Dolby, 70 Millimeter or Imax? Our Critic Helps You Choose

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Moviegoing shouldn’t require the expertise of Charlize Theron’s secret agent from “Atomic Blonde.”

You can see “Dunkirk” in 70 millimeter or Imax 70 millimeter. Both formats are rare treats, but what’s the difference?

When I saw “Transformers: The Last Knight” in June, my screening in Imax 3-D — no relation to Imax 70 millimeter, except in branding — was canceled because of technical difficulties. I went down the hall to see it in a Dolby Cinema. What’s that?

Digital projection, the standard for the last half-dozen years, was supposed to bring consistency to moviegoing, eliminating the scratches and other imperfections of the celluloid era. But with a proliferation of options and surcharges, you’re justified in feeling more confused than ever.

“It’s not as simple as when it was 35 millimeter or 70 millimeter,” said Gregg Paliotta, owner of Digital Media Systems, which sets up theaters and studio-run premieres.

 

Dolby Cinema

WHAT IS IT? Dolby began to open these premium auditoriums in AMC Theaters in the United States in 2015. They offer Dolby Vision, which means laser projection with improved color and contrast and brighter 3-D; and Dolby Atmos audio, which can accommodate up to 128 simultaneous sounds.

WHERE IS IT? At 77 AMC theaters nationwide, including the AMC Empire 25 in New York, with more to come.

WHY YOU MIGHT WANT IT “It actually, to me, is the best-looking digital there is out there right now,” said Chapin Cutler, a founder of Boston Light & Sound, the company overseeing the 70-millimeter presentations of “Dunkirk.”

WHY YOU MIGHT AVOID IT You hate paired seats, part of the Dolby Cinema layout. Or maybe I was just self-conscious about seeing “Fifty Shades Darker” alone at 11 a.m. on a Saturday.

THIS SUMMER Only films optimized for Dolby Cinema, like “Atomic Blonde” and “The Dark Tower,” will show under that banner. “Detroit,” despite a complex sound mix, isn’t mastered for Dolby Atmos, so it won’t play in Dolby Cinemas.

4DX

WHAT IS IT? No, theaters haven’t cracked the fourth dimension. This is the latest effort to fuse moviegoing with amusement park rides. 4DX promises “motion chairs and environmental effects such as wind, bubbles, and scent.”

WHERE IS IT? Nine theaters nationwide, including Regal locations in Union Square and Times Square in New York.

WHY YOU MIGHT WANT IT It’s a clear advance over the last notable ride-movie technology, D-BOX, which felt a bit like watching a movie in a rogue massage chair. The seat movements in 4DX are impressively attuned to camera motion.

WHY YOU MIGHT AVOID IT Purists may balk, and the effects are distracting. Also, there’s a medical warning when you enter.

THIS SUMMER I could abide the rocking sensation during “War for the Planet of the Apes,” but being sprayed with water, air and some sort of musk odor (forest, ocean and explosions all smelled the same) was overkill.

Imax

WHAT IS IT? For 40 years, Imax meant a 70-millimeter film strip run horizontally and projected on a four-story screen. In 2008, the Imax Corporation sought to expand, putting proprietary digital projectors in conventional multiplexes and installing screens only slightly larger than normal. Today, there are three kinds of Imax: Imax 70 millimeter, the fat-celluloid original; and two generations of digital Imax. The latest, called Imax With Laser, uses laser projectors for improved color and richer blacks. Outside of science centers, Imax 3-D generally means digital Imax.

WHERE IS IT? There are 396 Imax-branded theaters in the United States. When there is a film designed for Imax, the company has published an online guide listing which theater has which version. It’s worth the delve: In New York, only the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 and the American Museum of Natural History have Imax 70 millimeter.

WHY YOU MIGHT WANT IT Christopher Nolan, who shot 70 percent of “Dunkirk” in Imax 70 millimeter, has called it “the highest-resolution imaging format that’s ever been devised.”

WHY YOU MIGHT AVOID IT A movie not shot in any type of Imax will look puny on an Imax screen.

THIS SUMMER “Dunkirk” shows off Imax 70 millimeter’s full potential for immersion and photographic complexity — it’s why the contrast of planes, sea and sky is so striking. (For digital Imax, Mr. Paliotta cited Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” as an exemplar of a movie shot for that format. He called the premiere he worked on for Imax one of the best presentations he’d seen in 20 years.)

70 Millimeter

WHAT IS IT? Imagine Imax 70 millimeter, then turn the film strip so that it runs vertically, and project it in a regular theater. By offering increased image area, a 70-millimeter frame captures more detail than 35 millimeter or any current digital format. While 70 millimeter was traditionally used for wide-screen epics like “Lawrence of Arabia,” recent revivals of the format for “The Master” and “The Hateful Eight” have demonstrated its versatility in interiors.

WHERE IS IT? The Weinstein Company hired Mr. Cutler to locate and refurbish dozens of 70-millimeter projectors to show “The Hateful Eight”; Warner Bros. bought most of those projectors for “Dunkirk.” During the past 16 months, Warner Bros. has also quietly put out 70-millimeter prints of other films in major cities. City Cinemas 1, 2, 3 on the Upper East Side keep a 70-millimeter projector on hand.

WHY YOU MIGHT WANT IT The clarity and texture of 70 millimeter are unbeatable. Mr. Cutler also said that standard 70 millimeter allowed for more light onscreen than Imax 70 millimeter does. “The picture tends to look brighter and more vibrant,” he added.

WHY YOU MIGHT AVOID IT 70 millimeter is an analog, photochemical medium. For films that make extensive use of digital tweaking, like “Wonder Woman,” the advantage is not as pronounced.

THIS SUMMER Great for “Dunkirk,” whose music and effects may not overwhelm the dialogue as much as in Imax 70 millimeter; less so for “Wonder Woman.”

Matte-White Screens

WHAT IS IT? This is an unadvertised option, but it could have a large effect on your experience. Commercial theaters have replaced many traditional matte-white screens with silver screens, because that’s what RealD, the most widely used 3-D technology, requires. But silver screens should not be used for 2-D movies: They dull the image and send uneven illumination back to the theater. If you’re sitting too far to the side, too low or too high, you may be robbed of light that is rightly yours. Well-designed spaces hedge against this effect, but if the image looks dim, try moving to the center of the theater, Mr. Cutler advised, where you will generally get the bulk of the light.

WHERE IS IT? Everywhere, though you are more likely to find matte-white screens in complexes that don’t show 3-D. If you’re as fanatical as I am, follow Mr. Cutler’s suggestion and hover a white business card or a white sheet of paper near the screen — don’t touch it — before showtime to compare the colors. Sometimes the silver can be difficult to discern.

WHY YOU MIGHT WANT IT If you’re seeing a 2-D movie, you should as a rule insist on a white screen, ideally with a matte finish. Studios feel strongly about the difference, Mr. Paliotta said. For premieres at the now-closed Ziegfeld in Manhattan, he added, they sometimes paid tens of thousands of dollars to temporarily replace the silver screen with white.

WHY YOU MIGHT AVOID IT If you’re watching a movie in 3-D (although a handful of New York theaters — including IFC Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the City Cinemas chain — have white-screen 3-D).

THIS SUMMER Watching the shadowy “It Comes at Night” on silver, I felt like I had to squint to see the nighttime scenes. From The NYTimes 

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