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What to Choose: IMAX 3D versus RealD versus Dolby 3D for 3D Movies?

December 18th, 2009 · 103 Comments · 3D Movies & Videos

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Lately this has become a big question for a lot of people, especially when considering where to go and watch James Cameron’s 3D blockbuster Avatar, and the questions has crossed my mind too, considering that there are cinemas with all of the three major 3D technologies where I live too. So here is a quick and short comparison between the three major solutions used in 3D movie theaters worldwide, along with information on which one I personally prefer, but you are also more than welcome to share your personal preferences along with the WHYs…

IMAX 3D
This one is the oldest of the three standards that is famous mostly because of the very big screens present in these cinemas, but they are still not very widely available around the world with most of the IMAX cinemas present in USA. Up until very recently IMAX 3D was only analogue with the movies being shot on large frame 70mm film in order to achieve good image quality on the larger screens these cinemas use, as compared to normal 35mm film. The digital version was introduced last year and still very few cinemas use that and the resolution and respectively the projection screen sizes for these implementations are not as big as on the analogue ones. IMAX uses big linear passive polarized plastic glasses for the viewers that do not provide the best possible experience. Anyway, getting back to the user experience, there is something very specific for IMAX 3D and that is the fact that the movies shown there are usually optimized for more pop-out screen effect than depth. This means that most of the time objects literally seem to pop out of the screen appearing as if you can touch them, kids do love this effect, but this is also more tiring for the brain. So usually longer movies are a bit of a problem to watch and Avatar is close to 3 hours, so you should be carefully consider this, especially if you feel a little “out of this world” when watching movies in an IMAX cinema. Some other drawbacks that are not always present and most of the people miss are the lower contrast in some dark scenes, a bit more ghosting of objects and problems refocusing your eyes quickly enough to follow the whole picture in fast action scenes and thus you might miss some important parts. Anyway IMAX 3D is certainly the most easy way to achieve the WOW effect with just about anyone that is watching his first stereoscopic 3D movie, but it this is not the first for you, then the other alternatives might be better…

RealD
This is a bit newer standard, but a digital one from its start… digital here meaning that the movies are recorded in a digital format and the projectors being used are also digital. RealD 3D cinemas uses circular polarized plastic glasses instead of linear polarized to provide better user experience when watching stereoscopic content. Circular polarization is considered to be better, because viewers are able to move their head as they like without the loss of the 3D depth effect. With the linear polarized glasses you have to be a bit steady, not moving around too much and sometimes you might have trouble finding the right position for your head in order to achieve the best effect when watching the movie to fully enjoy it. The circular polarized plastic glasses used here are also cheap to produce, but this technology requires the use of more expensive silver screen for projection which makes it a bit more expensive to implement. Still at the moment RealD is the most widely used standard for stereoscopic 3D movie projections all over the world, so you will most likely have one of these cinemas where you live. The immersion experience with RealD is a bit different compared to what you get at IMAX 3D projections as here the depth perception is of actual depth so the action is more going inside the screen, and not popping out of it. This does not make things less impressive, although some people might get a little disappointed at first if they were expecting to have the IMAX 3D pop-out effects, but after some time of watching they still get the feeling they are right in the middle of the action. This way of going more in the projection screen and not out of it is also easier on your brain as it is not that overloaded with information and is considered better for longer movies. Also it is easier to keep track of quick action scenes and the ghosting is usually less, so most of the people prefer this technology, although it is still not perfect.

Dolby 3D
Also known as Dolby 3D Digital Cinema is the newest of the three technologies for stereoscopic 3D movie projection and as you can guess not only by the name it is as well digital like RealD. A lot of people find that Dolby 3D is the best stereoscopic 3D technology for them to watch movies in the cinema. Here we also have the typical cinema style plastic 3D glasses that use a bit more specific passive filters related to the main colors we see which is by far considered to provide the best results. Of course this special type of polarization brings the cost of the glasses up compared to the normal linear or circular polarized glasses the other technologies use, but there the projection screen doesn’t have to be specific (Dolby 3D at home, anyone?). Dolby 3D provides better color reproduction (colors look a bit brighter and more vivid) and a sharper image with more details visible (especially in darker areas), better contrast and almost no ghosting of the objects you see on the screen, which also are not that much popping out of the screen like in IMAX 3D, but rely more on inside depth, like with RealD. Still the stereoscopic 3D experience here is yet again not perfect as you might have trouble with the quick refocusing of your eyes on some objects moving fast from the back to front and some people might have weird troubles seeing the right colors some rare occasions.

And after all this you can say that it is still mostly a matter of personal preferences where you’ll watch 3D movies, but sometimes you might not have IMAX 3D cinema around or any other technology. Have in mind that with the case of Avatar, it is also being shown in some 2D cinemas, but that will be too stupid to do when the movie has been made especially to be watched in 3D. The only thing I don’t like about IMAX is that after about 40 minutes I’m a bit tired and I probably will have trouble watching a movies that is much longer than that. As for RealD and Dolby 3D for me there is hardly any significant difference between the quality and experience you get in cinemas equipped with one or the the other technology, although Dolby 3D seems to be slightly better. And don’t forget that sometimes not well enough built or equipped 3D movie theater can also ruin everything with the one at fault not the technology being used… ;)

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103 responses so far ↓

  • 101 SneakySAN // May 16, 2013 at 10:25

    Real-D 3D is a digital stereoscopic projection technology. It is currently the most widely used technology for watching 3D films in theaters. Because Real-D 3D uses a single projector, it suffers a brightness disadvantage. The system causes “significant light loss”.

    IMAX (an abbreviation for Image Maximum) on the other hand; IMAX-3D has the capacity to record and display images of far greater size and resolution than conventional film systems. To create the illusion of depth, uses separate camera lenses to represent the left and right eyes. This translates a better viewing experience as the screens of IMAX fills your entire field-of-vision (FOV).

    In conclusion, Real-D 3D while widely available, sound and image may not always be in sync in quality. Theaters presenting this format are given liberty to customize its systems (ie: Dolby 3D, Dolby 7.1, THX, Screen size, angle of seats, etc..) Meanwhile its rival, IMAX delivers a consistent viewing experience as it requires its theaters all over the world to maintain its strict standards despite its limited locations. Choosing what format to watch really boils down: where are you from? Is there an IMAX theater nearby?

  • 102 Ann // May 29, 2013 at 18:48

    Good comparison, but…
    “Too stupid?” That’s a bit condescending. I know quite a few people who don’t like watching movies in 3D.

  • 103 Fred Lambert // Aug 7, 2013 at 21:02

    IMAX mostly in the USA? No. IMAX is a technology invented in Montreal and yes there are a lot in the states but not “mostly”

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