On a mission – to the IMAX

IMAX Projector Reels

We spent a not-so-quiet New Year’s Day enjoying Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol at the IMAX Theatre at The Henry Ford. 

Starting with the six-minute Dark Knight Rises prologue – all the way through most of Mission: Impossible – we were on the edge of our seats. If you’re a Mission: Impossible fan, this is the movie for you. And The Henry Ford IMAX Theatre is definitely the place to see it since a number of scenes were actually shot with IMAX film.

Mission Impossible

Here we are with Ethan Hunt (aka Tom Cruise) and MI 4 crew.

That IMAX clarity, plus Tom Cruise clinging to the outside of the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), added to the giant IMAX screen and the awesome audio, pretty much equaled me holding on to that seat I was precariously on the edge of.

We enjoy making special trips to The Henry Ford’s IMAX Theatre for theatrical films and IMAX features. When our daughters were completely taken in by the release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for IMAX way back in 2002 – a movie they had both seen who-knows-how-many times – we got the clue that the experience was worth going a little out of our way for. When we saw Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in 3-D, our then young teen daughter Helen walked out of the theater and said, “That was like a million times better.” We had also already seen the movie at a local multiplex theater. And I could only agree. She was – like – totally right.

I can say we equally enjoy seeing many of the IMAX-only releases. After a recent viewing of the films Tornado Alley 3D and Conquering Everest during the theater’s fall Xtreme Adventures Film Festival, our 10-year-old son Henry said he loved those movies because they were cool AND educational. That statement is music to this former homeschooling mother’s ears. But he’s right, too. We’ve yet to be disappointed.

xenon bulb

IMAX projection manager, Ron Bartch, shows us a 15,000-watt liquid-cooled, short-arc xenon lamp.

So what makes the IMAX Theatre at The Henry Ford such a cool movie-going experience? I had the opportunity to ask Ron Bartch, the head projectionist at the theater, that very question. To help me understand, he showed me a piece of IMAX film – which is ten times the size of standard 35-millimeter movie film. He also explained about the perforated material used for the screen, which allows the multi-channel audio to come from directly behind the image in addition to the speakers around the theater. He also explained that the screen at the theater is specifically designed for the projection of IMAX film – the theater wasn’t converted for IMAX like some at neighborhood multiplexes. The screen is proportionately designed – it’s eight stories wide (84 feet) and six stories tall (62 feet) – so no part of the original IMAX film picture is lost. He also told me that The Henry Ford’s IMAX Theatre has the largest screen in Michigan.

There’s actually a lot of interesting science behind the whole IMAX movie experience. The light that projects that large film onto that very large screen comes from two 15,000-watt liquid-cooled, short-arc xenon lamps. The average luminance of one of these xenon lamps is approximately 1.6 billion candles per square yard. That’s close to equal that of the sun as viewed from the earth’s surface! That’s some serious light.

Balistics gear

Ron shows some of the ballistics gear worn to protect the projectionists when they change the highly pressurized xenon lamps.

Because of the extreme high pressure of the xenon gas inside the quartz glass housing of each lamp, Ron and his crew have to wear ballistic safety gear when they change the lamps (about four times each year). My son Henry was most fascinated with this fact: if the bulbs were dropped, the xenon lamp would explode with the same destructive force of a hand grenade. You can read some cool facts about IMAX theater here.

Xenon bulb in the IMAX projection room

Checking out the IMAX projection room and xenon bulb on the third floor of The Henry Ford IMAX Theatre.

All visitors to the theater can take a look at the enormous million-dollar IMAX projectors at The Henry Ford since the projection room has a windowed wall that is open for viewing before and after films. It’s up on the third floor and is accessible by stairs or elevator.  The projector is the size of a compact car and is the most advanced, highest-precision, and most powerful projector ever built. I guess it makes sense that the projector is the size of the a car, since Ron informed me that an IMAX camera is about the size of a lawn mower.

Movies playing at the IMAX Theatre are Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Born Wild 3D, Tornado Alley 3D and Rescue 3D. You can check out showtimes and purchase tickets online.

If you want to learn more, check out this cool video. It’s always worth a watch. Learning about what makes the IMAX Theatre at The Henry Ford so unique, makes me appreciate the whole IMAX experience that much more.

Kristine Hass is writer and a long-time member of The Henry Ford. She frequently blogs about her family’s visits to America’s Greatest History Attraction.


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