I finally got tickets to see Oppenheimer in 70mm IMAX later this month. I’m excited about seeing a theatrical presentation on film, which is a surprising rarity in Canada these days.

Over the past few years, I’ve gone to the theatre less and less often. Less than a decade ago, I was going once every week or two. This year, I’ve seen a handful of releases (we saw Barbie twice), but we often strategically wait to see something when it releases on home video.

The reason for this is simple: outside of sheer size, most modern TVs are better than theatres in every object measurement. My wife and I are fortunate enough to have a surround sound system in our home, and we have a big 4K HDR OLED TV in front of our couch too. The visual experience (size of the screen notwithstanding) is much better than what you can get in most theatres.

Most movie theatres, including Premium Large Format screens, do not project in HDR. They can’t. Projector bulbs can’t get bright enough. Some laser projectors can get in the ballpark, but they’re exceedingly rare. (If you live in Toronto, the Scotiabank IMAX theatre has a dual laser 4K projector that is very bright. That being said, the last I heard was that the theatre was due for demolition so they can build condos there instead, so enjoy it while you can.)

Because the projectors are so dim, they are only projecting standard dynamic range. They often project a 2K version of the film (just above the resolution of 1080p). If you’ve ever sat up front at an older theatre (perhaps one built before Avatar came out), this is why you might have noticed pixellation.

The cameras that filmmakers use to make movies, though, shoot in HDR. It’s not a feature they need to enable. They simply capture more dynamic range than a theatre can support.

A high-end cinema camera might capture seventeen stops of exposure. Your average SDR presentation can present three of those seventeen stops. A digital presentation in SDR is prepared to show you everything within those three stops, and any other information is jettisoned from the image. (This is why studios are eager to re-sell you films you already own in HDR — this is the first time they’ve been able to present the whole negative.)

For a lot of films, this isn’t as big a problem as it might sound. Good cinematographers are aware of the limitations of film production, and use a lot of lights to make sure that the dynamic range in their presentation is not beyond what most screens can show. (Roger Deakins, who has shot films like Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049, and Sicario, is amazing at this.)

But there are advantages to a wider range of presentation for any film. Jaws is a perfect example: it doesn’t have a huge dynamic range, but there are still lots of reflections of the sun on the water, and it’s nice that those reflections can get brighter and more like what you’d see on celluloid. Lawrence of Arabia was shot in the desert for a year, in gruelling conditions. It’s a very bright film. It’s wonderful in HDR, simply because it benefits from the wider dynamic range of that presentation.

For that reason, I can tell you Barbie is going to look wonderful in HDR too. Both my wife and I immediately recognized that some shots in Barbieland looked almost underexposed in both screenings we saw. I am certain that they had to compress the range of these sequences to preserve the highlights in the sky. Skin tones are a little darker on occasion, but unlike the real world, which is grey and dull in Barbie, Barbieland is always bright and colourful, and the sky is always lit up like a rainbow. It’s going to look great in HDR.

Back to Oppenheimer: After years of watching things on our HDR TV, I’m excited to see a real film projected on a big screen. The film reel can support a wider range of dynamic imagery than a digital SDR presentation, which I imagine is going to shine, particularly in the black and white sequences.

I’ve been disappointed in theatres for years. When film directors talk about how you need to get to the theatres to see their films, I think most people roll their eyes. But that’s only because the current method of theatrical presentation is so far behind the advancements in home cinema that, for most of us, there really is no reason to go to the theatre unless we need to see a movie the second it’s available.

My hope is that Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm is a noticeable improvement. I’ll report back after I see it.