Breaking the Image Barrier

Filmed at a super-clear 48 frames per second, Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" is about to bring big changes to the visual effects industry.

The world of visual effects is bracing itself for dramatic change. On Dec. 14, when Warner Bros. and Peter Jackson unveil The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Hollywood will get its first look at a major movie shot and projected at 48 frames per second -- twice the rate of 24 frames per second, which has been the industry standard since the arrival of the talkies. "This will be a really big thing," says technology innovator Douglas Trumbull, who has been pushing the visual envelope since 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As the VFX community gathers for Siggraph, its annual computer graphics conference, taking place Aug. 5 to 9 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the implications of higher frame rates will be the hot topic. For example, Trumbull, Avatar producer Jon Landau and Industrial Light + Magic senior visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren will be among those participating in an Aug. 8 panel on the impact of high frame rates.

High frame rates such as 48 and 60fps result in a different aesthetic look that proponents describe as smoother and more lifelike -- even as detractors complain that they produce images that look more like video than film. Very divided reaction greeted the 10 minutes of footage Jackson previewed at CinemaCon in April. But set aside the aesthetic debate. More frames to fill per second also means visual effects houses will have to store and render a lot more data for each image they create. A 48fps movie requires double the number of frames as one shot in 24. If you add in 3D, double that number again as separate left-eye and right-eye images must be created. And as future movies also are shot in the higher-resolution 4K format rather than today's customary 2K, that means four times the amount of data will be required to fill in all those densely packed pixels.

Additional computing and storage costs will add up to "a significant amount of money," says Sony Pictures Imageworks' CTO/VFX supervisor Rob Bredow, "though the real issue is what it's going to do to the artist workflow. You either need a bigger team -- and there are a limited number of really talented artists who can do the level of work we do -- or you have to allow more time." Says Muren, "[Computing speed] needs to be improved."

No one has a handle yet on what the additional costs will amount to. "It's not a clear-cut thing that the cost is going to go up, but for the first few, it will be more expensive until we learn how to do it," says Muren. Adds Darin Grant, CTO at Digital Domain, "We would definitely need to have more storage, and whether we can pass those costs on to the studio or whether that is just a part of doing business is something we'll have to work out."

Warners and Jackson have yet to reveal how widely they will release Hobbit in 48fps, but sources predict as many as 23,000 projectors worldwide could potentially be upgraded in time. "I know for a fact that thousands of theaters will be showing The Hobbit at 48 frames," says Trumbull, who is bullish about the prospect. "I don't know how many thousands, but it will be quite a large number."

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VIDEO GAMES CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE: The conference's keynote speaker Jane McGonigal speaks from experience.

Confined to bed in 2009 for a concussion she suffered after accidentally slamming her head against an open cabinet door, Jane McGonigal, the visionary game developer, did what she does best: She treated her recuperation as a veritable role-playing game that she called Jane: The Concussion Slayer. It involved battling a traditional game's "bad guys" (in this case, that meant avoiding bright light, which was slowing the healing process) and activating "power ups" (steps toward recovery, like taking a short walk). The experience led her to launch the new app, SuperBetter (available free at Apple's App Store) to help users recover from illness or injury -- or to simply lead a healthier life -- through mental and physical tasks.

McGonigal, who is director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., is a big believer that games can be used to solve real-world problems. "Gaming can make us more optimistic, less likely to give up in the face of failure," she says.

While research has begun to study the way games are changing the way players think and act -- McGonigal likens it to "transferring 'superpowers' in a way" -- she argues that scientists now need to show game developers how games can have positive results. If scientists and developers can join forces, she's convinced, there are "positive benefits" to be had.

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