Screenwatching or watching the screen? The large format experience – Mary Nucci

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In the cinematic pantheon, large format films1 are the Zeus of film. Literally standing head and shoulders above their filmic compatriots, large format films can be shown on flat screens up to eight stories high or dome screens as large as 80 feet2 . But these are not just standard films shown on big screens. The largest of the large format film sizes, the 15 perforation/70 mm frame, provides almost ten times more information in the image than the standard 35 mm film and is accompanied by a minimum of six channels of surround sound audio, and up to as many as 97 speakers (such as found in the large format theater in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada in the United States) (Hayward & Wollen, 1993).
Large format films are an experience, and are marketed just that way. “Everything else is just a movie,” states an advertisement3 for the large format film Yellowstone (Merrill, 1994) that plays at the Visitor Center outside the same named park. To the large format industry, this is both the raison d’ etre and the reason for promoting large format films. To the viewer, it is probably the prime reason for going to the effort to travel to the still relatively few large format theaters around the world.

As a cinematic medium large format actualizes the “epistemology of scientific realism” (Denzin, 1995, 15). They offer an experience that is as close to reality as you can get without it being real. “See more, hear more, feel more!4 ” This concept of reality known as “presence” is central to the premise of large format being able to take the viewer someplace new and outside of the reality they currently inhabit. Presence offers the viewer the chance to be something or to experience something they may never have a chance to experience.

As the perceptual illusion of non-mediation, presence results in the viewer responding to the images as though the medium were not there (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). Most viewers who choose to watch large format films do so for that “you are there” feeling (Flagg, 1999), a perception that is not as present in the traditional 35 mm film. Though the way in which presence is evoked is still unclear, certain factors appear to be important to its creation, including a combination of both visual and audio output, image quality (Neuman, 1990), image size (Ditton, 1997), size of visual field or visual angle (Hatada, Sakata & Kusaka, 1980), obviousness of the medium, and a willingness to participate in the action (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). It can manifest itself in physical responses on the part of the viewer, including arousal (Lombard & Ditton, 1997), ducking, grabbing, and motion sickness (Azar, 1996). It is this experience that brings viewers back to large format. They want the vertigo from aerial or moving shots, and many are disappointed if they do not feel sick when they leave the theater. Presence is also associated with greater enjoyment and involvement (Heeter, 1995).

Large format is an immersive experience, where the viewer becomes part of the action, swaying in response to motion on the screen and experiencing vertigo when the camera swoops and dips as part of the action. It has been noted that for large format films this illusion of being there,

is actually more important than the films themselves; the filmic representation is less central than the effort to create the sensation that the screen has disappeared, that is it truly a window, and that the spectator sits right in the image (Acland, 1998, 290).

A closer examination of the audience and its relationship to the large format medium is critical to understanding the interaction of viewer/screen/film in this largest of film mediums, and offers possibility for understanding the lure of the film screen in both this and other formats.

Somatic surgery

The first large format film was shown at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan in the Fuji Pavilion, a structure composed of giant inflated tubes (Hayward & Wollen, 1993). Like that first theater, the large format theater is specific to the experience. Just as the space in museums is as much a part of the experience and ideology as the artifacts and displays themselves (Bennett, 1995), the large format theater space is a central part of the experience of watching large format films. Large format theaters are special venues, and the space they occupy is not shared by any other experience or activity. Therefore, the audience’s experience of large format is bound up with the space in which the film is shown. Though there are three different orientations of large format theaters (2D flatscreen, 3D flatscreen, and 2D domescreen), the viewer’s initial experience of the space is essentially the same. Viewers tend to “enter low, exit high” (Hayward & Wollen, 1993) into a dimly lit space where the steeply raked theater seats call attention to the vastness of the screen. The size of the screen is emphasized by the relative closeness of the seats to the screen, and, like a blank slate, waits for something to be inscribed upon it.

The dimensions of the large format screen mimic those of human vision, so that once the viewer is in their seat, the screen becomes not just the main focus of vision, but the complete focus of vision. The dimensional characteristics of the screen affect the film image through the requirement for longer edits, finely grained images, exceptional lighting and close-ups with large headroom. Large format films require longer searching time (Reeves, Lang, Kim & Tatar, 1999), as the field of vision offers more information from which the viewer must select the main emphasis. This change in format extends beyond that of the audience alone, as the director and cinematographer must make allowances for the visuals and how they will be seen in this extended format. The shot-reverse shot and other common editing styles are not used in large format due to technological restrictions, although with the ongoing repurposing of 35-mm films into large format films, it is unclear whether these editing choices are being eliminated from the reconfigured large format feature.
However, the visual is not the totality of the response to the large format film. Integration and involvement of the audience with the experience occurs long before the film has even started playing. Entering into the theater space, the audience climbs up theater steps where vertigo often results due to the dim lighting and steep rake that affect the ability to make sense of spatial orientation. This vertigo of disorientation is emphasized even more strongly in the domed large format theater, with many viewers feeling as though the seats are actually leaning into the yawning space below. Thus, from the first step into the theater, the audience has an emotional connection to the large format experience, which is completed when the film begins. Described as “cataract surgery,” where the human sight collapses into the filmic and architectural space of the theater (Virilio, 1990), it becomes in the large format theater a surgery more akin to that of the reattachment of a lost limb. It may be vision that drives the vertigo, but vertigo is a total body experience. The somatic surgery of large format results from the architectural attributes that are specific to the experience; once the lights go down and the movie begins the architecture of the building becomes that of the space/film/body. The building and the film become the door for the viewer to enter into another place and space, making it as close to Bazin’s (1967) “total cinema” as technology allows.

It is likely that without this somatic surgery, large format would be just another really large film. It is this relationship with the visual that is the selling point for large format films. The large format film director Ben Shedd (1999) has stated that viewers are not watching a film, they are participating in that film. He noted that “the filmic experience has moved from passive, from being held in a frame, to active, to becoming the engulfing reality with the audience present in the filmic events.”

The culture of large format

Large format is more than just a filmic experience. Like television, it is an economic and political image industry (Morley, 1992) that is at once and the same time an experience, a space, and an ideological force. To experience large format is to take part in the cultural practice of cinema-going (Arnold, 1990). Cinema-going is defined as a series of behaviors that occur together when going to the movies. There is the decision of what movie to see, the travel to the destination and the experience of the shared public event. Making the choice to see a large format film is quite unlike that of watching the film in the local multiplex, as rarely are large format theaters “just around the corner.”
Cinema-going is becoming understood as an evaluable cultural practice in which the variety of activities that occur in the process of going to the movies are all part of the cinematic experience (Acland, 2000). Rather than the film alone serving as the object of evaluation, James Hay (1997, 212) proposed the “decentering [of] film as an object of study” to focus instead on the practice of movie viewing. Extrapolating from David Morley (1992) on his discussion of television, the “what it is” and the “how it gets done” of large format film viewing are as important as the causes and consequences of large format films.

Traditionally associated with museums and science centers, large format films play a role in the social structure of the society. Museums and science centers are educational and historical sites where public meaning is articulated and disseminated. These exhibitionary institutions offer “a context for the permanent display of power/knowledge” (Bennett, 1995, 66) and have “played an important role in the formation of the modern state and are fundamental to its conception as, among other things, a set of educative and civilizing agencies” (Bennett, 1995, 66). Films in particular play an important role in the surveillance aspect of museums, by creating the gaze of the voyeur, “deploying the cinematic gaze and its narratives in the service of the state” (Denzin, 1995, 15). Films offer the museum-goer an opportunity to see beyond the museum walls into an experience outside, extending the gaze of the voyeur to additional sites that cannot be confined within the museum space.

Large format theaters have become inextricably tied to the social structure as an essential revenue-generating component of the operating budget for many museums. Like other film formats, these discursive spaces support capitalist values which are reflected in the hegemonic, primarily celebratory, leanings of the texts themselves (Denzin, 1995). The films that are generated for these organizations have predominantly been documentary or educational in nature, in response to the museum’s understanding of the visitor’s desires for experiences that are primarily educational or informative in nature.

Fueled by the fact that “the quest for audiences in order to recoup capital investment has meant that achieving the real has tended to privilege the more real than real, the ‘realistic’” (Hayward & Wollen, 1993) the panoramic gaze is common to the large format experience. Nature, travel, and broad themes of science and exploration have dominated and continue to dominate the large format film lexicon. These all-engulfing, panoramic images are “ideologically linked to the reinstatement of certain forms of epistemological power” (Acland, 1998, 434) and serve as educational techniques to introduce the new or unseen to an uninitiated. Audiences of large format come to know themselves, as do the audiences of traditional 35 mm films, and their relationship with the world, through the large format cinematic lens (Denzin, 1995).
Large format films align with the “democratization” of knowledge of the museum (Bennett, 1995). They closely follow the “new populism” of the museums as they continue to subjectify knowledge, but with the addition of sensory realism through hands-on exhibits and large format films (Acland, 1998). Large format alters the traditional relation to education—pedagogy is replaced by experience and sensation. Large format films address the often undervalued emotional learning capabilities of its viewers fostered today by a turn today within the educational community in their recognition of multiple learning styles. Charles Acland (1998, 435) commented,

In other words [large format] is more than a bit of flashy bait to get people into a dying institution; it promotes a discursive relation, and a specifically technological one, between a public and its education. And the very nature of its panoramic realism, which encourages a collapse of the referent and the reference, reasserts a modern, disciplined, visual relation and code of civic behavior. To adopt a [large format] gaze is to find oneself firmly interpellated into an epistemological purview that covers both the museum and new entertainment technologies.

Large format orders and organizes images to present to the audience a specific understanding of the world that lies beyond the screen, and yet leaves them with the impression that they have been there, done that. The world of large format is a safe destination where the light is always right, the view spectacular, and the “other” safely reduced to comprehensible and comfortable interaction. This access point to otherness, the “tourist gaze” (Acland, 1998, 438) extends the reach of the museum as a social and cultural institution, providing a departure point for the unknown through an appropriately narrativized version of reality (Acland, 1998) through the inauthenticity of the pseudo-visit (Urry, 1990).

Ideologically, large format films present stories of success, positioning the spectator in point of view images that they would otherwise never experience. The gaze is aligned with that of the “conqueror’s omniscient view” (Hayward & Wollen, 1993) combined with the replacement of the imperfect human eye with the scientific lens of the camera (Denzin, 1995). This double reflexivity of vision results in the viewer coding another’s images as scientific realism (Foucault, 1970). Confined as they were to the socially constructing museum, large format would be seen as authentic, accurate and real.

Yet beyond the borders of the museum world, a world where the audience seeks an “educational” experience, lies an audience that seeks entertainment experiences. With the changing face of the large format industry, these films have moved into the realm of the fictional and entertaining, where the audience is more heterogeneous than that of the museum industry. Outside of the institutional affiliation, large format films offer greater ranges of films, including 35 mm films (eg, Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995); Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002); Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 1991) reconfigured through digital remastering (DMR) technology as large format experiences (Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience (Ron Howard, 2002); Star Wars Episode 2: The IMAX Experience (Lucas, 2002); Beauty and the Beast IMAX (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 2002). The pleasure of consumption (Radway, 1984) is the driving force behind the construction of films for these sites, and demonstrates “specific reconstitution of the cultural practice of cinema-going” (Acland, 2000, 443) where there is a blurring between public education and private entertainment explicated by Urry (1990) as the postmodern collapse of high and low culture and of spheres of social activity.

Locating the audience

Widescreen and large format films are considered to be the most extreme instance of film as pure experience (Belton, 1992), and are hailed as providing a more realistic vision than traditional film (Truffaut, 1953). Large format extends the ability of film to more perfectly display and reveal reality (Bazin, 1967), and alters the relationship of the viewer to the experience. John Belton (1992, 187) noted in his comparison of traditional film and widescreen that
although in both situations the spectator still remained immobile in a theater seat, the perceptible difference in audience-screen relationships between traditional cinema and the new widescreen formats was exaggerated in an attempt to foreground the spectator’s new relationship with the screen, which was now, if nothing else, no longer invisible.

The audience is an integral part of the large format experience, vicariously participating in someone else’s subjective view of reality. Particularly for the dome theaters where there is no boundary or frame to the image that extends the range of vision, the viewer becomes part of the image, often shifting and moving in synchronicity with the action on the screen.
But the audience for the large format cannot be understood as some homogenous, mass group where everyone has the same experience of the film, as who they are and what they bring to the theater varies. Within any audience there will exist differences in interpretation and recognition of the filmic text due to individual differences in socio-cultural group and the historical context of viewing (Brooker & Jermyn, 2003). Prior to the trend of large format theaters as stand-alone sites, the large format audience at institutional theaters was a relatively closed group. Museum visitors tended to come from consistent socio-cultural groupings, in particular the middle class where there is a strong belief that education can be combined with entertaining leisure time activities. Although museums today struggle with the issue of how to expand visitor demographics, and are looking to overcome cultural reservations and habits in order to expand their population base, during the workday museum visitors tend to be school groups, while on the weekends and holiday’s visitors to museums are primarily family groupings. It was these people who were then going to see the films in the theaters.

Visitors to stand-alone large format theaters are a more heterogeneous mix, consisting of local residents, visitors, and tourists (especially in the case of theaters located in tourist zones), and individuals with the economic wherewithal to view a large format film. This audience base also differs from that of the traditional museum population in terms of objective of the theater visit. Most museum-goers visit museums to have an educational experience, while most visitors to stand-alone theaters are looking to be entertained. For these locations the large format industry looks to offer films that match audience expectations of an entertaining experience in order to attract them to the theater, as opposed to viewers of large format films in theaters associated with museums where almost any film with educational content will be of value to the schools and families visiting. The relationship of the stand-alone audience with the text will be quite different from that of the museum theater.

The audience for large format differs from all other media audiences, though is akin to those new technology audiences where vision is prime and interactivity is high. Can we describe the large format audiences as active? There has been no research determining how and whether the large format audience mediates the experience. Is the audience active when they have a visceral response or is that a passive response to something the visitor experiences? It is possible that audience activity is based more on why and how they have come to see a large format film. Personal observations of large format audiences indicate that school group audiences are highly active in terms of verbal response to the imagery6 . However, there is little active discussion of the filmic content post-viewing. Discussion as it exists is about the gut-wrenching effect of the film. This audience is typically “taken” to the museum and to the large format theater. There has been no active choice to visit and view a film. Activity in such a group may be limited to the affective, rather than the cognitive. By contrast, an audience that consists of a population that is either family or companions has a broader range of involvement with the film. Comments post-viewing are often about the content, though the affective quality of the film is also commented upon7. “Activity” in this audience appears to have a broader range of connotations, though without further evaluation, it is possible that this is just an age-related phenomenon.

Like the genderization of magazines to create specific categories of readers, large format films may be thought of as genderized populations that differ based on the location of the theater and the type of film shown. Within the museum sphere, large format films are usually about 40 minutes in length, a structure that accommodates the museum visitor and the fact that there are other opportunities for experiential activity within the museum space. This is in contrast to the large format stand-alone theater where film lengths range from 40 minutes to the several hours of the feature film. The cinema-going experience of this audience is far different from that of the museum audience, and may need to be considered a separate “gender” of audience.

Grabe et al. (1999) noted that there is “substantial evidence for the idea that large screens promote perceived realism of media content and perceptions of presence.” As the human brain is wired to react to visual stimuli by emotional responses which then play a role in attention and memory, and can be expressed behaviorally, linguistically and physiologically (Lang, Dhillon & Dong, 1995), it is likely that regardless of audience the large format audience experience is beyond that of any other medium studied.


Films have long been considered as ripe for audience research in terms of the gaze of the film and the concept of scopophilia whereby the viewer identifies with the diegetic (within film) gaze (Denzin, 1995). Unlike 35 mm film, there has been no research on large format that has considered the relationship of the viewer to the screen. With the movement away from the museum complex, large format has the potential to impact greater numbers of people, and most likely, a greater range of cultural backgrounds. As these films are typically presented as educational experiences (and shown to large numbers of school children), an examination of both the viewer/screen relationship and ideological implications is critical with the growing reach of the films.

What makes the issue of the viewer/screen complex is the additional layer of technological effects which may alter all that has been learned about the audience in other formats, particularly the filmic audience. Does the lack of common editing techniques such as the shot-reverse shot in large format (due to technological characteristics of the medium) alter the effect of scopophilia where the viewer identifies with the gaze of the camera? Is voyeurism lost in large format due to its emphasis on the non-narrative and celebratory? As narration in large format films is often diminished in favor of visual primacy, does large format correlate with McLuhan’s (1964) credo that form is more important than content? What then does the large format film convey?

Large format as an experience may prove to be more important than large format as a medium of communication. The fact that it is an experience is not lost on the industry marketers, and consequently large format may be more “about the spectacle of seeing and the technological excess necessary to mount that spectacle” (Acland, 2001, 304) then about the film itself.


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Also known as giant screen and more colloquially as IMAX films.

Large format films are shown on either flat or dome screens. The flat screen is similar in style to the multiplex, but on a far greater scale. Domed screen large format films are similar in style to a planetarium.

Montana Magazine, May/June 2003, p. 19.

IMAX website,, accessed November 7, 2007.

Digital scans of each frame of a 35 mm film are adjusted through a proprietary computer program to match the characteristics of the IMAX screen and then transferred onto 15 perf/70 mm film.

Students were watching the film Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees (David Lickley, 2002) at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ

Observations made from an audience that had watched Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ.

Mary Nucci is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. Her research focuses on the roles of visual format, rhetoric and culture in science communication in film, television, and news media.
She has an AB in Biological Sciences from Mount Holyoke College and an MS in Zoology from Rutgers.