Most cinema goers pay little attention to the mechanics of film such as frames per second (FPS), luminosity or sound grading.
But with ticket sales falling at cinemas in many parts of the world, the film industry could be well served by listening to Douglas Trumbull, the special effects guru who worked on some of the world’s most memorable and critically acclaimed science fiction films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Despite this impressive track record, Trumbull became frustrated with the direction that cinema took in the 1970s and 80s, as large multiplex cinemas carved up screens to smaller sizes and the overall industry appeared to turn its back on innovation in terms of the way films were presented to the audience.
Speaking during a keynote at the recent IBC event in Amsterdam, Trumbull explained his love of a truly epic, large scale cinematic experience, his frustration at the lack of innovation in modern cinema, and how he is working to transform the technology behind the art of film.
“In a nutshell, my first experiences in movies were giant screen 70mm immersive experiences and I really loved the work,” Trumbull said, speaking about the early stages of his career in film.
“I had a great time. I was very young at the time and was profoundly affected by the ability to work in this giant screen medium. So I signed up to be a film maker. I loved working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and I was dismally disappointed thereafter when the giant screen experience basically went away and the movie industry went into the multiplex, which was to take giant screens and chop them up into many smaller screens.
“So the pallet of the giant canvas and 70mm epic event that I was trying to create as a filmmaker just went away,” Trumbull said. “That became very troublesome to me.”
Another bugbear for Trumbull is the 24 FPS rate at which standard films – including almost all Hollywood blockbusters – are shot. Kubrick spoke to Trumbull about his frustration at 24 FPS during the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey, complaining that it led to strobing and blurring, and these discussions had a lasting impression on Trumbull.
The film industry moved to its current 24 FPS standard in the 1920s when films transitioned from silent movies shot at 16-18 FPS on handcranked cameras. The extra frames were introduced to accommodate the optical soundtrack and films continue to be made to the same specification as the first “talkie” – the Jazz Singer – which was released back in 1927.
“We have not changed or re-evaluated this frame rate ever since,” Trumbull said. “Quality improvement like colour, stereo sound, Cinerama and Imax have all continued to force change in the style and content of movies, but because of the fact that technical standards for movies are almost identical to technical standards of television, there is very little difference between those two mediums.”
Trumbull believes that this factor is ultimately degrading the art of film and is likely to lead to declining rates of cinema attendance because it diminishes the overall viewer experience. “Unfortunately for the theatrical experience young people and adults are migrating away from movie theatres because the convenience of a tablet or TV outweighs the discomfort and inconvenience of going out to a movie theatre,” he said.
“This year’s attendance drop is a sign that there is not enough difference between movies and television. Young people are downloading and streaming their entertainment on ever improving tablets and smartphones.
“It’s been proven over and over that people will pay a premium price to see 3D, to see IMAX - audiences want a bigger experience,” he added.
Convinced of the need for a better way of making films, Trumbull has dedicated much of his life to devising new technologies and methods of capturing and displaying film. This led Trumbull to develop Showscan, which photographs and projects motion at 60 frames per second, in the 1970s and early 80s.
In 1994 Trumbull merged his company with Imax and helped launch the Imax IPO that brought Imax into commercial feature film marketplace around the world.
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He established Trumbull Studios in Western Massachusetts and continues to experiment with giant screen, high frame rate, extreme brightness, 3D and virtual digital production.
With the development of digital cameras, particularly the latest breed of high resolution devices, Trumbull saw an opportunity to develop a new system that would be commercially viable for filmmakers.
“Now that we have successfully transitioned from celluloid film to digital photography and projection, I realised that visual projectors are regularly running at 144 FPS showing each left and right eye frame three times to create 3D,” Trumbull said. “Projectors are running at 144 FPS but nobody uses it, they just use each frame five times.”
Trumbull spoke to companies such as Christie and Texas Instruments and discovered that a new frame could be used for each flash, opening up the opportunity for a massive increase in FPS at little or no extra cost for filmmakers.
“I contacted Christie Digital to find out more about how the new Digital Projection was being done and researched a number of digital camera companies such as Arri, RED, Sony, Panavision, Canon and others, and found out that they could all run at 60 FPS effortlessly [...] and at 4K.”
Trumbull added that when he discovered Christie had developed the Mirage 4K projector, capable of running 3D at 120 FPS, he realised “it was now time to get back into movies”.
He started tests by shooting 3D in 4K resolution and invented a new way to get rid of boring and strobing by shooting the left and right eye cameras out of phase. “When one camera shutter is closed for 180 degrees, the other is open. 100% of the action is captured,” Trumbull said.
The result is a system called MAGI, which combines 3D, 4K and boasts 120 FPS. Trumbull demonstrated this system at IBC earlier this year by screening UFOTOG, a 10-minute experimental movie that he wrote and directed.
The film was shown using the full brightness six primary laser projection system from Christie Digital, giving the degree of luminosity that Trumbull insists is important for cinema. Trumbull added that Christie dual projector laser illuminated 3D is “finally achieving the level of brightness that I have been trying to achieve for many, many years.”
Digital Studio attended the UFOTOG screening and was highly impressed by the end result, which offered the viewer a fully immersive 3D experience more akin to holographic projection than conventional 3D. The lead character appeared to loom out of the screen, making direct eye contact with every member of the audience.
Trumbull also played with different film media in UFOTOG, layering a 3D sequence over a 2D background. The high FPS and luminosity meant that the 2D segment had far greater depth and feel than regular cinema projection, and could easily have been mistaken for a live performance in a theatre.
Explaining more about the production of UFOTOG, Trumbull said: “UFOTOG was shot in Magi at 120 FPS. Each frame is shown once, shot in 3D at 4K and can be projected in 2K or 4K at 120 frames so the film can be shown on much bigger screens. All post production was done using eyeon Software. The cameras were Canon C500s. The film was shown at IBC using Christie Mirage 4K projection.”
While the audience was clearly impressed with the visual effects in UFOTOG, it remains to the seen whether film studios will look seriously at the technology and consider using it. As Trumbull points out, the major studios have a poor track record of embracing change.
“One fundamental problem is the movie studios do not like to change anything because they think they have got the tiger by the tale and that they can sell their movies to theatres or television and milk the markets as deeply as they possibly can. What they prefer is commonality of formats, so what plays at theatres plays on TV or digitally.”
However, Trumbull confirmed that he was in talks with studios and filmmakers about the MAGI. “I have talked to directors who are very interested in this,” he said.
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Force for Good
Trumbull believes that by using higher frame rates, such as those offered by MAGI, films can have a greater emotional impact on their audience. While he does not want to see the demise of 24 FPS films, he is keen to see filmmakers use new techniques to convey important messages to viewers.
“As filmmakers we have the responsibility to deliver something of social value. Many movies today are what we would call popcorn. Movies that have more depth and content can deliver social change.”
He adds that by using new techniques, filmmakers will have more clout. “As the palate increases, as the bandwidth of that container increases, the emotional depth, intellectual and learning depth that can be delivered to an audience increases dramatically.
It may be something that is completely visceral and based on the beauty of the Grand Canyon or the universe. I am personally dedicated to the vision of trying to deliver more. I feel it is a really profound responsibility to do something that is life affirming and socially responsible and try to uplift this planet in some tiny way. Our planet is in really bad shape right now. I hope this [MAGI] gets into the hands of really responsible people.”
Big screen experience
Douglas Trumbull has dedicated several decades to developing technology to improve the look, feel and emotional impact that films have on audiences at cinemas. Trumbull’s most recent development, which he showcased at IBC, is a system called MAGI, which combines 3D with 4K and boasts 120 FPS, offering a more immersive experience.
Trumbull hopes that his system will allow the film industry to return - and build on - the giant screen experience once offered by Cinerama.
“The movie industry is this amazing production capacity of artists, craftsmen, producers, directors, cinematographers, actors and actresses, and they spend let’s say $200 million making some epic movie but only a small percentage of that value gets through to the audience. It is being filtered down and diminished by the inadequacies of the process itself,” he said.
He added that only by making movies a true spectacle and experience will cinemas manage to coax people from the comfort of their homes.
“We are right at the beginning of something new,” he said, adding that he hopes directors will start using and experimenting with the system.