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The Ultimate Comparison: DLP vs IMAX 3D vs 35mm Film

by
July 1, 2006

I decided to do an "end-all" comparison of today's three major feature film formats using Superman Returns as the reference. I saw the film over 5 days, 3 times in total, once in each format. The schedule was: Tuesday at 10PM on 35mm film, Thursday at 10PM on IMAX 3D, Saturday at 2:10PM on DLP. I attended our FS.net home base theatre, a Cinemark (with IMAX) in Colorado Springs, CO. Here is my report on the various formats and my opinion on which one had the best various elements.

Part 1 - Image Quality

1) DLP
2) 35mm Film
3) IMAX 3D

Image quality is particularly the defining element that separates these three formats. DLP is the direct digital showing of the movie, whereas IMAX 3D is a 70mm film, and lastly there is the typical 35mm film. Each was generally the same, as the movie's actual overall quality is determined as a final product, not necessarily as much over the various formats. However, there were some clear differences between each.

The 35mm film was as you'd expect any movie regularly in a theatre. This doesn't say much, however it was the normal great 35mm film feeling. The manager of the theatre referred to film as something that "breathes" as opposed to digital. When I saw it, the film seemed to be ever-so-slightly out of focus and lacked some sharpness. I've seen this before, as it is what happens, but in the end it didn't affect the experience. High noise scenes were still smooth and looked great, and computer generated scenes looked just as smooth as any others. Overall still a great quality of image coming from conventional 35mm film.

The IMAX 3D showing was the worst image quality. Disregarding all of the 3D elements (my criticism of the 3D elements can be found in another article) it still did not live up to regular film or DLP. It may be the fact that they use 70mm film and blow it up onto a much larger screen, or it may be just how the conversion to IMAX film works. One of the most recognizable differences are scenes with high noise, where the noise was accentuated to a much greater level. Instead of looking smooth and natural, it looked much too noticeable and out-of-place. Although it was still sharp and didn't look overly "blown" (in the way Matrix Revolutions did on IMAX), it was still the worst quality image of the three formats.

DLP took the lead when it came to image quality. To be honest, the difference between 35mm film and DLP was hardly noticeable. I struggled while watching the DLP to really find specific instances that were a strong emphasis on the increased quality. However I felt that the scenes were much more consistently sharper and higher resolution. It just felt constantly smooth at a high level of detail throughout the entire film. My only complaint is that in the DLP showing I was at the brightness must have been too low or the contrast was too high. The dark parts on screen ended up being entirely black and the whole image seemed way too dark. It wasn't noticeable (only if you've seen it more than once and know what to expect) but it was a complaint I had about DLP. I am assuming it can be corrected via controls on the projector and isn't just how the digital conversion turned out.

Part 2 - Sound Quality

1) 35mm Film
2) DLP
3) IMAX 3D

Although there really won't be much difference between sound (as they are all probably referenced from the same DTS discs in each theatre), the difference comes down to the theatre and the speakers they have. Although I have some dislike for IMAX 3D, it honestly had the worst sound of all three in truthful comparison, not based on bias.

The 35mm film sound was the best. It was clear, loud and powerful, and crisp. DLP came second, although I expected it to be the best. It was largely because the volume was down too much and it became too much of the monotone-sounding front-voices-only. This is when the sound is lower than it should be, and the voices all come through the front channels (behind the screen) loudest because they are the prominent sound. Then the remaining sound elements (effects, ambient noise, and music) are all coming from the sides that are too low and this sounds like all the talking comes straight from the front and that is all that's there. This would seem like it should be fine, but it actually isn't. The sound should be entirely immersive and in that situation it isn't.

Lastly was IMAX 3D (again). My bias aside again, the sound was just horrible. They claim that we're "surrounded by over 40 speakers," but it seems like none of them worked! It lacks the power that both DLP and 35mm film both had, even though the subwoofers in there are bigger than both theatres combined. I hope in the future they improve the sound in the IMAX theatre so that it actually is as captivating as the 3D elements.

Part 3 - The "Experience"

1) DLP
2) IMAX 3D
3) 35mm Film

This is the only category where IMAX 3D is not in dead last. The "experience" is putting together all elements: image quality, sound quality, and the theatre atmosphere, and determining how good the "experience" combined was.

DLP took the lead in the "experience" because of the great sound quality combined with the best image quality. It truly is immersive and it really draws you into the movie much more than the others individually. This is a tough comparison, because the "experience" in all three is almost the same between them. The only reason IMAX 3D bumped above 35mm film was because of the 3D elements. They did add to the experience. I sat in the DLP after watching 3D and when watching the 3D scenes filled in the image in my mind briefly. That minor experience pushed it up a bit more in this category, but only quite minimally. As I stated, the "experience" is a tough category to differentiate ranks, but I believe my rankings are appropriately solid for the three formats.

Conclusion

1) DLP - Best!
2) 35mm Film
3) IMAX 3D

The winner takes all, and in the movie format wars, it's DLP. In the same category as the experience, the combination of its excellent image quality, great sound, and captivating environment really makes DLP stand out. If I could, I would probably see almost every movie in DLP. However this world is limited to only releasing just a few films in the digital format. The projectors are incredibly expensive and the maintenance is just as rigorous (there aren't as many moving parts or reels, but it requires downloads and computer configuration). In addition the theatre is smaller than the big 470-seat ones at our Cinemark and won't work as a midnight movie theatre.

The unfortunate side of this story is that IMAX 3D has earned the worst rating on top of considerable criticism. This was supposed to be the experience that breaks all bounds, but it wasn't. Not only was the 3D not worth the annoying effort of putting-on/taking-off the glasses, but the quality in both image and sound was worse than the other formats. I've never been impressed with IMAX showings. A larger screen size does nothing when everything else the movie has to offer is destroyed.

And lastly, trusty "ole" 35mm film still lives on. In the same tone that the theatre manager still believes film is the ultimate format, so do I. It does "breathe" and it does live on in the great quality that it has provided forever. Don't underestimate how great 35mm film still is and still will be for years to come. DLP will progress upwards, but 35mm film will always be around.

Stay tuned for an interview soon with QuVIS, the company that does the downloads to theatres for DLP showings.

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  • I don't understand how DLP can be the best yet you felt it was too dark.
  • John
    I have a 3-D lens available for sale. It came from Super Cinema 3-D company out of Switzerland. Would you be interested in purchasing it? The original selling price was $79,000.
  • Grady
    I work for a company (un-named) that manufactures and maintains DLP Cinema Projectors and have a couple of comments: DLP doesn't use dts disks generally, it most commonly uses 5.1 audio that is stored digitally then sent to the audio processor on an analog 25 pin connector (like a parallel port on a computer), which is excatly how the DTS or Dolby Digital sound would be delivered, if the audio experiance was different it is probably due that house just having worse equipment. audio can also be delivered to the processor via AES which really does make a difference, but only newer processors have that connection. color on DLP projectors should be perfect, they should have the primary colors measured and entered into the DLP software, and the light level adjusted to the DCI standard 14fL; it is possible that this wasn't done at this theater. I see this is a pretty old post, but I enjoyed it.
  • ssq
    Sorry to reply to such an old post, but I found this via a recent search. Your comparison is unfortunately flawed, as the move Superman Returns had a 2K digital intermediate, so no matter how it is projected, you can never see more than 2K worth of detail, as it's not there in the original image. IMAX is certainly capable of displaying a lot more than 2K worth of information, and its large screen size makes this additional detail easy to see. A far better film to make this comparison with would have been "The Dark Knight". Parts of the movie were actually filmed in 15-perf 70mm IMAX, so there is a lot more detail to see. Special effects were rendered at up to 8K resolution. TDK would have demonstrated clearly that IMAX has far more visual information than any currently available DLP system. Hopefully you got a chance to see this movie in IMAX while it was still in theaters. It was a rare chance to see a director and cinematographer aiming higher than the de-facto 2K lowest common denominator that unfortunately seems to have taken hold in recent years.
  • ariel wollinger
    WTF???? DLP better than IMAX? you gotta be kidding me!! you probably seen a very bad imax projection. Probably the material you saw wasn't captured in native imax cameras and the focus was probably bad....
  • Alex
    IMAX and only IMAX, with its components would make the mark. However, there are only a few hundred IMAX films, using the IMAX method, that should take into the acount of the experience. DLP is a present way to deliver visuals, from the source better than anything else. IMAX has the challenge to upgrade and who knows, the results may be completely alien and impressive. The regular movies, are already upgraded. IMAX is really a different thing all together.
  • Jazz
    I just drove 2 hours to columbus ohio to see Avatar in IMAX 3-D. It was worth the drive. o much detail on the screen. I will see it in regular 3-D to check the diffrences.
  • mark mason
    i feel that what you said and final verdict to in my opinion be correct,however i may have chosen the 35mm playback option as my no 1 choice,as you said it breathes and the new cyan soundtracks are great,with dolby pro-logic pouring out the surround speakers from the dolby stereo a type analouge soundtrack,with good lenses,screen,lamp,scope 2.35 film prints and apperture plates its got a good future globaly....
  • jazz
    I drove 8 hours to upsate New York for Xmas and saw the regular 3-d. The 3-d effects did not seem to be as plentiful as in the I Max version. But some non computer made sences (with regular people) seemed sharper and tighter. Tonight i saw the non 3-d version in Cleveland. 3-d can reallly spoil you. I enjoyed the movie, but it seem to lose some luster..it seemed a little hazy. But oddly enough it made the avatars look real vs computer generated. In any case, I still prefer IMax 3-d. I will see it again in PA.
  • Mjgsoundservices
    I must whole hartedly disagree with you on the subject of Imax. The theater that I go to is in Irvine Calif has an 8 story screen and still uses 70mm 15 perf film. the sound in that theater is absolutly aewsome. with do respect to you sir when you saw the Imax version of Superman Returns it must have been a bad theater because when I saw it , it blew me away. I,m a sound tech and there sound (Imax that is) is fantastic. I am a big fan of useing film 35 or 70mm the picture is very very good. The Regal cinimas chain have upgraded there christie 35mm to the Sony 4k digital projector. I saw True Grit and Source code in this format and it was fantastic. The picture was awesome, the company who installed projectors also retuned the room the sound is better than it,s ever been, big fat and full.

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