The Wizard of Oz in IMAX 3D

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Dorothy and friends are at over 300 IMAX theaters now. © Warner Bros.
Dorothy and friends are at over 300 IMAX theaters now.
© Warner Bros.

On August 15, 1939, The Wizard of Oz held its red carpet premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. On September 20 of this year, in celebration of the film’s upcoming 75th anniversary, a completely remastered 3D IMAX version of the film premiered at what is now the TCL Chinese Theatre to open the largest IMAX auditorium in the world. The Wizard of Oz is now playing this week in over 300 IMAX theaters in the US and 11 in Canada.

“We went back to the original 35 millimeter three-strip Technicolor negative,” Ned Price, Chief Preservation Officer at Warner Brothers Technical Operations, explained, detailing how the classic film was prepared for the IMAX process, which involved three distinct processes; preservation, conversion to 3D, and finally the proprietary IMAX DRM (Digital Re-Mastering) process, which allows the images to be scaled up to the enormous size of an IMAX screen. Despite the film being 75 years old, there was surprisingly little editing, correction or retouching needed. “I took away two wires,” Ned stated. “They were the same two that were taken away for the last release; they were only taken away because they hit the light when the scarecrow fell off his post, and when Bert Lahr is singing ‘If I were King of the Forest,’ and his tail is wagging behind him, that wire hit the light and was very noticeable.”

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IMAX preserves the finest details, down to the sparkles on Dorothy's ruby slippers. © Warner Bros.
IMAX preserves the finest details, down to the sparkles on Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
© Warner Bros.

Lorne Orleans, Vice President of Film Production at IMAX, compared the analog and digital media, explaining “the ability of film to retain detail, and do so over 75 years is really unsurpassed. A lot of the information that these tools are able to put on the screen today, it’s not that they are inventing or interpolating; it’s there, it’s in the original print. It’s just that all the other technologies before this couldn’t give you enough resolution to offer that up.” He pointed to details such as the burlap texture of the scarecrow’s face and the freckles on Dorothy’s nose as two examples of fine detail the process was able to capture. “Quite simply, IMAX is the world’s biggest magnifying glass,” Orleans states.

In addition to the greatly enhanced quality of the film’s images, the soundtrack was also treated to an update, though audiences shouldn’t notice anything different other than the audio quality. “The IMAX audio playback environment is unique; we have a much wider dynamic range, so our loud moments are louder, our quiet moments are quieter, the extended bottom end, the really low frequencies are deeper. We had to reformat the audio so that it’s optimized for IMAX,” Orleans says.

Amazingly, for a film that’s three-quarters of a century old, and has been owned by three different studios (it was produced by MGM, later acquired by Turner Entertainment, which was in turn acquired by Warner), a surprising amount of original production material was preserved and located, greatly aiding in the remastering. Original blueprints of the sets were found, allowing the 3D artists to correctly measure and control the depth of objects; complete audio tracks for both the orchestra and vocal performances had been preserved, allowing the sound engineers to convert the mono soundtrack to full stereo.

“The soundtrack remix doesn’t get too stereo; we play the mono track up front, intact, the original mix. We went to the archives and found the original sound recordings of both voice and orchestra. When Dorothy enters Oz, and you hear what’s called ‘the Heavenly Choir’ it was the vocal takes of the choir, and we were able to put them into the sides and rear,” Price said.

The conversion to large-format 3D was handled as carefully as the audio, according to Orleans, who says “working with Ned, it’s very, very clear that the primary goal was to really retain what’s there in the original source material, and I think we’ve been very, very faithful to that; we’re all quite proud of that.”

“The film has a kind of theatricality, a hand-made quality, that makes it quite charming and beautiful,” Price says, giving praise to the production crew that made the film, explaining that their primary goal was to best serve the original work, not to alter it.

“The 3D is unobtrusive; we wanted the 3D to work with the narrative, not work against it,” Price elaborates. “We wanted to heighten the viewing experience, not clobber you over the head with it. The majority of action within The Wizard of Oz is deep within the picture, not so much out of the screen. We kept references to make sure we didn’t go wider than the original intention.” He cites questions of scale, such as “How big is the farmhouse? The Tin Man’s body isn’t round, it’s oval; what’s the ratio? Glinda’s dress, how far out does it go?” These factors will determine whether the scenes look distorted. “Luckily, we found things like blueprints of the sets, so we could actually reference how far the Wizard’s chair, when he’s that fireball, how far that should be from Dorothy.”

Price explains why they chose to give The Wizard of Oz the IMAX treatment. “The film was originally released in movie palaces; it was intended to be seen on a large screen. Unfortunately, theaters have downsized since its original release, and IMAX is giving that large screen experience,” he says, going on to mention home viewing and mobile devices, environments in which films are screened under less-than-ideal conditions. “Since everybody knows the film so well, the added advantage is, we get to see more into the film itself. The original craftsmen who worked on the film did their job so well it stands up to the tightest scrutiny.”

The black & white scenes that bookend the film were originally sepia prints (rich brown shades that give a warm antique feel), but in subsequent releases, they were usually shown in black & white, because it was less expensive. For the new version, the studio had to decide which way to go. Price explained the problem, “the original negatives are in black & white,” he said, explaining that almost all the sepia prints are long gone. “We only had a piece of it, so we analyzed the color of that sample and applied it to those scenes.”

With the IMAX release, Price says, “We can take our kids, and they will experience this in a whole new light; there’s all this information that we’ll all see onscreen that we were oblivious to on our little TVs.”

“One of the criteria for what makes a good IMAX film,” Orleans explains, “is, can IMAX transport you to a place and give you an experience that you would never have in your life, and I think The Wizard of Oz has that fantastical colorful fantasy world that was created 75 years ago, and we get to do that in a whole new, more intense way.”

The 3D Blu-Ray edition (which will be released on October 1) was the impetus for the project; IMAX was retrofitting the TCL Chinese Theatre to add an IMAX auditorium which was slated to open in September; simultaneously, Warner was working on converting The Wizard of Oz to 3D for Blu-Ray, and in a happy coincidence, the timelines matched up and they decided to go with a big-screen release to celebrate the film’s 75th anniversary.

“This is the perfect way to see the world’s most beloved film,” Orleans states, “so much attention and care has gone into every detail–going back to 1939, so many craftsmen.” He goes on to explain the care that goes into creating the IMAX experience, “we know that everything we see in our review room will look exactly the same in every IMAX theater everywhere. While nothing is perfect, we do a much better job of maintaining consistent quality. We have internet connectivity with our theaters to monitor what they are doing.”

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