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'Sail' to take Utahns into depths of space

With a few muffled grunts and huffs, the crew hoisted a sheet that looked like the mainsail of a clipper ship.

But instead of catching the wind, this sheet will allow viewers to sail vicariously into space.

The silvery fabric, 50 feet tall and 70 feet wide, is the new IMAX theater screen, installed Monday afternoon at the Clark Planetarium, 110 S. 400 West, in The Gateway.

The theater is in various stages of completion. Some walls bear signs reading "Surfaces in this area are finished," while elsewhere protective plastic floor coverings, dust and exposed insulation are abundant.

IMAX technology uses gigantic cameras and jumbo-size film. Combined with rapid passage through the projector, the result is that an extremely high-resolution movie is beamed onto the huge screen. Adding to the realism, the first feature planned for the theater's opening in April was shot in 3-D.

That film is a NASA offering, "Space Station," showing construction of the International Space Station. Photographed by astronauts working in zero gravity and narrated by actor Tom Cruise, the 3-D film is expected to make audiences feel like they're floating in space.

According to Claudia Nakano, spokeswoman for Clark Planetarium, the IMAX projector is the size of a small car and has its own cooling system. Sound will be handled by a 12,000-watt, six-channel system.

Before the screen-raising, half a dozen huge speakers were visible on the theater's rear scaffolding. They were soon to be covered by the screen, but the giant sheet has 25 holes per square inch that will carry the sound through the auditorium.

The screen lounged across the backs of the theater's 281 seats Tuesday afternoon, top attached to a long curving pole that hovered above the stage. Six yellow lines stretched from the pole to pulleys controlled by workers at the top of metal scaffolding that reached nearly to the theater's ceiling.

At the rear of the theater, dignitaries in hard hats held up the hem of the huge screen so it would not drag across the theater's seats.

"OK, everyone up top, grab your ropes," said Jerry Thompson, chief installer for the IMAX Corp., based near Toronto, Canada. "At the count of three we'll start pulling. . . . One, two, three."

The screen's top lifted several feet and the county officials made sure the back did not drag over seats. After several hoists, stops, adjusting one rope or another, the top pole reached the apex of the scaffold, then was pulled over and tied in place.

Long strips of gauzy protective sheeting peeled away from the screen, floating toward the theater's floor and exposing the screen's wrinkled silvery fabric.

"They'll take two days to do the full stretching and get all the wrinkles out of it," said Jim Erickson, who works with the planetarium on the IMAX theater. Then the screen should be as flat as a billboard. The surface is "brushed aluminum" to give the projected light special reflectivity, he said.

The IMAX theater is not the only one for the planetarium. Clark Planetarium also will use a 201-seat theater for its star shows.