It’s been a year since the IMAX Enhanced 4K HDR software and flagship consumer electronics certification program was launched. For most of that time the effort has focused on building the base of studios, distributors, manufacturers and retail partners. Now it’s consumer time.

HD Guru caught up to John McDaniel, business development VP for Xperi, the audio-partner in the IMAX big screen equation, for an update on what’s been going on and where the IMAX Enhanced program will begin to appear next.

Q: How has the IMAX Enhanced Certification program done in its first year since launch?

John McDaniel: Many would say we’ve been quite successful. We now have the overwhelming majority of premium AV brands. These include: Denon, Marantz, ARCAM, Trinnov, Onkyo, Pioneer, Elite, Integra, Audio Control, Anthem and others. We have partnerships with a large majority of that market. From a display perspective we focused initially on partnering with Sony that had a number of TVs that could meet that very high bar. They’ve done an excellent job not only with their panels, but also with their processors that are able to maximize the performance of their panels. We didn’t want to go too fast and expand too significantly where we diluted the brand and we weren’t focused on the quality.

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Q: How aware are consumers of the value and benefits of the IMAX Enhanced program?

A: Now, as the content is being launched, you will see more of a presence at retail, such as the Sony retail centers in the Best Buy locations now. As we continue to rollout through our vehicles, more attention on consumer education. But we didn’t want to leverage those vehicles before the experience was broadly available to consumers. We had a number of IMAX Enhanced 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc releases but we wanted to wait until we had FandangoNow and Rakuten and shortly Tencent Video live in market to then go out and really educate consumers to experience this for themselves. You haven’t really seen that transition from B-to-B to B-to-C, and you are now going to start seeing that in the coming months and leading into CES. This will be reflected on the IMAX Enhanced website and other areas.

The core element of the IMAX Enhanced program was to create optimized playback of unique content on certified premium devices.

When we talk about unique content, we are talking about the digitally remastered image.

The same process IMAX applies to the content going into their theaters world wide, we apply that digtal remastering to the home entertainment content.

The reason they digitally remaster is because they have brighter projection technology, dual-projection technology, larger screens, and higher contrast screens. They noticed very early on when they started exhibiting Hollywood content it would illustrate anomolies that would otherwise go unseen in traditional cinemas. So they realized we have to remaster the content so that it is not an inferior experience. So they actually remaster the content before it goes into IMAX cinemas, and fast forward 20 years, we now have larger, brighter, higher-contrast home display screens and the studios realize they have the same problem for home entertainment. It is essentially a reference monitor on their content, and therefore the IMAX DMR, the digital remastering technology, becomes critical. It ensures that the content is clear and sharp and it does so without impacting color. So it is a very creative process, that is undergone with the creators. They create a clean take of the film and then there is a blending process that occurs scene-by-scene to determine what is appropriate so there isn’t that distracting noise, but it preserves the film grain and the creative components of the film without affecting color and the creative intent is preserved.

Q: Can the requirements of the newly announced Filmmaker Mode from the Ultra HD Alliance work in tandem with IMAX Enhanced certified products and content?

A: Sure. The key takeaway from Filmmaker Mode is to take away all of that processing that degrades creative intent. Our mode, in the same way, mandates that all of that [motion] processing or frame interpolation is disabled. So that frame interpolation that essentially takes a 24 fps film and makes it look like a soap opera, is turned off. But in terms of the aspect ratio, they really are all about preserving the original aspect ratio of the film, so that you are not blowing it out or cropping out portions of the picture that alters the creative intent.

In terms of the IMAX Enhanced program, we are bringing the aspect ratio of IMAX cinemas into the home. So the film exhibited 1.90:1 aspect ratio in IMAX Cinemas is brought into the home. IMAX has an exclusivity around the aspect ratio for IMAX cinemas. So Marvel titles, for example, will have a 1.90:1 aspect ration in IMAX cinemas and 2.40:1 in other cinemas. Many filmmakers will master their films in IMAX and then there are derivatives used in other cinemas. We’re taking the IMAX master and bringing that to the home, preserving the expanded aspect ratio, if available. Not all films will have an IMAX expanded aspect ratio. Some will have 2.40:1. That’s not going to exclude them from participating in the program. We bring what was shown in IMAX cinemas into the home.

What about sound?

Q: In addition to the IMAX aspect ratio there is IMAX signature sound. Rather than speaker arrays, IMAX Theaters use large full-range speakers. They also bass manage in the cinema so rather than a 5.1 channel setup, and IMAX cinema will be a 5.0 or a 12.0. They have a unique center height channel that was derived from the documentary days. Now studios have leveraged that channel and are mixing that for IMAX cinemas. We bring that channel into the home using DTS:X as well. So, again, it’s about preserving that creative intent in the IMAX signature sound at home.

The optimized playback devices go into an IMAX mode when they have detected IMAX creative content, this adjusts for both the audio and the creative image perspective. So, it preserves the creative intent and on the IMAX certified AVRs, that’s where we leverage filters and bass management that is utilized in IMAX cinemas. The IMAX certified displays go through over 950 picture quality certification tests targeting the upper echelon of devices — or about 10% of the market that can meet that high bar of certification. Of course the optimized playback mode ensures some consistency of playback. But also the device itself has to have a certain quality of playback level. If you have a Filmmaker Mode on a sub-par TV, that’s not going to do you much good. So, it’s about having a certain high standard for devices that ensures I have this unique content that is mastered to a certain quality level and then I have the devices that can replicate the experience, thus ensuring there is some consistency there with IMAX cinemas. The filmmakers love that IMAX cinemas are calibrated on an almost daily basis, both from an image and an audio perspective. So along those lines we try to make sure there is some consistency with that same quality level in the home.

Coming into CEDIA 2019 we just announced the IMAX Enhanced loudspeaker program. The partners announced were JBL Synthesis and Definitive Technologies. We have yet to announce which models, as those companies are working on certifying products that will be positioned under the program.

Previously announced recent partnerships include: Anthem and StormAudio, select Sony Bravia TVs in targeted European territories, as well as TCL’s new X10 TV in China. IMAX Enhanced device partners also include Arcam, AudioControl, Denon, Elite, Integra, Lexicon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony Corporation, TCL, and Trinnov — all of which have met performance requirements set by IMAX, DTS, and leading technical specialists throughout Hollywood.

Q: Do you have some sort of IMAX Certified calibration program for the home?

A: We do recommend displays are properly calibrated to ISF standards, in the same way we leverage existing formats and technologies. IMAX Enhanced video is not a new HDR format. Some people like to associate IMAX Enhanced with some other format, but we are leveraging HDR10 and optionally HDR10+ to deliver the IMAX Enhanced image. We refer to IMAX Enhanced as an ecosystem of content and devices. So it isn’t a format, because we are leveraging existing formats. So we don’t go as far as to recommend specification calibration formats or processes, other than recommending ISF for the calibration work on displays and after the displays have had at least 100-150 use hours. On our web site we have an FAQ that covers our recommendations for how the viewing environment should be setup to maximize the benefits of the IMAX Enhanced program for both the displays and the speaker configuration. Granted, the intent from a mass market perspective is that the experience is simple and clearly communicates that this is the best content form if paired with this flagship display or audio product. At its core, we don’t want this to be complex. We want to it be easy to understand and duplicate. But we do offer recommendations for the home theater environment such as speaker configuration,–for example we recommend four subwoofers or at minimum two. But of course this is all dependent upon the room response.

Q: What’s new with IMAX Enhanced content via streaming?

A: This year we launched streaming with the Privilege service on Sony 4K TVs specifically for IMAX Enhanced. It delivers that content at an exceptionally high bit rate. We define for the digital retailers that they have to meet certain standards around delivering the content. That’s from a high-bit rate from both the audio and video perspective. Privlege, which launched in June, was our initial launch partner and was offered on Sony IMAX Enhanced TVs. Earlier in the year at CES, we announced streaming digital video launch partners which includes: FandangoNow in the U.S., Rakuten in Europe, and Tencent Video in China. At IFA in Berlin, Germany, earlier this month we then announced that IMAX Enhanced content will now be available on FangdangoNow (US) and Rakuten TV (Europe) in September.

We recently announced more titles for streaming and physical media or both including: several Paramount titles such as Bumble Bee, Pet Sematary, Crawl and Rocketman; several Sony Pictures movies including Spider-man: Far From Home (Rakuten and coming soon to FandangoNow), and The Angry Birds 2 Movie (4K Ultra HD Blu-ray).

Q: How are you addressing content security against piracy?

A: It is the studios that own the content and it is their IP. They have defined stringent standards around 4K HDR content. It takes quite a while to get one of these 4K services up and running, with all kinds of hoops the services have to jump through to ensure that all of the devices on which they will deliver that 4K content will be secure. So the service and the devices all have to include the [digital rights management] DRM technologies and be certified, providing proof to the studios that they have been certified end-to-end to eliminate any form of IP risk. The studios handle all of that. We don’t get involved in it.

Unfortunately, it is due to that stringent certification that it has taken a while to get IMAX Enhanced content out on streaming platforms.

Q: Is 8K resolution covered in the IMAX Enhanced program?

A: Not specifically but we’ve done analysis, both objectively and subjectively, and we have determined that the IMAX DMR actually futureproofs the content, and the studios love this. It optimizes the content for 8K playback because of the added benefits of clarity and sharpness. The new 8K AI up-rezing technologies [in IMAX certified 8K televisions] do a remarkable job of taking our 4K IMAX Enhanced content and leveraging it for 8K displays. It actually ensures that it is an 8K experience for 4K HDR content. The digital remastering processes optimizes that content for 8K playback. Now, IMAX does have access to 8K content because IMAX documentaries and Hollywood movies shot on IMAX 70mm film have an effective resolution of 18K. IMAX is able to scan that effectively at 8K, so they have access to 8K content. The challenge remains in delivering that to the consumer. So we aren’t doing anything specifically from the IMAX 8K content perspective at this time, but we are certifying the up-rezing technology in IMAX certified 8K displays to make sure the display doesn’t negatively impact the IMAX experience.

By Greg Tarr

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