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Steven Spielberg Helps Welcome USC’s New IMAX Theater and Lab

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The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts already has a stellar reputation, and boasts distinguished alumni ranging from Judd Apatow to George Lucas. The latest addition to the school’s Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts — a 35,000-square-foot facility focused on various aspects of digital production — encourages students to think big, quite literally.

As announced this week, the IMAX Corporation has donated one of its signature large-format theater systems, officially dubbed the Michelle and Kevin Douglas IMAX Theatre and Immersive Media Lab, after IMAX’s largest shareholders, who donated the theater. The space is intended to enable students to learn the wide-scale brand of filmmaking inherent to IMAX, allowing for student films in the format, along with integrating IMAX into other “immersive entertainment experiences” like interactive games.

The 50-seat auditorium , and its 46-foot by 24-foot screen, was unveiled Wednesday at an opening event on USC’s Los Angeles campus, with guests including legendary director Steven Spielberg on hand to welcome the new addition. He spoke of the importance and timeliness of the theater and lab, given the nature of the technology current students are accustomed to using.

Photo by Albert Ching

Photo by Albert Ching

“Film students basically do work on the small screen,” Spielberg said. “Everything they do begins on a very small screen. They take their work home with them, and the small screen becomes what they can work on — their iPads, their iPhones. They’re very used to seeing things tiny. The result of that is, film students shoot too many damn close-ups. The result of this is, they’re going to stop shooting close-ups, and they’re going to start expanding the horizons that IMAX affords them.”

“The opportunity IMAX affords all of us is to be able to include the world in our storytelling,” he continued. “To be able to include the environment the way [Lawrence of Arabia director] David Lean did in all of his landscape movies. I think that this technology, inside USC, is going to provide such room for more imagination from all the young filmmakers-to-be who are going to come through here.”

IMAX CEO Richard L. Gelfond also noted that to a generation used to mobile devices, IMAX’s outsized dimensions are something of a departure. “While we certainly acknowledge in-home and online technological innovations, we still think there’s nothing like an immersive, out-of-home IMAX experience,” he said.

During the presentation, IMAX representatives emphasized both major aspects of the company — the documentaries that originally shaped IMAX, and the strong Hollywood focus that has grown in recent years. Two sizzle reels were shown to the audience, one showcasing IMAX technology applied to blockbusters movies like Avatar, Gravity and The Dark Knight; the other highlighting more traditional IMAX fare like Space Station 3D and To the Arctic 3D.

“It’s a great honor to bring IMAX to USC,” said Greg Foster, IMAX’s senior executive vice president. “It’s also been a great honor to bring IMAX to the Hollywood community over the last 14 years.”

Inside USC's new IMAX auditorium.

Inside USC’s new IMAX auditorium.

With the influence of IMAX on the global box office growing, Gelfond expressed his thoughts on the importance of teaching the format to a new generation of budding filmmakers.

“We take our commitment to the future of entertainment very seriously,” he said, “and believe that through this gift, we can help educate future filmmakers of the world on how to use technology to express their vision in new ways.”

Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, touted the significant advantages of the IMAX Theatre and Immersive Media Lab, but also made it clear that a mastery of technology isn’t the only element needed to make a compelling film.

“We now have the capability to allow people to make whatever they can imagine,” she said. “The trick, of course, is to imagine it.” Citing an earlier speech by Center for Digital Arts namesake and Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis, Daley continued, “Films are spectacle and they’re truth. For spectacle, everything you want is here in this building. For truth, you have to look very deep inside yourself.”

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