A couple months ago, I posted the news that an audience test screening of footage from Peter Jackson’s upcoming ‘The Hobbit’ film was widely greeted with negative reactions, primarily due to the director’s experiment with shooting the movie at a higher 48 frames-per-second photographic rate. Viewers who’ve grown accustomed to the so-called “film look” of 24 fps photography over the decades found the more “video-like” appearance of the higher frame rate unnatural and disturbing. Now, visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull has invented his own high-frame-rate photographic process that may just solve this dilemma.
In addition to designing the legendary special effects for movies like ‘2001’ and ‘Blade Runner’, Trumbull is famous for the creation of a short-lived film format called Showscan that combined 65mm film with a high frame rate of 60 frames-per-second to achieve a heightened sense of realism. Showscan was used almost exclusively in theme park rides, not for narrative feature films. Even Trumbull himself acknowledged the limitations of shooting regular movies at higher frame rates. As quoted in a 2010 conference panel, Trumbull said:
I love high frame rates, because I like to make simulation rides and reality-based experiences that are looking to be as realistic as they possibly can, but 24 frames is what I call the “texture” of feature films. And I don’t think anybody’s really ready to see what you would categorize as a feature film shot at 60. And that was one of the tests I did when I was at Showscan; we shot a fully dramatic short film with sets, props, actors, the whole thing at 60 and it was very disturbing. Because it was like live news, or sports, or something.
However, directors like Peter Jackson and James Cameron are determined to press on with shooting movies at higher rates. In response, Trumbull has revived Showscan in a new variant called Showscan Digital that utilizes an extremely high native capture rate of 120 frames-per-second.
If audiences reacted negatively to the “video” look of 48 fps footage, wouldn’t 120 fps photography just be all that much worse? Not necessarily. In his words, Trumbull still recognizes that, “The whole world has adapted to 24 frames a second in a movie theater. That’s what a movie’s texture is like, what people expect.” As such, he’s designed Showscan Digital to be downconverted back to the standard 24 fps display rate upon playback.
So, what’s the point? By shooting the footage at 120 fps, Showscan Digital is able to capture sharp and crisp detail during motion that would normally blur at 24 fps. Using a technique called Frame Integrated Motion Analysis, that detail remains clear even when the extra frames are removed to convert back to 24 fps. Thus: “Showscan Digital automatically increases the clarity and the impact of fast action elements while preserving the world standard of 24 frames film texture.”
Here’s a promotional video that explains the concept in a little more detail:
One thing I like about this is the option of varying frame rate from scene to scene during production. This would allow a director to kick in the 120 fps clarity during, for example, action scenes, and then return to the standard 24 fps look during dramatic scenes, all while maintaining compatibility with the existing theatrical projection standard.
Does it really work the way that Trumbull describes? That will be hard to know until the process is put to practical use in a real movie production. The YouTube clip is too low-resolution to get a very good sense of the actual image quality. Still, the concept at least sounds plausible. I look forward to seeing it in action some day.
Too bad that it’s probably too late for Peter Jackson to reshoot ‘The Hobbit’ in this process.
[For more info, see the Showscan Digital web site. Thanks to Jason for the tip.]