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IMAX - Fires of Kuwait

IMAX/Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 35 mins . G . PAL


In one of those childish acts of absolute stupidity so typical of wars big and small, as the defeated Iraqi army ran out of Kuwait they set explosives atop over six hundred oil wells and detonated them. The result was devastating to Kuwait and potentially to the rest of the world as well, an act of environmental bastardry that took thousands of people from all over the world nine long months of life-risking, back-breaking work to stop.

So when veteran IMAX cinematographer and occasional director David Douglas arrived in Kuwait with his large-format camera in tow, he was in for a big surprise. The sheer scale of the disaster seemed beyond comprehension, a larger-than-life situation where the big-as-a-building IMAX cinema screen could be used to convey what was happening in no uncertain terms.

The resulting film is jaw-droppingly amazing visually. Most of us will remember seeing footage of the burning Kuwait oil fields on the nightly news, but here, captured by Douglasís huge film frame, the impact of it hits home in the most visceral of ways. Douglas gets his camera right in close to the fires, right up there with the men who are risking being fried to a crisp trying to put them out. Thatís no mean feat for a news journalist with a lightweight video or 16mm camera, or even one of the modern small-magazine 35mm offerings. But this is an IMAX camera. Itís huge. Itís heavy. And it only carries enough film to capture three minutes of action - at a cost of US$25,000 per roll. Yet Fires Of Kuwait manages to be more immediate and involving than the best standard-format documentaries, as well as offering plenty of opportunity to grasp the sheer size of it all. Itís a remarkable achievement, and itís no surprise at all that it was nominated for an Oscar. Its only failing is that it loses some momentum in its last few minutes, seeming to meander in order to pad out the running time. But then, after whatís come beforehand any coda would seem dull by comparison.

This is the sort of thing that IMAX was invented for - and you only have to compare the incredible visuals here to the shots of the oil fires in Ron Frickeís 70mm image-fest Baraka, which by comparison look detached and uncertain.


Like its other IMAX DVDs, Warner offers Fires Of Kuwait transferred full-screen, slightly cropping the sides from the original 1.44:1 frame, a loss of little consequence particularly with this format. Naturally itís not 16:9 enhanced (though the main menu is, strangely).

Made from a good transfer that handles the delicate contrast balance well - needless to say, given the subject matter, thereís a lot of very dark scenes here - this discís biggest let-down is the video compression, which is serviceable but nowhere near as high-standard as it should be. The thing youíll first notice is all the visible grain during the feature. Hang on a sec - grain? We shouldnít be seeing any grain on IMAX-format material (if you could see grain on a humble TV screen, imagine how terrible it would look on the huge IMAX screen). The answer is in the extras section - the mini-making-of featurette includes interview material shot on video - complete with the very same ďgrainĒ in the background. Exactly what it is weíre not quite sure - video noise, a telecine artefact, a problem with the MPEG encoder, we can only guess. But itís there, and it shouldnít be.

That said, this particular film is so well shot itís hard for a little visual interference to spoil it, and the nicely-judged film transfer makes it worthwhile. And if you want an idea of the resolution of IMAX, by the way, check the end credits here and tell us if you can read them!

This film runs 35 minutes in PAL (implying that it was not standards-converted from NTSC) and it takes up just less than half of a single-layered disc. Weíre only guessing again, but it looks like the encoding was done at a bitrate that would allow for two documentaries per disc rather than the rather paltry single offering.


The Dolby Digital 5.1 track here faithfully recreates the IMAX in-theatre experience, and while this isnít as showy a soundtrack as some of the companyís other films, itís certainly of extremely high quality. Constant use is made of the surrounds and sounds are sharply localised across the front speakers (though the narration is heard through all three front speakers - this seems to be a standard working method for the format). The subwoofer is put to superb use here, but itís never overdone; itís used for the purpose for which it was designed, to enhance the realism of whatís on the screen.

The music score, by the marvellously clever and famous-in-his-own-right Michael Brook, is excellent though suitably unobtrusive (as, indeed, all good scores are). Narration, meanwhile, is by none other than Hollywood veteran Rip Torn, working on the apparently standard IMAX theory of ďif theyíre old, theyíll add gravitasĒ!


Aside from the one-minute IMAX DVD trailer thatís on every disc, thereís actually an extra here! Donít get too excited, though - itís a five-minute featurette thatís very much in the style of the fluff pieces you know and loathe from DVDs of big-budget Hollywood moofies. You do, however, get a look at the 1991-vintage IMAX camera that was used to shoot the film, and some brief glimpses of how Douglas achieved some of his ďstunt shotsĒ.


An absolutely superb documentary short thatís a visual knockout, Fires Of Kuwait is one of the best non-fiction works that IMAX has ever produced, and is well worth adding to the collection despite a slightly disappointing transfer to DVD. The value factor - or lack thereof - canít be ignored, though, and ultimately the market will decide whether people are prepared to pay $30 for 35 minutes.

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      And I quote...
    "...one of the best non-fiction works that IMAX has ever produced"
    - Anthony Horan
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