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Producer Jon Landau: Filmmakers, Not Studios, Should Decide the Fate of Higher Frame Rates

James Cameron & Jon Landau
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

At Siggraph, Douglas Trumbull predicts Peter Jackson's "bold step" in making "The Hobbit" at 48fps will "pay off."

If shooting movies at high frame rates is to succeed, filmmakers and not the studios need to drive the process, Avatar producer Jon Landau told his fellow filmmakers at the Siggraph conference Wednesday in Los Angeles.

In contrast to Avatar, which was greeted as a state-of-the-art 3D release, a number of 3D movies in recent years have drawn criticism -- particularly those that studios decided should be rapidly. “In 3D, studios decided to impose it on filmmakers, and the result suffered and the public picked up on it,” Landau warned.

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Speaking on a panel at the annual computer graphics conference, Landau said the new technology ideally should disappear and transport audiences “into the narrative story that we are trying to tell. We have a responsibility to find what tells story in a better way and drives people out of their homes and into the cinema. [With high frame rates,] they will walk away having been more engaged in our movies.”

Movies have been shot and projected at a standard rate of 24 frames per second since the arrival of talkies, but several filmmakers such as Peter Jackson and Landau’s business partner James Cameron now are advocating shooting films at 48 frames per second or higher. And the subject brought out a packed audience of more than 1,000 -- including curious representatives from Hollywood studios -- for a session that lasted more than two hours.

Supporters of higher frame rates argue that the they create a more lifelike image and truer illusion of continuous movement. In particular, they improve 3D and action sequences by eliminating or greatly reducing motion artifacts like blur. Others argue that images shot at higher rates look too real, resembling video more than the traditional look of film.

Cameron intends to make his sequels to Avatar at a high frame rate, and Jackson is making his upcoming The Hobbit trilogy at 48fps. The first of Jackson’s films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, opens Dec. 14. An early preview of some unfinished 48fps footage of the film drew mixed reaction when it was screened at CinemaCon in April.

But a number of prominent filmmakers are applauding Jackson’s pioneering effort. “Peter Jackson’s commitment [to high frame rates] is very brave and very important,” filmmaker and innovator Douglas Trumbull said. Noting that “movie attendance is at a 16-year low,” he called it a “bold step” that will pay off.

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A key topic that emerged at the Siggraph discussion was the technical challenge of computing, storing and rendering at least double the data required in going from 24 to 48 fps or higher.

Phil Oatley of Jackson’s Wellington, New Zealand-based post house Park Road Post, illustrated the point by explaining that by shooting The Hobbit digitally at 48 fps, the production was creating six to 12 terabytes of data each day. He estimated that the entire film added up to the digital equivalent of 24 million feet of processed 35mm film. He went on to describe work that is being done with Park Road’s vendors to accommodate 48fps production. “Postproduction [on The Hobbit] is well underway,” he reported. “We’re going to continue our commitment to moving high frame rates forward as much as possible.”

All that added data could put a strain on postproduction processes where large amounts of computing are required.

Said Dennis Muren, Industrial Light & Magic’s nine-time Oscar-winning VFX supervisor: “We know these problems are coming. We can start thinking about ways to do this more economically and faster."

Landau argued that despite those challenges, “it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. We have to be smart about how we approach high frame rates. We have to be creative … and look at this on a shot-by-shot basis.”

Added Jim Beshears, head of postproduction at DreamWorks Animation, “I do think this is the future, but we have to be careful movies don’t look like television, otherwise we have lost our audience.”

Said Muren: “The performances are better at higher frame rates. You see clearly the intent of what the actors are doing.”

During the presentation, which was hosted by projector maker Christie, Sheridan College’s John Helliker reported that the educational institution is developing a high-frame-rate testing facility and is working with companies including Christie. He screened some test material during his presentation at Siggraph, which runs through Thursday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.