Last Thursday evening saw the launch of ‘ScreenX’ – a 270-degree cinematic experience – at Sheffield’s Cineworld cinema. Created in 2012, the Korean-developed technology arrived in the UK last year exclusively to Cineworld. There are currently eight ScreenX theatres located in the UK, including the brand new Sheffield opening. For its first screening – a premiere of DC superhero film Shazam! – I went to see whether the experience lives up to the hype.

For comparison, regular 2D screenings have one projector that displays the film onto the main screen. In ScreenX viewings there are an additional four projectors – two for each side wall – which allow the film to expand beyond the main screen. The side walls are lined in a special fabric designed to match the brightness and colour of the main screen so that the projection wraps around the sides of the auditorium – utilising your peripheral vision.

The audience looks on at the 270 degree experience in action.

This boxed-in effect is predominantly sold as a more “immersive” experience, including by the Cineworld Regional Manager, Jason Bainbridge: “ScreenX offers a realm of possibilities to heighten the cinema experience. It creates the illusion of being immersed in the action, which ignites the senses and takes immersive viewing to a new level. The experience is more thrilling because there’s less separation between the film and the viewer.”

However, what may surprise some viewers is that the 270-degree experience is not continuous; the majority of the film is displayed only on the main screen, as if you were at a regular 2D screening – only for the “key scenes” are the two side screens enabled.

Production teams use a variety of camera setups to create footage that can be used on the 270-degree screen. Then in post-production, the teams enhance footage with visual effects and colour grading. It is likely that due to the additional effort required to create the 270-degree effect, filmmakers prioritise certain scenes to use the special camera rig and further editing. Yet, while this may disappoint some viewers, there are many scenes, in Shazam! at least, where the additional footage would have added little.

In Shazam! the side screens are well utilised for panoramic scenes, in particular the action-heavy fights across cityscapes. At points during the film the focus (often a character, or two characters fighting) is moved from the main screen onto the side walls. This cleverly forces you to turn your head, as in real life, adding to the realism of the film – or the “immersive” quality.

While I was aware of the fire exit door and signs on the extended screens, they caused little disruption due to most of the film’s action happening above them, and the primary focus remaining on the main screen.

In scenes with multiple characters, where not everyone can fit on the main screen, some are moved onto the side walls. However, in Shazam! this meant the Seven Deadly Sins monsters lost some of their menace as their faces were comically stretched and pixelated. It’s clear that the film’s creators were attempting to make it feel as if, like the characters, the audience too were being surrounded by the monsters, but the poor resolution was actually a little distracting. The side walls were better utilised where the lower resolution didn’t matter, such as where the subject matter is distant or moving.

There was also the one odd use of words in comic book-style font, like “Kapow!”, randomly spread across the side walls whilst Billy was learning his powers. This felt peculiar because at no other point was the film stylised in this way, nor did it have continuous strong comic-book references, like, for instance, in Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

Still, despite some of these issues I do think ScreenX was an enhanced cinematic experience. Though it is hard to imagine it being worthwhile for any films other than action-heavy and CGI-laden blockbusters – which is fortunate given these are probably the only films with the budgets for this technology.

The current selection of films supporting ScreenX is limited, but it’s anticipated that the selection will grow as the technology continues to roll out further across the UK and globally. Upcoming titles at the Sheffield branch are The Curse of La Llarona and Detective Pikachu.

However, given the decline of 3D cinema since the initial post-Avatar boom, the extent to which enhanced films can take off remains questionable – particularly given the higher ticket price. Cineworld itself no longer offers 3D, instead having moved on to 4DX, as well as providing IMAX.

“The beauty of diversifying our offering is that it gives consumers the ability to choose. ScreenX and 4DX make cinema a full body experience because they’re designed to generate a feeling or sensation. The experience is very much intensified, and while some moviegoers will thrive off this, others will prefer a traditional screen format such as 2D or IMAX” said Mr Bainbridge.

Deputy General Manager Callum McNeil stands proudly at the unveiling of Cineworld Sheffield ScreenX experience.

Seeing a ScreenX film comes with a £3 premium on a regular Cineworld ticket, which is already one of the more expensive cinema options in Sheffield. Students, particularly those who regularly go to the cinema, may prefer to use Showroom Cinema or the University’s own Film Unit since they offer far cheaper tickets. Or one of the central mainstream cinemas, such as The Light, for blockbusters like Shazam! to save on the tram fare. But for a one-off luxury experience Cineworld’s ScreenX is certainly worth a visit.

Images: Cineworld Sheffield

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