," and eventually hopes to take Imax films out of the natural history museum niche they have occupied for the past 25 years and market them as Hollywood vehicles driven by stories, stars and renowned film-makers. "I've taken Spielberg, Coppola, and other prominent directors through the theatre," he says. "We've also had interest from other artists in the Sony family, including Michael Jackson and Billy Joel. I think Spielberg was dazzled by the medium, and I'm sure he's already thought of 100 films he could make."

Maybe, but even the mighty dollars of the newly formed studio DreamWorks SKG might be intimidated by the challenges of shooting with Imax equipment. The special 3-D camera, which shoots two reels simultaneously through lenses as far apart as a spectator's eyes, is heavy and cumbersome. (It used to be done with two separate cameras.) Only three minutes of film can be shot at a time, as opposed to 10 for standard 35mm cameras. "I shot Wings of Courage with an average of four set-ups per day - three or four times less than my usual quota," says the director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who is noted for taking on difficult projects like Quest for Fire, In the Name of the Rose and The Lover.

Why the heroic bent in Wings of Courage? "The reason is practical," Cannold answers. "We must respect our marketplace, which is 130 Imax and Omnimax (domed) theatres, mostly in museums, and they require a certain amount of educational content. Wings of Courage will hopefully play in all of them in the next five years. Perhaps 10 or 15 years from now, with the success of this program - not only with Sony but with other companies trying to get into this - there may be more theatres in complexes, or free-standing showcases, and they'll show more diverse films."

But Wings of Courage does not bode well for this particular marriage of technology and talent. The film is set in 1927, as Guillaumet (Craig Sheffer) is flying mail from Europe to Buenos Aires (the Canadian Rockies substituted for the Andes). He works for the Compagnie Gnrale Aeropostale, owned by two French aviation pioneers, the novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupry (Tom Hulce), who would later write The Little Prince, and Jean Mermoz (Val Kilmer, who appears in the film only just long enough to make the credits).

After the nosedive, Guillaumet focuses his mind - in sepia - on his wife Noelle (Elizabeth McGovern) to sustain himself. He is discovered by Indians six days after the accident and reunited with Noelle, who has kept herself busy by knitting throughout his ordeal. Soon, he is back in the skies. "I am tired of the anti-hero portrayed in most contemporary films," Annaud says.

The film is split between breathtaking exteriors of the vast mountains, with spare 3-D effects (Annaud used a 2-D Imax camera for most of the outdoor shooting), and soap-operaish interiors (cafs, restaurants, the Guillaumet home). "I wanted to take the risk of believing that the third dimension was more an advantage than a handicap for getting closer to the only dimension that counts: emotion," Annaud says.

In these claustrophobic scenes, he rams the 3-D sensation down the viewer's throat: The camera dollies continuously back and forth, so that the effect of a tabletop or a coffee cup or a dancer occupying an illusionary space between seat and screen quickly becomes tiresome. The huge format and hyperdistinct image (each frame is 10 times larger than conventional 35mm) exacerbate imperfection: Elizabeth McGovern is bland enough on a televsion monitor, but here she appears downright somnambulant.

Imax 3-D will eventually become an accepted part of film-making, Annaud claims, even if everyone does not yet embrace it; after all, people also once resisted sound and colour. At the same time, Annaud points to Guillaumet's "old-fashioned values, which are really contemporary". Perhaps this is why Wings of Courage fails: state-of-the-art technology overcompensates for anachronistic themes.

Rich Gelfond, the vice-chairman of the Imax Corporation, confirms the rumour that an Imax theatre may be built on the South Bank. "In the UK, there is just one Imax theatre, in Bradford's National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. I hope to open one in London in the next couple of years. It's one of the only major cities in the world where we don't have a theatre."

Riding down the escalator through the huge, meticulously clean, glass- encased Sony Theatres lobby, one can't help noticing just across Broadway the old Regency, New York's last great repertory movie house (it was converted to a first-run house several years ago, after a fierce battle with film buffs).

The Regency had always been a dump, but the pristine 35mm prints shown there enticed people to come back over and over again. The images may have been flat, but the relationship between form and content was felicitous. It remains to be seen whether Sony and Imax's seductive gimmickry will lure repeat spectators, or be just a one-shot novelty.