One Era Ends And Another Begins At The Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater

Monday, December 21, 2015 - by Thom Benson

The movie-going experience in Chattanooga will change forever in less than two weeks as the city’s last film projector is decommissioned.

The Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater is making a quantum leap from the 70mm film format and will soon be using state-of-the-art laser projection technology.

Corey Cobb, the Aquarium’s chief projectionist will thread the many spindles and rollers of the giant IMAX film projector for the last time on Jan 3. For nearly 10 years, Mr. Cobb has spent long hours assembling the huge rolls of film, moving them by forklift and tending to the massive, noisy and somewhat cantankerous projector.

Beginning Jan. 4, the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater will be closed for approximately four weeks to remove the film projector and complete all of the upgrades.

When the theater reopens in early February, Chattanooga will be home to the only IMAX with Laser system in the Southeast and Mr. Cobb’s workspace will be much quieter and more exciting. His new job title will be IMAX senior operator, making him one of only a handful of people in the world trained to use the IMAX with Laser projection system. “The first time I saw an IMAX film in laser, I was blown away,” said Mr. Cobb. “I’m really excited for people to come to our theater to experience all of the new upgrades we will be making.” 

Mr. Cobb and other Aquarium staffers traveled to several cities over the past four years to evaluate various digital projection systems, but none really matched the image quality that the 70mm film format delivered on a giant screen – until now. “Many of the digital projection systems threw a lot of light on the screen, but the colors looked washed out and the images weren’t sharp,” said Don Walker, the Aquarium’s director of guest services. “The IMAX with Laser system showed us something we hadn’t seen before. This system fills the screen with amazingly crisp, bright and colorful images.”

The Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater has unique architecture including a screen that’s 66 feet tall and 89 feet wide with an aspect ratio of 4 to 3. It’s designed to provide an immersive experience.

“Most screens in conventional cinemas have an aspect ratio of 1.0 to 1, just like the digital television screens at home,” said Gordon Stalans, the Aquarium’s director of finance, who also chairs the board of the Giant Screen Cinema Association. But unlike at home, a Humpback Whale appears life-sized and more life-like with two 4K laser projectors filling the massive screen. “Not only is the contrast, color and brightness better, the image is more stable. Film projection with a Xenon lamp produces some flicker that used to be annoying for some viewers. Using pure laser light provides guests with a premium movie experience that’s easier on the eyes.”

The $1.2 million dollar theater upgrade includes the new IMAX with Laser projection system, new six-story screen and new 12 channel audio system with speakers in the ceiling for the first time. “One of the IMAX with Laser demonstrations I recently saw featured a jet flying overhead,” said Cobb. “It was incredible to hear that audio rolling over your head in the theater. You couldn’t help looking up.”

Because of its location in “Gig-City,” Aquarium officials are excited about combinging hi-speed Internet connectivity with the power of laser projection to bring live events to life on the six-story screen. “We will explore opportunities to offer live screenings of sporting events, concerts and real-time educational programs with scientists around the world,” said Walker.

Between now and Jan. 3, guests at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater will receive a clip of 70mm film stock as a memento to commemorate the end of the film era in Chattanooga and the beginning of the laser projection revolution.  

Technical aspects of IMAX with Laser:

-        System is designed for giant screen theaters with screens 75 feet or greater in width
-        Two 4K laser projectors deliver a perceived resolution greater than the best 4K TVs available
-        12 channel sound system with sub-bass creates a 3D sound sphere
-        IMAX’s 24/7 Network Operations Center will monitor the Aquarium’s laser projectors to ensure optimum performance for every movie, every time
-        Laser light provides substantially more brightness than a Xenon bulb enhancing the 3D experience
-        Laser light produces superior contrast ratios with more detail in the projected images. This offers a heightened level of realism for movie-goers
-        Laser light provides a wider color gamut to filmmakers so audiences will experience more vivid, lifelike images onscreen

Learn more about this technology by watching the “IMAX with Laser Tech Featurette”  

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