Calgary eyes catchy billboards IMAX’s Grand approach

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is so vast, the natural wonder's essence almost defies being captured on film.But imax did manage to do it, and produced a film called, naturally enough, Grand Canyon, which the company wanted to use to open...

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is so vast, the natural wonder’s essence almost defies being captured on film.

But imax did manage to do it, and produced a film called, naturally enough, Grand Canyon, which the company wanted to use to open its Calgary imax theatre earlier this year.

Consistent technique

That, however, left imax looking for a way to advertise the film and theatre that was consistent with the technique it uses to project movie images that are five or six storeys high and which give the viewer the impression of being part of what is on the screen.

So the privately held, Toronto-based firm turned to outdoor advertising, backed by radio and newspaper support, this July and has enjoyed exceptional success.

Phone survey

Paul Fraser, director of theatre marketing and operations for imax, says the company recently undertook a phone survey of Calgarians and found 93% of them were aware of imax, and 80% of them were aware of imax at its downtown location.

Fraser says imax, which began 26 years ago, is a Canadian-developed filming and projection technique that has been exported to 18 countries around the world.

There are 10 imax theatres in Canada – Calgary being the most recent – and the 11th is slated for the Science North centre in Sudbury, Ont.

All told, there are more than 100 imax theatres, 65 of them on this continent.

The first imax film was Tiger Child, shown at the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan in 1970 in a temporary theatre.

The first imax film shown in a permanent theatre was North of Superior a year later at the Ontario Place Cinesphere in Toronto.

Central to the success of the imax venture in Calgary was a face with an enormous pair of eyes, big enough, after a fashion, to take in the Grand Canyon, and displayed on a 14-foot x 48-foot superboard.

Six-foot irises

Leslie Kahl, creative director at Hook Outdoor Advertising in Calgary, says the eyes’ irises were six feet in diameter, and it was on these irises that a four-color image of the Grand Canyon was projected.

Kahl says constructing the eyes was not easy – especially since the light boxes behind each eye needed 8,000 watts of power.

He says that what Hook did is have the poster for the superboard produced by Metro Media Technologies, then cut out the iris for each eye. The cutout areas were then replaced with two sheets of Plexiglas. The backsheet was handpainted with an image of the canyon by Hook’s airbrush artist, and the foresheet had an iris repainted on it.

‘The way it works is essentially an `opaquing’ effect,’ Kahl says. ‘If there’s no rear illumination, the frontal design is visible, but when the rear illumination takes effect, it overpowers the [iris] image and [the Grand Canyon] image is projected.’

He says although this superimposition has been described as ‘blinking,’ it actually is not, adding the whole process, from painted iris to Grand Canyon image to painted iris takes 12 seconds.

The superboard was up 12 weeks, coming down this past September.

Kahl says Calgary’s reception to the face with the Grand Canyon eyes has been exceptional, adding there have been fender-benders as drivers have slowed to look at the superboard, and he says he has seen cars pull off to the side of the road to see if the eyes are blinking.

IMAX experience

Todd Sloane, a partner in The Agency Group in Calgary that has the Cowtown imax account, says when researching imax operations he found that every ad agency had used the ‘big’ angle in their advertising, but what he and his partner Steve Boyd chose to do instead was stress the imax experience.

And this, they thought, would best be conveyed by using a face with expressive eyes.

‘Not a circus’

What The Agency Group did not want – nor did its client in Toronto – was advertising that turned the entire imax experience into a novelty item, ‘not a thrill, not a circus-type event,’ as Sloane puts it.

Fraser agrees.

He says the reason The Agency Group won the account was because it ‘grasped the essence of imax.’

‘imax is all about what it does to you,’ says Fraser, who notes the real point of imax technology is filling a niche which hitherto has been left unoccupied.

Sloane says he selected heavy outdoor use – backed by newspaper and radio support – because the creative worked best in the dim light of morning and, again, at dusk, what he calls the ‘drive-in, drive-out’ periods of people going to or coming from work.

He says Calgary has the highest per capita car ownership in the country.

As well as the superboard with the Grand Canyon eyes, Sloane says he also saturated Calgary with two more superboards with fixed, rather than moving, eyes and 50 billboards.

He credits the success of the imax advertising to ‘really strong creative,’ although he adds ‘Calgary was ready for imax.’

As for the future of the Grand Canyon face, Sloane is not sure because it belongs to imax.

But he says if the company wishes, it could be shipped and used in another city showing the imax Grand Canyon.

Although it is unlikely it will be needed at the real Grand Canyon in Arizona to drum up business.

Fraser says the movie has been running there to packed houses for 10 years.