The story was nothing special: dapper secret agents, ribbed metal briefcases carrying confidential contents, double-crossing lovers with a penchant for the extravagant, motorcycle chases that defy physics. It could have been an episode out of any old spy series.
But the audience was gripped.
South Korean director Kim Jee-woon's latest work features all of the usual staples fit for an action-adventure film, but it captivates its audience so thoroughly by other means. Kim, who recently directed The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, on Friday premiered his short feature The X using his country’s new multi-projection technology, ScreenX.
ScreenX extends the movie onto the sidewalls of the theater, effectively wrapping certain scenes around the audience by filming in 270 degrees. SoundX was also developed to complement the visual technology and convey a richer sense of space and distance. These inventions provide a way to surround viewers more fully, but more enticingly, they also may offer new narrative possibilities for filmmakers.
“We want it to be overwhelming at first,” Kim said. “But then you begin to see how other things are represented [in ScreenX], and how other parts of the story are revealed, other information is added.”
Shooting the movie “was like hell and nightmare,” according to the director, who had to make adjustments throughout the entire filming and editing process, and whose crew was constantly running around trying to stay out of the way of the special camera rig equipped to capture 270 degrees of action. Lighting and set design had to be completely reworked to cooperate with the gear, but the production process was challenging as well.
“When I first made the movie, it was spectacular seeing from the right and the left side, but we had to make very detailed calculations during production so that [the viewer] is not very distracted, but knows where to look,” Kim said, adding that to an extent, the viewer controls the movie in his or her own head based on where they look and what they see.
Starring Gang Dong-won and Sin Min-a, The X premiered at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival as the first film to ever be shown to an audience in ScreenX (a handful of Korean movie trailers and commercials have inaugurated the technology.) It is about a secret agent called X whose girlfriend betrays him during a mission to deliver a secret briefcase. The project was commissioned by CGV, Korea’s largest multiplex cinema chain.
An Goo-choul, the chief strategy officer at CGV said the technology was developed to “give more freedom to directors,” and that the company, which has applied for patents in Korea for the technology, is already exploring partnership possibilities with production companies in Hollywood, encountering positive response so far.
The X certainly takes advantage of the technology’s aptitude for enhancing action/adventure sequences. As the characters dive into a high-speed chase, motorcycles subtly creep along either side of the theater when, suddenly, explosions turn the audience’s focus to the right as the action continues up front, sound thrown around the theater to coordinate with the chaos of the pursuit. But the breadth of ScreenX’s capabilities is demonstrated through some of the film’s quieter, more delicate scenes—splashing detail, sound and characters across all three screens, using off-screen space to enhance audience immersion. Early in the film, a disco ball hovers over the injured X, and as he struggles up front the glitter from the ball showers across the left and right walls of the theater, opening up parts of the set typically out of view. Later, as X clambers in the dark, the beam from his flashlight is thrown across each screen, illuminating all corners of the 270 degrees, scattering the audience’s attention throughout the theater.
“I initially thought ScreenX would be more effective for spectacular scenes but came to realize that it is unexpectedly effective for lyrical or creepy scenes, too,” Kim said.
The X opens as a movie-goer would expect, with all of the action right up on the single, traditional screen. When ScreenX is activated it is sudden and fully captivating, heightening the senses—but almost exhaustingly so. Response at the premiere was positive, but this experimental film is only 30 minutes in length. The development team says they’re hopeful, however, that the technology will translate well to feature-length films, especially considering the massive popularity of movies shot for IMAX.
“I think ScreenX will offer a stronger cinematic experience to audiences than IMAX by making them feel the images are filling the space fully,” Kim said.
Noh Junyoung, the R&D technical supervisor on the project and associate professor at KAIST, a science and technology university in Korea, said the team tried to find ways to keep the original structure of the theater space as much as possible to prevent a major cost increase and maintain a familiar environment for viewers.
According to Noh, unlike IMAX, which calls for a specially equipped theater, installing a ScreenX system to an ordinary movie theater is inexpensive. But he said that they faced certain constraints when planning to retrofit theaters to support ScreenX: Installation of white screens on the sidewalls was not allowed, and existing speakers or exit doors could not be removed. In addition, the costly, main-screen projector must be left untouched. So they used "additional, cheap projectors to cover side walls while maintaining the quality of the projected images consistent across the walls,” Noh said.
CGV currently has 40 screens designed to show ScreenX films at 22 theaters throughout South Korea, and Noh said he expects many more will be ScreenX-ready soon.
“[The X] is a starting point,” Kim said. “A feature film could leverage the technology, show the full capabilities of what ScreenX could do, how it could be more sophisticated.”