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ScreenX, Annabelle, and the Tale of Two “F”s

Yeah, I know. That headline doesn’t even format correctly. But that’s the catchy title I was coming up with when going in to see Annabelle Comes Home in the new ScreenX format. But what is ScreenX you might ask? Here is the info blurb you are likely to find on your local cinema website about it.

“ScreenX is the world’s first multi-projection immersive cinematic platform which provides moviegoers a 270-degree viewing experience by expanding the scene onto the side walls.”

And that is pretty much exactly what it does. It takes extra content (more on how it gets that content later) and projects it onto both side walls of the theater. I wanted to call this “the Two F’s” to be kind of tongue in cheek. It is misleading, and I was going to explain that the F’s in question meant the Film and also the Format, those are the two F’s we would be talking about. And somewhere along the line, I might have gone in with low expectations, expecting to give both a big fat F for Fail, but then something would shine through and I might have a revelation of sorts. Something wildly imaginative, something incredibly groundbreaking, something miraculous, would change my mind and one or both would get a rave review.

So did that happen? Well, read on… below is our review of Annabelle Comes Home presented in ScreenX format at the Regal Atlantic Station in Atlanta, Georgia.

The first F we will talk about is the film. Annabelle Comes Home is the latest in The Conjuring Universe films. This time around we discover what happens when the Warrens bring the demonic doll home for the first time and what hijinks ensue shortly thereafter. Now, full disclosure, I have not historically been a fan of this series. I find them pretty formulaic, and while very well shot and edited, the writing leaves horrible logical gaps and feels cardboard far too often for my tastes. But if those were the only issues with the films, I wouldn’t loathe them like I have this series in the past. I loathe them because of the Warrens.

This film in no way changes my opinion. If anything, it reinforces it.

But how well did it work for this new format? That’s not an easy question to answer. The way the system seems to be set up is that each theater has new panels installed on their side walls that, while a darker color, seem to be very good for projecting images against. Maybe it wasn’t modified at all, I had not seen this theater before this system was put in so I can’t 100% be sure on that, but the way the images projected on to the side wall looked was pretty impressive.

When they worked.

The system uses two high powered projectors on each wall, both seeming to be the intensity of the main projector or similar, but with a shorter throw, and some slight parallax adjustment. Then they use likely a slight overlap in the image. All this to say, the two projectors on the left of the theater project an image across the entire wall of the right side of the theater, and vice versa. In our case, however, the left rear projector never worked properly, so during the whole movie a big bright blue box was on the right wall informing us that the projector was scanning for an input source, and never finding one. The right rear wall almost never showed an image in our viewing.

I was also under the impression that this new process would also be able to modify trailers to give you an immersive experience. The trailers came and went, and not a single one used the side walls. At a few points they did light up, but they started showing the sides from the actual movie before the movie began it would seem, and then immediately turned back off. Perhaps someone was trying to fix the dead projector this way, but it never worked.

Next up was this neat animated mini-movie intro that shows wild colors and flowing lines. A man and a woman finding each other. Love is in the air. And at the end, as the story finished, and the screen went dark, there was the ScreenX logo. So, this whole animated journey was meant as an introduction to the new system. But when it ran, only the main screen had anything on it. For those keeping score at home, at this point, I knew a few things. I knew the IP address of the projector that wasn’t working. Don’t worry, it was a typical class C local IP so nothing was at risk, but it was annoying. I know it was still looking for a source. But I had no idea what else might actually appear on those side walls.

When the movie finally started, things came to life. The first scene is a crawl at a table, and as the camera moves, you see the faces of the people there sliding past you on your left and right. Not the rear right side, however, because as I have already explained, that projector just can’t find what it’s looking for. But the other 3 wall sections looked pretty good. I don’t know if anything important was on those side screens, I don’t think there was. But it was a neat effect when you first see it. And then, it goes away.

Yeah, that’s right, it goes away. Oh sure, it comes back later, but it is not there through the whole movie, only certain scenes. And which scenes use it, and which don’t, doesn’t seem to make much sense. A scene walking down the hallway can look cool, as the walls and lights slide past you. Maybe they could even have an open door and you could see something neat in there, but nothing of importance like that happened in this film. And honestly, I can see why they would choose not to. It would be very disappointing if something important to the story happened thirty feet behind you to the left and you missed it. But within moments, the scene might just shrink right back to the primary screen only.

The Nun was also presented in ScreenX in participating theaters.

What gets projected onto those side walls I think will change from film to film. Some movies are going to be shot with this new system in mind. For those instances, when a scene calls for the ScreenX treatment, I think in many cases they will just shoot ultra-wide and pull back some. Some may mount side cameras to shoot actual left and right content, but I am not sure that is viable for many sets. Another option is for a film to be converted, and I feel like that is what happened quite a bit here. All those messages that “This film has been modified to fit the crappy format of your tube TV”? I think it might be something similar. Take the widest shot you can, and crop the top and bottom. Now stretch those sides onto the side walls and there you have it.

And static and zooming shots work far better than panning. When you pan, that corner in the front left and front right are still very hard bends. And they don’t always transition that well either. In at least one scene, something was revealed in the left front wall as the camera was pulling back. Then, as the camera was back far enough, and the thing you were supposed to see finally appears on the main screen, that’s when the audio stinger hit. And when lamps or other light sources are on a side wall, they are often bright enough to put a glare spot on the main screen which was really annoying. Let alone the glowing exit signs which may just happen o be right in the spot of something interesting.

Some scenes had entirely new content for the side walls, like images and symbols relating to what was on the primary screen. Honestly, those worked better than trying to extend the actual picture to the sides. And to be completely blunt here, I thought this whole idea was too much of a mess until the end credits started to roll. The end credits are some animated images with very bright colors. During these, the side walls had some animation that complemented them and the whole thing worked pretty well. I think this might have been what that cool animated intro was supposed to have shown us but failed to.

So, I think there is real potential here. But where something like this may shine is very much the same arena where IMAX has historically done well. Nature films with wide landscape shots, NASA films with views from the space station, things of that nature. Or maybe even animated features with those side walls clearly planned out to be side wall content. But for now, while I may not be ready to hand out a firm “F” to ScreenX, it really doesn’t merit much higher than a “D” in my experience.

  • David Maynor, ScreenX presentation of Annabelle Comes Home
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David Maynor