A well-rounded education

Omnifest captures the multiple shades of IMAX

Five hours in an IMAX theater is more than enough time for the mind to wander. The audience has a chance to contemplate just what it is about IMAX people find so intoxicating.

Physically, it’s obvious: Bigger is better. IMAX films occupy our entire field of vision, bringing us more viscerally into the expanded experience. In some sense, we are not promised simply a film about Antarctica or Kilimanjaro but the sensation of actually standing on that ice or gazing out from the top of that misty mountain.

But since its inception, IMAX has not just looked and felt different. It has always existed apart from the mainstream movie world. In the next month, Omnifest at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater will show six titles back to back.

The focus of most IMAX theaters is not feature-length, fictional films but rather short-format documentaries (40 to 50 minutes). Long before documentaries started flooding the art house scene as the hip new trend, IMAX was churning out large-format works and perfecting its own distinct style.

The effect of all this is a venue that, as sappy as it sounds, has turned our eyes back on the world we take for granted. As mainstream Hollywood spends millions creating something artificial, IMAX films have done the opposite, sending its cameras to even more obscure and wondrous real locations.

Not surprisingly, it has become a popular destination for families with younger children. The gaze of the massive IMAX camera reminds us cynics of what it’s like to be a child, excited about all the sights to be seen and sounds to be heard in this world.

Mike Day, the Omnitheater’s director and executive producer, has been engaged with the medium for years and has produced a number of IMAX films.

His excitement for the medium seems to match that of the IMAX fans who will make their way to Omnifest.

Working his way through the featured films – “Antarctica,” “Extreme,” “Journey into Amazing Caves,” “Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa,” “Seasons” and “Stomp’s World Beat” – Day has an obvious passion for the places and experiences on display in the fest.

“Just think of Antarctica,” Day said. “The power of the format puts you in a place, in a new continent, and you see things you just could never imagine.”

Day said he’s particularly proud of the new “Stomp’s World Beat.”

“It is a worldwide adventure unlike any documentary you’ve seen; the pulse of the world,” Day said. “It’s really about the rhythm of humanity. There’s no verbal narrative.”

And for those who attend “Seasons,” which has been screened around the world since Day produced it in 1987, there might be some familiar sights.

” ‘Seasons’ is the only Omnitheater film ever shot in Minnesota. Some see people they know or see themselves on the giant screen,” Day said. “It was fun to take this format, where you get to create a spectacle of sight and sound and package this state into that spectacle.”

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra also scores the film.

THE BEST OF THE FEST

“Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa”

Unlike some IMAX features that can wander off target, “Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa” is a rather ambitious project, chronicling six climbers’ weeklong ascent up Africa’s biggest mountain.

Capturing the five distinct climate zones they pass on their way, the movie is the most humanistic of the titles screened in the fest, intimately documenting the struggles and triumphs the old and young climbers experience together.

As an audience, we are there, right with them, dangling off the cliff and, finally, gazing out from the top of the world.

“Stomp’s World Beat”

After seeing “Stomp’s World Beat,” you’ll find yourself listening to the sounds of the world a little more closely.

Crossing the globe, from the United States to Brazil, South Africa, Japan and even under the English Channel, the movie captures the varied rhythms and sounds of cultures united through music. Each locale has its own edge – the United States feels more industrial, Africa more organic, Japan more intense – but “Stomp’s World Beat” is most magical when it gets away from staged performances. Editing together such everyday sounds as South Africans washing clothes by hand and New Yorkers tossing pizza dough, the film helps us see every mundane object and action as a symphony of sound.

Out of five films screened Friday, it was also the only title that earned applause from the audience.

“Seasons”

Most IMAX films aim for something big. “Seasons” aims instead for something simple.

It watches the world through its yearly cycle and helps us again see the beauty of what so many busy, stressed and technology-obsessed Americans take for granted. Aside from documenting blooming flowers, falling leaves, the harvesting of the crops and ice skating, “Seasons” documents man as animal, surveying the various ways we respond, adapt and pay tribute to the yearly changing of the guard.

“Antarctica,” “Journey into Amazing Caves”

The final frontiers of human exploration are typically considered to be the cosmos and the darkest depths of the oceans. But these two IMAX films make strong claims for their subjects to be added to the list.

“Antarctica” exposes the South Pole as not just a block of melting ice but a complete ecosystem all its own. “Journey into Amazing Caves” traverses the world, from the Grand Canyon to the rainforests, in

exposing caves, both explored and unexplored, above and

below water, which might hold priceless clues to the world of medicine.

“Extreme” (not viewed)

“Extreme” promises to be the ultimate first-person spectacle.

Accompanying surfers, climbers and snowboarders, it is the antithesis of “Seasons,” thinking big and striving to capture the most inconceivable of adventures.