James Cameron Still Pushing Film Industry To Project Movies At 60 Frames Per Second

Where would James Cameron be without a new technological crusade? And where would cinema be without his techie goals? The director was at the forefront of the adoption of digital effects, and that worked out pretty well for movies. He was the standard-bearer in the new push for 3D, and that hasn't been such a great thing so far.

Now Cameron's Quest (coming soon from Sierra) is to push the film industry to use higher frame rates than 24 frames per second. 24fps is hardly a universal standard; you'll find systems using 30 to 60fps (interlaced and progressive) in common usage today. But because higher frame rates can help produce clearer 3D, Cameron wants to see digital cinema projectors enabled for higher frame rates. Ah, it's really two quests in one!

The director first started stumping for higher frame rates earlier this year at CinemaCon, where he argued for the use of 48 and 60fps. (Peter Jackson is shooting The Hobbit at 48fps.) This week, Cameron talked to THR about his desire for higher frame rates, saying he would favor 60fps. He explains,

The reason I went down that path is because I believe it makes for better 3D... There were lots of arguments for why 48 and why 60. My feeling is if it is a software upgrade (for digital cinema projectors), do both. It doesn't change anything at the projector; you don't have to change the lamp house or the lenses. If you are uploading software you can upload it for 48 and 60 and let the filmmakers decide.

If exhibitors decide to use one frame rate or another as a wide standard, then that will be the rate at which Cameron shoots his Avatar sequels; if they adopt a dual standard then he'll shoot at 60. (Let's set aside for the moment the concern that having dual-rate projectors would open up one more thing that inattentive projectionists can get wrong at the multiplex.)

As part of the push to get exhibitors to adopt a new standard, Cameron's Lightstorm entertainment has partnered with projection company Christie to "[further] 3D digital cinema and the use of higher frame rates."

Other questions do arise, primarily over the cost of visual effects production. When a company has to render 48 or 60 frames per second rather than 24 or 30, how will the workflow and budget change for VFX? Cameron has thought of that.

What we have to work on is the FX workflow—primarily the render pipeline. The trick in the near term is going to be to not have a big upward inflection in the cost of visual effects. I believe there are ways to do it, but there is some code that needs to be written to do it, and I'm working with some of the big FX providers on that now. You can't expect people to run off adopting a higher frame rate if it is going to cost an addition 10 percent of their FX costs, which are already pretty high. We have to get it down to 1 percent or so, which I think is achievable.

Finally, there's the question of whether or not we want higher frame rates and the accompanying clarity they could bring. Certain film purists hold fast to 24fps based on the idea that the rate helps maintain a certain filmic distance from reality. But people said the same thing about shooting film versus digital, and a great many of the old defenders of shooting film have moved to digital by now. Are the staunch defenders of 24fps just relying on old thinking?

(Finally, sorry for the Cameron's Quest joke. That was for the old gaming nerds.)