IMAX at Pacific Science Center goes big, bright and bold

When the Harrier jet left the screen and flew into the theater — its nose a few feet from mine — I knew I was in for a new movie-going experience.

The scene was in a demo reel playing in the newly refurbished and upgraded Boeing IMAX Theater at Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

The center rolled out its new theater to the public last week along with the country’s hottest movie ticket: “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” On Monday it premiered a new documentary: “Humpback Whales 3D.”

The four-month long renovation added a bright laser technology projection system and an earth-shaking sound system along with new seats and screen — the largest in Washington.

The Harrier scene was one of several in the demo that included a space shuttle launch from both outside and inside the spaceship, Hubble Space Telescope imagery, and a NASCAR race that made me feel I was riding on the hood of the cars.

While the cerebral part of my brain was telling me I was just watching an incredibly bright 3D movie, the visceral part of me wanted to reach out and touch the planes, cars and other images.

The Harrier scene was created with CGI, but was seamlessly woven into background imagery of a Canadian frigate off the coast of Vancouver Island.

This isn’t the fully immersive dome or wide screen that some theaters have — it’s a squarish 4:3 ratio. But, it’s big. And bright. The laser 4K projection system also has improved clarity. Bleed over of very dark and very bright neighboring image areas, a common problem in digital projection, seems to have been solved.

Two projectors cover the curved screen. In one of the demo reel sequences, a steam train chugged through the Canadian wilderness on a cloudy day. Steam and clouds, difficult subjects to capture in photography without overexposure, are full of detail.

Also improved is the sound system. I could feel my ribs rattle during the shuttle launch. The new system includes 12 discrete channels plus sub-bass. Additional speakers have been added to walls and the ceiling.


“Humpback Whales 3D” makes a splash.

Narrated by Ewan McGregor, the documentary is part history, part culture and part biology. The 45-minute film offers an unprecedented view into the world of the humpback whale, which was nearly hunted into extinction half a century ago.

“Humpback” creator Greg MacGillivray is the man behind the first IMAX blockbuster, 1976’s “To Fly” as well as 1998’s “Everest.”

MacGillivray, who was at a screening of the new film on April 29, said this project proved to him that digital projection with laser technology can be better than film.

The underwater photography in “Humpback” is ethereal and at times inventive. More than once the perspective is turned 180 degrees, giving the appearance of whales dancing on a smooth lake surface. The simple effect is spell-binding.

To their credit, the filmmakers didn’t overuse the 3D imagery for gratuitous effect. Instead it simply serves to enhance the you-are-there feel. Most of it was done in post-production. A 950-pound 3D IMAX camera is a bit difficult to wield underwater, MacGillivray said.

The movie was shot in three principal locations: Tonga, Hawaii and Alaska — all stops on the whales’ 10,000-mile-long annual migration. We see group breeching and hear whale songs — when an incessant and out-of-place pop music soundtrack isn’t playing.

We ride along with crews as they race to untangle fishing gear from ensnarled whales. A good portion of time is spent with mother whales and their calves.

A particularly fascinating piece explains how whales take different roles in organized herring hunts.

The soundtrack, mostly different versions of American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life,” derails the majesty of the whales. The awe inspiring imagery should have been left to a more subtle or at least instrumental piece.

Music choices notwithstanding, children and adults will take home fascinating information on whales, the dangers that face them and what’s needed to protect the majestic creatures.