michael naimark

Presence, vol. 1, no. 3, Summer 1992
MIT Press

Expo '92 Seville

Michael Naimark


EXPO '92, "The Age of Discovery," opened in Seville in late April and will run through mid-October. Classed as a category "A" Universal Exposition by the Bureau International des Expositions (B.I.E.) in Paris, it is only the fourth such expo (after Brussels '58, Montreal '67, and Osaka '70) and the last one until the year 2000.

World's Fairs have traditionally been the place to show off culture and technology, particularly largescale media technology. The Paris Exposition of 1900, just five years after the birth of projected cinema, hosted not only a giant rectangular screen film 53 by 70 feet produced by the Lumiere brothers, but also a ten-screen 330 foot circumference cylindrical movie by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson. The first largescale dome projection premiered at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. At the 1964 New York World's Fair, filmmakers Francis Thompson, Sasha Hammid, and Buckminster Fuller produced a multi-screen short film entitled "To Be Alive," which became the first specialized-format production to win an Academy Award. Consequently, the next world's fair, EXPO '67 in Montreal, was the largest forum ever for largescale and specialized media theaters. Since then, several enhanced-format systems have evolved into standards (such as Imax and Omnimax, CircleVision, and Showscan).

EXPO '92 has its share of novel media theaters and attractions with a wide range of technical and aesthetic quality. This survey is the result of visiting 42 pavillions in 3 1/2 days (as well as similar blitzes at the 3 previous EXPOs: Vancouver '86, Brisbane '88, Osaka '90).

So first, for those who keep track of such things: Expo '92 has no "talking heads" (projection on face-shape screens, prominent in Brisbane '88); no "haunted ballrooms" to speak of (room-sized half-silvered mirrors for super-imposition, at least three in Osaka '90); one "floating genie" (concave mirror for frontal reflection, popularized by the "floating nickel" illusion and bastardized by Sega's "Hologram" arcade game); no interactive theaters (the Czechs made the first in Montreal '67 and the best in Osaka '90); many holograms (all film-based); and HDTV only as technical demos.


The leading producer of large-format flat screen cinema is the Imax Corporation of Canada. Conceived as a single-system alternative to the popular but unwieldy multiple camera/projector installations at Montreal '67, Imax made its debut at Osaka '70. The system uses a horizontally-formatted 70 millimeter film (ten times the spatial resolution of standard vertical 35 mm film) and an interlocked six channel sound system with sub-bass. The projector is equipped with a patented vaccuum-based "rolling loop" film movement and a 7 to 15 kilowatt light source; the image is clear, steady, and relatively bright. The theaters, typically with 500 seats, feature screens up to eight storeys high and horizontal view angles exceeding 60 degrees, enough to make the frame disappear. Currently nearly 80 Imax theaters operate in 15 countries worldwide, showing films ranging from "The Dream Is Alive," the penultimate landscape film (shot from the Space Shuttle), to their first feature-length title "The Rolling Stones At The Max," arguably the most spectacular and intense concert film ever made.

The Imax Corporation has experimented with various related formats, including dome projections (Omnimax, see below), dual projection stereoscopic 3D (the wittiest film at Vancouver '86, produced by the National Film Board of Canada), and several custom configurations (more below). But for EXPO '92, they ventured into a new realm: faster frame rate.

The new system, "Imax HD," records and projects at 48 frames per second (fps) rather than the standard 24 fps. High fps film formats have been championed for over a decade by the Showscan Corporation, using 70mm film running at 60 fps. Standard American video, because it interlaces two half-frame fields every 1/30 second, is also a 60 fps medium in motion update. Ironically, Showscan looks like very high resolution film AND like video at the same time.

Subjectively, the look of Imax HD is almost indistinguishable from that of Showscan. The film, "Momentum," produced by the NFB for the Canada Pavillion - a "picturesque journey through the multi-cultural fabric of Canada" - is well produced, diverse, and upbeat. As its title implies, the film consists mostly of nonstop action shots, exploiting the doubled motion resolution. But as is too often the case with Showscan films, the motion exceeds the limits of the medium, cancelling the effect: the low aerial shots over Niagara Falls, a wobbley dogsled ride, and the fast tracking shots of ice-skaters pale compared to the static shots of a baseball audience, children dancing a Scottish jig, and a bear hunting fish in a river.

A new contender to large-format films is the "870" system produced by Iwerks Entertainment. This system uses vertically-formatted 70 mm film with a frame height of 8 perforations (standard 70 mm film is 5 perforations high and Imax' is 15 perforations wide), hence the name "870." Iwerks designed a theater for the Venezuela Pavilion and produced an adequate short documentary film, progressing from helicopter shots over waterfalls and indigenous village life to timelapse shots of Caracas and its culture and industry. The screen is about half the size (and the same shape) as an Imax theater, consequently the spatial resolution looks the same as Imax but the immersive effect is lacking.

The Showscan Corporation has two films at EXPO '92. A film entitled "Nature Rediscovered," rambling and uninteresting except for an unfaked alligator attack scene, shows at the Nature Pavillion. Its small 128 seat theater has a standard size screen, and most of any enhanced effect is lost.

Showscan's other film, "Concert for the Earth" in the Future Environment Pavillion, is their first attempt at dual system stereoscopic 3D. The theater is large, with a large immersive screen and excellent audio. The audience is instructed to put on polarized glasses when they see the actors in the film put on their glasses, so the first part of the film is 2D. The non-narrative story revolves around a family out for a drive, littering the whole way, until they come to a dead end and get out of their car to see why. Glasses on. Enormous piles of trash, green chemical goo, oily dead birds, humans scavinging, polluted water, and clear-cut forests all in 70 mm, 60 fps 3D. This film may be the first of its kind to use enhanced-format imagery to display the dark side of things, and in its own ugly way is very effective, and very popular.


Dome-screen movies are typically shot and projected with a fisheye lens, in a tilted planetarium-like theater with a 180 degree angle of view. Since the lens used for production consistently matches the lens used for projection, the imagery is orthoscopically constant and correct: everything appears in proper scale. In flat film formats, changing the lens' focal length lends compositional flexibility while it sacrifices accurate scale representation.

Dome-screen movies are always best viewed sitting as close to the projector as possible, otherwise straight lines will appear curved. Off-axis viewing of flat films simply results in "trapezoiding," but no non-linear distortions.

The largest dome theater at EXPO '92 was a 315 seat Omnimax theater in the Discoveries Pavillion, projecting on an 80 foot diameter dome with a 15 kw projector. The film, "Eureka! The Passion to Know," is a docu-drama of discoveries through the ages, alternating between English and Spanish, from 11th century map makers, Magellan, Columbus, and Newton to space shots and an Omnimax-filmed solar eclipse. Clearly a big-budget production, it is the first Omnimax production to use a Steadicam stabilizer for its large camera.

The most ambitious and successful Imax dome experience is their Solido system, showing in the Fujitsu Pavillion. Solido is a stereoscopic 3D twin projector Omnimax-like system, using wireless liquid crystal shutter glasses. With twin-bladed shutters in the projectors, the glasses can open and close each lens 48 times per second, thereby eliminating flicker. The glasses have about a 60 degree horizontal viewing angle, and since the screen itself is 180 degrees, the viewers can't see everything at once, encouraging head movement.

The film, "Echos of the Sun," which was produced by Imax and Fujitsu for Osaka '90, consists primarily of very high resolution computer graphics directed by Nelson Max. It is the story of the conversion of sunlight into sugar and sugar into energy. This film is extremely dense in content, teaching biochemistry through powerful visualization and dashes of humor. "Echos" was the biggest hit of Osaka '90 for both technology and content and is destined to be the same in Seville.

Another ambitious but less successful dome theater experience is the "Moviemax" theater produced by Iwerks Entertainment for the host Spain Pavillion. Moviemax is an Omnimax-size dome using the Iwerks "870" film format (one half the spatial resolution of Omnimax, noticably) and Iwerks' "Turbo Tour" motion simulator seats. Each unit contains two seats with seatbelts and motion actuators underneath. The Moviemax theater seating is about 1/4 as dense as standard theaters, with twice the space needed both for rows and for columns. Seating for our screening took about 15 minutes, with people climbing up on their seats and trying to strap themselves in, and a bevy of attendants trying to help.

The film itself is a "thrill film" of the beauty and attractions of Spain. The scenes alternate between aerial shots (seats rock gently) and rides on horse-driven coaches, rowboats, windsurfers, and camels (seats bump and jerk). This is not a good film, with no narrative or narrative vehicle, and nothing to offer but sensory shake-up.

Another vertical-format 70mm dome film was produced by Omni Films for the Puerto Rico Pavillion. This is a stylized travelogue film which includes a map on a Fifteenth Century cartographer's table morphing into a 3D computer fly-through and various scenes with people or props dollying oddly in and out of the frame.

Though dome films are orthoscopically correct when recorded and projected through matched lenses, they can be misaligned with respect to the horizon. This problem is most noticable here in the Puerto Rico theater. As one looks from one side to the other during an exterior shot, the horizon line should follow the dome in an arc parallel to the ground. For reasons relating both to image composition and theater design, the horizon line often tilts upward, resulting in an artificially high view and neckaches.

Finally, the Future Universe Pavilion has a planetarium theater, built around the Evans and Sutherland "Digistar" projection system, the first and only computer-generated all electronic fisheye projector. Unlike other planetarium projectors, where all stars are mechanically fixed in the position seen from Earth, the Digistar allows space travel. The show is an electronic "Powers of Ten," zooming out to the edge of the universe and back (complemented with six color video projectors). Though the Digistar projector represents a breakthrough technology, it is currently monochrome and not sufficiently bright.


Cylindrical screen theaters, showing 360 degree panoramas, are fundamentally different in concept and execution than either flat or dome projections. First, a panorama is directionless with no one proper place to look (or hide, if you are the camera operator). Traditional panoramic movies are non-narrative and landscape-based, with locations carefully selected for interesting viewing from all sides.

Panoramic imagery can be recorded several ways. A special lens or mirror can be designed to map a panorama into a donut-shaped image. The Swiss Volpi Peri-Appolar lens is an example, but these solutions tend to be either low quality or very expensive. Another way is to use a camera with a rotating slit such as the Globuscope or Widelux still cameras, but these designs are problematic for motion picture recording. The most common way has been to use multiple cameras arranged for total coverage.

Disney's popular CircleVision format uses nine cameras and nine projectors. The camera pod consists of all 9 cameras pointing up into mirrors such that each camera shares the same virtual nodal point. The projectors are hidden in the vertical mullions between adjacent screens, projecting on the screen opposite; hence the odd number.

The China Pavillion has a CircleVision style theater, a relatively small one where everyone sits on the floor. Because of the 360 degree projection, the ambient light in the room is rather high and one is very conscious of the audience. The film is a non-narrative patchwork travelogue in which rolling the camera (where the horizon tilts, such as during helicopter turns) is the greatest crowd pleaser. When the film starts everyone is sitting randomly oriented. "Directionality" is never asserted, except by occassional titles that always appear in the same place on one particular screen. By the end of the film, virtually everyone is facing that direction.

The Australian Pavillion has its own new panoramic format called "Hexiplex," using six screens with projectors above projecting on the opposite screen (and no mullions). Below the screens and projectors are arena seats (the most comfortable - sheepskin upholstered). The host announces that it doesn't matter where you sit because all the seats are good. Another travelogue. After a few minutes something subtle becomes apparent: the entire screen/projector system is rotating, about once per minute. Most of the shots are dolly shots, so the additional angular motion mostly goes unnoticed.

A curious new system by Iwerks Entertainment called "Imagine 360" uses a single 70mm camera and projector which appears in the Basque Pavillion, projecting on a seamless cylindrical screen. This small 45 foot diameter theater holds 125 people who stand in the center holding railings. The film is about a boy and his "magic camera," a clever vehicle for a travelogue since the boy (who was actually pushing the camera dolly) is always present in the frame. But the technical quality of the system is poor: a one-ninth wedge of the panorama looked similar to super-8mm film with noticable chromatic aberration.


Custom largescale screen configurations have been popular at EXPOs ever since Montreal '67, where the spectacular "Chamber One" of the Labyrinthe Pavillion housed a four storey high vertical screen and a screen of equal size on the floor, showing the same contiguous image. At Osaka '90, Imax premiered the rather silly "Magic Carpet" format, with one standard Imax screen in front and another viewed through a transparent floor under the seats.

The largest and most expensive custom configuration at Seville is the French Pavillion's "Le Puits d'Images" (Well of Images), an enormous square pit with fully mirrored walls and Imax projection covering the floor. Viewers can either stand around the pit looking down or ride moving sidewalks directly over it. Three short films were made for this installation: one entirely of still images, a computer graphic space film, and a helicopter travel film. The mirrored walls transform what might have been a good idea (films made to be viewed looking down) into an over-indulgent kaleidoscope effect. "Le Puits d'Images" is the biggest disappointment at EXPO '92.

Another indulgent custom installation is a 900 monitor video wall in the Future Telecommunications Pavillion showing an unmemorable multi-image piece entitled "Poet."

An elegant custom configuration resembling a large, four piece sail is installed in the Denmark Pavillion. Using multiple projector slides to create single composite images, the show is made to be viewed lying down directly underneath, a casual and upbeat crowd pleaser.

The most spectacular custom film system is over 100 feet high and made entirely of water, in the middle of the lake in the center of the EXPO site. Jet sprays of water are used each evening to create giant projection screens. Drive-in style film projectors are positioned behind the water jets. Since water acts as a very high-gain screen, the images are very bright but directional. Five systems are used in sync to accomodate everyone around the lake.


Integrating live perfomance with projection dates back to the Phantasmagoria shows of the 18th century, where giant half-silvered mirrors were used to reflect ghost-like images. A similar technique was employed in the GM "Spirit Lodge" at Vancouver '86 and at the Australian Pavillion at Brisbane '88. The popular "Laturna Magica" at Montreal '67 involved a live performer in front of a motion picture screen moving in sync with the imagery.

A novel and excellent integration of live performance and projection takes place in the Great Britain Pavillion. A stage set has a scrim wall in front (allowing both front projection and transparency, depending on lighting) and a full-length video wall in back. The actor, sandwiched in the center and taking cues from the music track, performs in sync with moving images in front and behind: washing his face from a projected sink in front, drawing on a blackboard displayed behind, walking in a rainstorm projected on the front, etc.


Information kiosks are present in many pavillions as well as the abundant IBM Expo kiosks networked throughout the Expo site. Most of the Pavillion systems are touchscreen-based and well designed but slow. Watching guests use these systems, often for the first time, it becomes extremely clear that if the system doesn't respond instantly it loses its audience, and no amount of "interface design" will save it. To their credit, the IBM information kiosks are fast, easy to use, and popular for finding one's way around.

Both the Canada Pavillion and the Austria Pavillion are hotbeds of interactive exhibitry, much like small well-funded Exploratoriums. The Canada Pavillion has several videodisc-based surrogate travel style exhibits including one with a ship's wheel input and one with a snowmobile platform, as well as a bluescreen stage for chroma-keying guests to "reach out and touch Ontario." The Austria Pavillion, with various kinetic sculptures outside, has panning "video telescopes" inside. These telescopes consist of an eyepiece coupled to a small video monitor inside: when the telescope is panned, the videodisc-based image pans in sync.


The Austria Pavillion also has a non-interactive ski simulator, where the guests lean into a shell and view video of skiing down a hill. The guests' feet are each on small motion platforms, synchronized with the image. Keeping each foot on separate platforms is ideal for skiing. These may well be the smallest motion platforms ever made.

The Red Cross Pavillion exploits cardiovascular physiology and emotions with its simple low-budget pavillion. The first half consists of walking up four storeys of dark ramps, through slide and video projections of disasters and destruction, no holds barred. At the top, one emerges in daylight and begins a bright open walk down ramps, now viewing images of the Red Cross in action.

The Dutch are hosts to a temporary exhibit in the Arts Pavillion, exhibiting mostly video installation art, including an interactive rotating monitor and a windmill made of rotating televisions. But one of the most popular immersive experiences at Expo '92 is in the Dutch Pavillion: banks of ViewMasters.


(table from the beginning of paper)

Large-Format Film Systems

Name bandwidth (35mm 24fps) film gauge fps no. of projs screen
Imax 3D 20x 70mm 15perf 24 2 3D rectangle
Imax Solido 20x 70mm 15perf 24 2 3D dome
Imax HD 20x 70mm 15perf 48 1 rectangle
Imax Magic Carpet 20x 70mm 15perf 24 2 2 rectangles
Showscan 3D 16.6x 70mm 5perf 60 2 3D rectangle
Imax 10x 70mm 15perf 24 1 rectangle
Imax Omnimax 10x 70mm 15perf 24 1 dome
CircleVision 9x 35mm 4perf 24 9 cylinder
Showscan 8.3x 70mm 5perf 60 1 rectangle
Hexiplex 6x 35mm 4perf 24 6 cylinder
Iwerks 870 5x/6.25x* 70mm 8perf 24/30 1 rectangle or dome
Omni Films 5x 70mm 8perf 24 1 dome
Iwerks Imagine 360 ~2.5x** 70mm 8perf 24 1 cylinder

*30 fps option

**approx. half the film frame is used