1, no. 3, Summer 1992
Expo '92 Seville
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
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.
GIANT RECTANGULAR SCREENS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
||no. of projs
|Imax Magic Carpet
||rectangle or dome
|Iwerks Imagine 360
*30 fps option
**approx. half the film frame is used