Posted on Friday, April 1st, 2011 by Peter Sciretta
In 2005, James Cameron and George Lucas held a presentation at ShoWest which changed the course of the history of cinema. In a room full or movie theater owners, managers and execs, Cameron and Lucas started their big push to convince the entire industry to invest in new digital cinema equipment for the upcoming 3D revolution. Sure, there was hesitation from some, and the success of Cameron’s Avatar certainly sped up the adoption process. Like it or not, we now live in a world of 3D cinema.
Six years later, Cameron has returned to ShoWest, now renamed CinemaCon, to hold a presentation titled “A Demonstration and Exclusive Look at The Future of Cinema”. What is the next revolution in cinema? I was in attendance at this presentation, and have a full report after the jump.
You might guess that Cameron was back in Las Vegas to convince the industry to upgrade to 4K projectors. We’ve seen beautiful footage and films projected at 4K over the last few years at these types of industry events, but the movie theater chains have been slow in adopting the higher resolution projectors — most have settled on cheaper 2K digital projectors. Are 4K projectors the next leap in the future of cinema? Nope.
Cameron believes the time has not yet come for the 4K resolution upgrade as most films are currently authored at 2K (especially in the post production stage where most visual effects are rendered at 1 or 2k).
According to Cameron, the next revolution in cinema will be… to begin shooting and projecting films with faster frame rates.
What does that mean exactly?
35mm movies are shot and projected at 24 frames per second. The 24 FPS rate became the industry standard for feature films in the mid-1920s after sound motion pictures were introduced, and has not changed since. The low frame rate results in a strobing effect when their is moderate camera movement. You have probably accepted this technological artifacting, but it looks artificial and your brain interoperates it as such. Raising the framerate makes movement look a lot smoother, and gives the impression of an enhanced resolution. It is also one of the major factors of why some people experience discomfort while watching 3D movies.
Cameron presented test footage that he shot a month ago. Scenes in a medieval castle — people drinking at a royal dinner, a sword fight, and a couple ladies dancing in slow motion. He shot (using the Arri Alexa, Red Epic and Phantom cameras using the same lighting set-up) and screened the footage at 24, 48 and 60 frames per second, giving back-to-back comparisons between each of the framerates.
I know this is all a bit techie, and you probably just want to know what I thought, so here goes: The footage shot at 48 frames a second looked incredible. The best way to describe it, is to quote Cameron: “If watching a 3D movie is like looking through a window, then [with this] we’ve taken the glass out of the window and we’re staring at reality.”
The bump up to 60 frames per second isn’t as drastic, although I did notice a slight improvement. Cameron himself isn’t sure what a new standard should be set at — 48fps or 60fps. It seems to me that setting the bar at 60fps would be futureproofing, and is a smart way to go.
Even sports on television is broadcast at 60 frames per second — we have the technology in our homes. Cinema has lagged behind on pushing the technology to new, better, levels. So if Hollywood were to adopt a higher framerate it would improve not only the cinema 2D and 3D presentations, but would also improve the 2D and 3D presentations on your home set.
It’s worth noting that the frame rate discussion is not new. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Douglas Trumbull developed a process called Show Scan in the early 1980′s which used film to project images at 60 frames per second. The problem is that the mechanical nature of film projection made the process too cumbersome and costly for theater owners to adopt.
The genius of Cameron’s Frame Rate push is that (in theory) it requires no new equipment to implement. The high definition video cameras being used for movies today are able to capture images at high framerates, some reaching as high as 220 fps. The second generation digital projectors (basically any projector bought since January 2010) are able to project at very high framerates. In fact, every 3D presentation we see now is being projected at 140 frames per second, projecting each eye a half dozen times. According to Cameron, theater owners won’t need to buy new expensive equipment, as it will only require software upgrades.
I don’t care if you hate 3D films — the 3D revolution is the reason why theaters have adopted digital projection, which everyone can agree is a step in the right direction. In the coming years we’ll see social on demand movies in theaters and a big change in independent distribution. It also presents the chance to innovate the presentation. I’ve heard complaints from some filmmakers that 3D alters the way a film must be shot, cut, and produced. Filmmakers throughout history have been altering their use of camera movement to prevent heavy strobing. An upgrade in framerate will now allow filmmakers to shoot in ways they would have otherwise avoided. It also would result in much clearer and smoother images, even when projected in 2D.
While Cameron didn’t offer an ultimatum to the theater owners, he did mention that he will be shooting Avatar 2 at high speeds, although he is unsure if it will be 48 or 60 fps. And there is time to upgrade the software in these projectors — Cameron mentioned that he’s still working on a script and production would be at least 18 months out. Cameron also said that George Lucas is also “gung ho” about upgrading the framerate, and that Peter Jackson was exploring shooting The Hobbit at 48fps, and was even shooting tests on the film’s sets. But the story as Cameron relayed it: Jackson suffered illness before he could complete the tests and convince studio brass to shoot the films at a higher speed.
As for how this will change a filmmaker’s process, Cameron demonstrated how the 60fps footage could be downgraded to 24fps. Studios would not need to double their visual effects render budget to accommodate the extra frames, Cameron claims that smart pipeline software could choose which motion heavy footage would require extra rendered frames and that the result would probably only be 10% more in price. One might think that high speed photography for slow motion sequences would be harder to achieve if the whole of a film was already being shot at 48 or 60 fps. Cameron demonstrated how the high speed footage could be doubled and would not look choppy at 48fps.
It will be interesting to see which filmmakers and Hollywood studios jump on board this train. It will take a bit of movement on the filmmaking side before the movie theater owners upgrade the software on their projectors. I have a feeling that the stars will align before Avatar 2 finds its way to theaters.