On Friday 10 October at Kinepolis in Antwerp, Belgium saw the European premiere of a new cinema technology from Barco, along with the release of the film The Maze Runner.
Looking to expand the cinema experience, Barco Escape makes it more immersive, utilising two angled screens on either side of the main central screen. Essentially it is a modern take on Cinerama, in that it also employs a three projector system to give a wider panoramic view. However, just as contemporary 3D is leaps and bounds ahead of the anaglyph 3D version of the ’50s and ’60s, Escape offers many advances over Cinerama, the least of which is the synchronisation of the projectors. The Escape system also doesn’t suffer from the same “sweet spot” limitation that affected Cinerama and, to a certain extent, 3D. As Barco’s CinemaVangelist Ted Schilowitz explained, “There’s an awareness of the different audience perspectives. The younger teenage audience are really liking sitting up really close and getting the most intense, almost game-like, experience within a movie. As we march our way towards retirement, we march further back into the theatre. It doesn’t degrade the experience it’s just a little less intense each row back. Eighty per cent of the seats are good seats. ”
Because of the way the Escape system has been designed, it is relatively easy to retrofit a theatre to use it, particularly the large modern multiplexes. “Today, we’re not building new Escape auditoriums”, said Schilowitz. “If it catches on the way we think it will, we will look at specialised auditoriums that are much more immersive and seamless. There is also the element of three-dimensional audio, and tying this to the positional 3D audio is really interesting. If this can be done in existing cinemas then it can be done on a large scale, and into thousands of cinemas, which gets filmmakers excited about doing something in the format.”
20th Century Fox’s The Maze Runner was an ideal choice to launch the system, as was proved when it was released in five Cinemark theatres in the US in September. Because the system plays on our peripheral vision, it enhanced the sensation of being in the maze with the young protagonists. However, the system isn’t limited to action films. Unlike the Cinerama system, Barco Escape can project three separate images, creating a split screen effect, such as that employed in the classic Woodstock film, opening up further creative possibilities to filmmakers. In fact, it is in the realm of music/concert film that it is showing its full potential. Barco recently announced a film of the concert in Brussels with Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett performing together for the first time. “Barco was there to support that”, said Schilowitz. “We had 14 super high-resolution cameras shooting the concert in the native Escape format, so that it will feed all these screens. Seeing the footage shot natively in high resolution, and seeing them performing on the stage makes you feel like you are with them on the stage.”
Barco and the studios are also experimenting with system in how they will present trailers, even for non-Escape films. With all the screen space it does sometimes feel like information overload, especially given the frenetic pace of most trailers. As Schilowitz pointed out, “We don’t exactly know where the threshold is, but it’s very intriguing and another way to use the language. It’s an experiment with the language.”
The obvious extension of the Escape format is to combine it with 3D projection. Wim Buyens, Barco’s Senior VP for Entertainment and Corporate addressed this idea, “A few weeks ago I was talking with content creators in Hollywood, and they said, ‘we’re going to do this, right?’, but we haven’t experimented with that yet. It’s going to happen. It’s a potential thing we will experiment with, but I’m not saying that is going to be the norm. I’m not sure it needs to be in 3D when you have the immersive 270° experience around you, but I’m open to it. If it’s going to be great content, why not?”
Ultimately, the purpose of Escape, as with 3D, is to attract customers to the cinema with a premium experience. Buyens elaborates, “When people go out of their homes and they go to the movies, they want to see something special. When they are able to see it as good at home on their big LCD TV, they’re going to stay at home. We know that very well. We’re trying to push the boundaries and let technology help us improve that cinema experience. This is one we are really pleased about. Of course, the audience will tell us if they like it, and the creatives will bring it to the next level.”
Buyens admits that the system is still very much in the experimental stage, with just the five Cinemark screens in the USA and two Kinepolis screens in Belgium. “We’ve deliberately made the roll-out to a limited number of places, just to make sure that the experience is right. It’s with the right theatre partners who are with us in the journey because it is not without risks. We also wanted to monitor the audience feedback and learn from the experience rather than go on 100, 200 or 500 screens. With that learning, we will tune and bring it to the next level before starting to roll it out. It’s the learning phase. We also want to make sure the creatives say they can use it. We need the creatives to make the content. These things take time and we wanted to be very deliberate about getting it right.”
It may be some time before Barco Escape hits the UK, so if you want to experience this new dimension in cinema presentation you’ll have to jump on the Eurostar for Kinepolis in Brussels or Antwerp to see The Maze Runner. The Maze Runner is showing in 2D in UK cinemas now.