IMAX 3D vs. RealD 3D: Which Is Best?

IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D featured image

IMAX 3D vs. RealD 3D: Which Is Best?

Looking at showtimes for your local multiplex, you might notice a couple of different options presented to you for the latest 3D films: IMAX 3D and RealD 3D. Now, clearly, you can tell these two are different simply because of their different names and branding. If you’ve seen an IMAX 3D movie before, you also know it’s much larger than a standard 3D showing.

But, beyond these obvious things, what’s the true difference between Real 3D vs. IMAX 3D? And is one noticeably better than the other? Let’s break things down below to come up with an answer.

RealD 3D vs. IMAX 3D: Side-by-Side Comparison

First Installation19862005
Theatrical PartnersAMC, Marcus, Regal, CinemarkAMC, Marcus, Regal, Cinemark
Number of Theaters WorldwideMore than 1,700More than 30,000
Dolby VisionNoNo
Dolby AtmosNoYes
Price$6 more than the average ticket$4 more than the average ticket
CompetitionRealD 3D, Dolby 3DDolby 3D, IMAX 3D

5 Must-Know Facts About IMAX

  1. IMAX involves a whole lot more than just a larger screen projection. All in all, the IMAX system involves special cameras that shoot in high resolution, special film formats to record the images, special projectors to display the images, and specially designed theaters with larger screens and specific seating layouts to optimize the projection quality.
  2. IMAX films can also be displayed as OMNIMAX films. These exhibitions use even larger projectors and a curved, panoramic dome to create a wider, more immersive viewing experience compared to traditional IMAX (not to mention standard, non-IMAX projections).
  3. IMAX 3D works by projecting two separate images simultaneously onto the same silver screen. That’s not just an expression, either; the screen is literally colored silver to create the desired 3D effect. One projection is oriented for the right eye, while another is oriented for the left. The IMAX 3D glasses combine the two to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image.
  4. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) was the first film to use the Phantom 65 IMAX 3D camera: a specially-designed IMAX 3D camera that optimizes images as they’re captured. This differs from various other IMAX 3D methods, including using two cameras placed side by side or adding 3D effects in post-production.
  5. One of the biggest drawbacks of IMAX cameras is the sheer amount of noise they make while filming. That’s why it’s so incredibly uncommon to find narrative feature films shot entirely in IMAX; no on-set dialogue could be recorded with an IMAX camera making so much noise. This is why the format is typically only reserved for action sequences or scenes with little to no dialogue.

RealD 3D vs. IMAX 3D: What’s the Difference?

Now that we’ve outlined the basic specifications for both IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D, we should take some time outlining some of the key ways in which these rival 3D formats differ. From the size of the screen to the price of the ticket to the number of nationwide locations to the actual kind of 3D formatting you’ll experience, these are the main differences between IMAX 3D and RealD 3D.

Screen Size

Firstly, the elephant in the room: the difference in screen size between IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D. IMAX screens are truly massive, measuring 72 feet by 50 feet, or larger. RealD 3D screens can certainly be large, but they’re not always synonymous with large formats like IMAX 3D is.

Typically, RealD 3D is reserved for standard-sized screens while IMAX 3D is reserved for the biggest auditorium alone. Your average RealD 3D screen size will probably end up closer to 50 feet by 20 feet — sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, but never the same size and shape as an IMAX 3D screen.

Ticket Price

imax 3d vs reald 3d
The first permanent IMAX 3D theater was built in Vancouver, British Columbia.

©bogdan ionescu/Shutterstock.com

Secondly, we have ticket prices to consider. Both IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D come at a higher cost compared to a standard 2D presentation on an average-sized screen. Just how much higher depends on the format, though.

It’s hard to put a precise figure on this comparison as ticket prices are often determined by chain, location, and even time of day. But, on average, IMAX 3D presentations come in around $6 more than a 2D presentation while RealD 3D presentations cost slightly less at around $4 more than a 2D ticket.

Nationwide Availability

After you’ve considered the difference in screen size and the varying prices for IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D presentations, it’s worth diving into another important consideration: the kind of nationwide availability for each. Today, IMAX 3D is far less widely implemented than RealD 3D.

The numbers are pretty staggering. There are just over 1,700 IMAX screens worldwide, while there are over 30,000 RealD 3D screens by comparison. While not all of these screens are contained within the United States alone, it nevertheless helps to paint a picture of how much more widely available RealD 3D is by comparison.

Projection Type

Lastly, there’s the difference in projection types between IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D. While we’ll dive deeper into the nuances of each 3D format below, it helps to know up front that IMAX 3D and RealD 3D use drastically different methods of 3D projection.

IMAX 3D’s picture quality is preferred by many, but its effect is ruined when your head turns or your seat is not close enough to the middle of the auditorium. RealD 3D’s picture quality might not be as sharp as IMAX’s, but its projection type allows you to turn and tilt your head, as well as get the full effect anywhere in the auditorium.

IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D
3D theater tickets are more expensive than other movie tickets.

©New Africa/Shutterstock.com

The History of IMAX 3D

IMAX projection first came about in the late 1960s. Founders William C. Shaw, Graeme Ferguson, Robert Kerr, and Roman Kroitor collectively discovered that it was possible to feed 70mm film through the projector horizontally instead of the traditional vertical orientation.

Originally, 70mm film was already a large format double the size of 35mm, the standard film size of the time. Now, with this new discovery concerning orientation, 70mm film could appear even larger by adding additional height in exchange for slightly less width.

This innovative move from vertical to horizontal more than tripled the overall size of a standard 70mm projection. To be specific, this newfangled IMAX projection was three and a half times bigger than what 70mm projections typically were.

This drastic increase in size only seems larger when compared to a standard 35mm projection. Comparatively, an IMAX projection was more than eight times bigger than a 35mm projection. This simple move effectively transformed the way epic films could be presented to the public.

IMAX only grew more impressive with the advent of IMAX 3D in the 1970s. Though not permanently installed anywhere until it arrived in Vancouver in the mid-1980s, IMAX 3D did not ever truly catch on because of the sheer expenses associated. That is, until IMAX went digital in the late 2000s.

At this time, all digital IMAX projectors were suddenly capable of projecting in both 2D and 3D. IMAX 3D boomed and, soon, IMAX grew from less than 300 theaters in the world to more than 1,000 in just under ten years. Today, there are more than 1,700 IMAX (and IMAX 3D) locations globally.

How RealD 3D Compares

blu-ray 3d
In RealD Cinema, each frame is projected three times to reduce flicker, a system called triple flash.


RealD Inc. was founded in 2003. Before venturing into the now-famous stereoscopic digital projection technology they’re best known for today, they were better known for their supply of optical components for rear-projection televisions.

Before LCDs were as popular and affordable as they are today, this rear-projection tech was the most popular display technology in the large-screen television industry. As LCDs took over in the late 2000s, RealD changed gears and turned their attention to another rising technology: digital 3D projection. They soon became the leading name in 3D.

RealD 3D projectors alternately project the right- and left-eye frames nearly 150 times per second. Additionally, the alternating images are pushed through a special liquid crystal filter called a ZScreen. This filter is placed directly in front of the projector’s lens, which then polarizes the image on the screen.

The right-eye frames are polarized counterclockwise, whereas the left-eye frames are polarized in the opposite direction. What’s more, the special polarized glasses help to prevent the projection from becoming darkened, doubled, or blurred.

When compared to other traditional 3D projection methods, RealD 3D stands out quite a bit. It turns out that their proprietary polarization methods played a major part in the success of RealD 3D technology. Contrary to their rivals, they use circularly polarized light for their 3D system.

The projectors display a stereoscopic image that the special polarized glasses then transform into 3D images. Because the 3D images are split into circles instead of lines, RealD 3D audiences can move and tilt their heads while watching without interrupting the 3D image.

RealD 3D vs. IMAX 3D: Pros and Cons

Pros of IMAX 3DCons of IMAX 3D
Larger auditoriumMore expensive than a RealD 3D ticket
Bigger screenTilting or turning your head ruins the image
Recyclable glassesGlasses darken the image slightly
Better image qualitySeats outside the center are at a disadvantage
Pros of RealD 3DCons of RealD 3D
Most popular 3D format globallySmaller screens than IMAX 3D
Tickets are more affordable than IMAX 3DImage quality is less sharp
30,000+ locations nationwide3D glasses dim the projected image
Glasses are recyclableCosts more money than a 2D projection

RealD 3D vs. IMAX 3D: Which One Should You Choose?

The IMAX 3D vs RealD 3D debate emphasizes an important point: bigger might not always be better. As we can clearly see above, each proprietary 3D format has its own set of advantages and drawbacks. Sure, IMAX 3D might be bigger, but RealD 3D is by far more accessible.

And yes, RealD 3D might be more affordable, but IMAX 3D has better picture quality. It’s a close call and one that can’t be made without plenty of careful consideration. Luckily, that’s exactly what we’ve done throughout this piece.

Ultimately, RealD 3D deserves to be named the winner here. The true underdog compared to the kind of attention that gets paid to IMAX 3D, RealD 3D has far more open availability and much lower prices, overall, for a 3D presentation that is not all that noticeably different than that of an IMAX 3D theater.

It might sound controversial, but there’s more to this RealD 3D win than just those points. RealD 3D also has the added benefit of being able to enjoy a full range of motion without ruining the illusion of 3D. You’re inevitably going to turn or tilt your head during the movie, and IMAX 3D just can’t handle it.

IMAX 3D and RealD 3D in the News

In February 2023, IMAX 3D unveiled a new generation of IMAX 3D cameras. The new cameras are said to produce sharper, more immersive 3D images than previous generations.

In an attempt to revitalize interest in IMAX 3D, in 2023, the company will be releasing several major blockbusters in IMAX 3D. The hits include Oppenheimer, Nope, and John Wick: Chapter 4.

In February 2023, RealD 3D announced that it had signed an agreement with India’s largest cinema chain, PVR Cinemas, to install RealD 3D technology in 100 PVR Cinemas theaters across the country.

RealD 3D will be releasing a number of blockbusters in 2023 to help boost interest in RealD 3D. These titles include Elemental, John Wick: Chapter 4, and Avatar: The Way of Water.

IMAX 3D  vs RealD 3D infographic

Up Next

IMAX 3D vs. RealD 3D: Which Is Best? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does Large Format mean on a movie listing?

Large Format is a broad umbrella term for big screens such as IMAX, RPX, or SuperScreen DLX. While it doesn’t always explicitly mean the projection will be done in IMAX, it guarantees you’ll be in an above-average-sized auditorium with a larger screen than normal.

Is IMAX 3D more expensive than normal IMAX?

IMAX 3D presentations do come with an additional fee on top of the already higher IMAX charge on top of your ticket price. All in all, you’ll probably end up spending anywhere from $6 to $9 or more on top of your standard ticket costs and fees.

Is RealD 3D a good 3D format?

RealD 3D is a very good 3D format, all things considered. While it’s not as big or as flashy as an IMAX 3D or Dolby 3D presentation, it is nevertheless worth the money to see a movie in RealD 3D — especially if IMAX 3D or Dolby 3D are not available in your area.

Are there more RealD 3D theaters than IMAX 3D theaters?

In total, there are more than 30,000 RealD 3D auditoriums across the planet. Compare this to only around 1,700 IMAX 3D screens throughout the world, and it’s clear RealD 3D is far more common.

Are there more Dolby 3D screens or IMAX 3D screens?

Dolby 3D is far less commonly found than IMAX 3D. The difference is drastic: there are more than 1,700 IMAX screens globally, but only around 250 Dolby 3D screens across the world.

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