Cinematographer/director/effects guru Douglas Trumball made an eye-opening presentation at NAB as part of the Digital Cinema Society conference this past week. Trumball, who was instrumental in the effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, tried to get a 60 frames-per-second format known as Showscan off the ground in the late 70s (it never took). Was Trumball just ahead of his time? At the same time Trumball was presenting, Peter Jackson had begun shooting The Hobbit at 48 frames per second. Jackson expects there to be 10,000 theaters ready to exhibit the film at 48 FPS by the time of its release. He's not the only one clamoring for a new cinema standard, however:
James Cameron is gung-ho about higher frame rates, saying he's "agnostic" about whether the future is 48 or 60 FPS. George Lucas is also on board. Why the need for higher frame rates, especially when many of us have spent the better part of a decade trying to get 24 fps out of our video cameras? In his keynote, Trumball noted:
Not only that, but Trumball also said that shooting at an even higher frame rate of 120 FPS would allow for proper extraction of backwards-compatible frame rates:
I should note he also mentioned 48 FPS along with 24 and 60, but my tweet ran out of room. To demonstrate this correct motion blur, Trumball showed us this presentation:
Many of us think that there's something magical about 24 FPS, because watching anything shot at 60i looks terribly "videoy" to us. It doesn't seem appropriate for dramatic material. But in an entry on his Facebook Page, Jackson says the purists who've seen it in action on The Hobbit are on board:
Film purists will criticize the lack of blur and strobing artifacts, but all of our crew--many of whom are film purists--are now converts. You get used to this new look very quickly and it becomes a much more lifelike and comfortable viewing experience. It's similar to the moment when vinyl records were supplanted by digital CDs. There's no doubt in my mind that we're heading towards movies being shot and projected at higher frame rates.
60i, it's important to note, has the motion characteristics of
120 FPS 60P, since half of each frame is alternately refreshing at 60 times a second. ((Right?)) If 48p maintains the same "magical" qualities we associate with 24p, perhaps the cinema standard of 24 FPS is on the way out. If it is, the main reason why I think higher frame rates will become widespread now, as opposed to the failed efforts of the past, is 3D. Eyestrain and headaches are apparently reduced at 48 FPS. Here's Jackson on the difference:
Shooting and projecting at 48 fps does a lot to get rid of these issues. It looks much more lifelike, and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D. We've been watching HOBBIT tests and dailies at 48 fps now for several months, and we often sit through two hours worth of footage without getting any eye strain from the 3-D. It looks great, and we've actually become used to it now, to the point that other film experiences look a little primitive. I saw a new movie in the cinema on Sunday and I kept getting distracted by the juddery panning and blurring. We're getting spoilt!
The other reason 48 FPS could succeed where Showscan failed is the fact that existing digital projectors can easily project higher frame rate images (many of them go up to 120-144Hz). Most projectors in digital cinemas all over the world should be able to accomodate 48 or 60 FPS with a software upgrade. So while Showscan was incredibly expensive -- it was a 65mm negative that required new projectors and must've gobbled up celluloid at an alarming rate -- in a digital world with rapidly diminishing storage costs, the extra 1s and 0s cost next to nothing.
It gets a little more interesting when you think about what happens after theatrical distribution, however. Does Blu-ray have a 48fps spec or would the movie be wrapped in a 60p file? If you double the frame rate of streaming Netflix, will you run out of bandwidth? Will manufacturers take this as an opportunity to sell you a new TV? That last one we can count on, I suppose...
What do you think? Is 24 FPS another example of lock-in?
On a related note, here's Peter Jackson's first video blog from the set of The Hobbit:
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2m2x8qJcGQ