LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - IMAX has returned to outer space with the movie "IMAX: Hubble 3D," a documentary that harks back to IMAX's roots in science films, but spins into a 3D, Hollywood orbit.
In recent years, the company known for giant-screen films has carved out a valuable business boosting the size of big-budget studio movies like "Avatar" and "How to Train Your Dragon" to suit larger screens, both in 2D and 3D. With its newest effort, however, IMAX returns to its role of offering large-format science films, albeit this time in trendy 3D.
"IMAX: Hubble 3D" documents the May 2009 space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. To capture that footage, a crew of IMAX veterans relied on astronauts to be filmmakers. It was a challenging collaboration led by director Toni Myers and her IMAX crew, teaming with seven astronauts, a NASA support team, one giant camera, space shuttle Atlantis and the galaxy's most famous telescope.
The documentary debuted two weeks ago in IMAX science center theaters in the United States, and by August it will also be playing on IMAX multiplex screens. It has earned mostly strong reviews, with an overall 80 percent positive rating on review website RottenTomatoes.com.
The 43-minute film arrives as IMAX has boosted both its brand name and its bottom line by showing Hollywood movies in refurbished traditional multiplexes. In 2009, IMAX reported net income of 5 million on total revenue of $171 million, up from a net loss of $34 million on sales of $102 million a year earlier. IMAX's stock has risen roughly fourfold since.
But Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment, says that science and nature films like "Hubble 3D" remain "a very big responsibility" for the company and "part of our lineage, part of our commitment to continue producing high-quality IMAX film documentaries.
"These films work for one basic reason -- school groups. They are educationally focused and have a long, valuable life as a result," he told Reuters.
Where box office is concerned, he calls them "turtles, not rabbits," as compared to Hollywood movies, reflecting their educational value and long life at science-center theaters.
The movie is the sixth IMAX film made in cooperation with NASA and the second in 3D, after 2002's "Space Station 3D," but advances in film technology have heightened the experience.
Foster calls director Myers "the maestro of the IMAX documentary," and this latest film her "crown jewel." She was involved in all six of the previous NASA/IMAX movies in various roles -- writer, editor, producer or director.
Myers proudly pointed out that the previous space films have played for years in theaters, and been seen by "well over 100 million people in 22 languages around the world."
This time around, space crews loaded a giant, 600-lb. IMAX film camera and a mile of large-format Kodak film stock into shuttle Atlantis' cargo bay for the journey to space. The cameras chronicle a 13-day mission and capture dramatic moments, such as when a stuck bolt almost kept the astronauts from making a critical repair to the Hubble telescope.
Moreover, audiences are treated to a 3D look at life in weightless outer space and footage from the shuttle's orbit around Earth, as well as a glimpse into the astronauts' grueling training regimen.
Mission pilot Greg Johnson was trained to be the principal IMAX film camera operator on the flight, operating the camera remotely from a control system inside the shuttle cabin.
Myers and her crew were able to give the astronauts only 28 hours of filmmaking training over eight months before the mission in May 2009.
"We really tried to teach them to react and think like directors, so that if they saw anything better, they had our permission to shoot it," she said.
"If an alien flew up and stuck his face in the camera, obviously we would want them to film it."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Sheri Linden