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Siggraph 2012: Douglas Trumbull Talks Variable Frame Rates

Douglass Trumbull Panavision Camera - H 2012
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30 years after pioneering Showscan, the Academy Award winner continues to experiment with frame rates to create "an immersive cinematic experience."

When it comes to frame rates, filmmaker, VFX pioneer and technical innovator Douglas Trumbull--who spoke Wednesday at CG confab Siggraph--is among those who believe one size doesn’t necessarily fit all and that variable frame rates is the answer.

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Movies have been shot and projected at a standard rate of 24 frames per second since the arrival of talkies, but proponents of moving to higher frame rates have argued that it can create a more lifelike image and truer illusion of continuous movement, in particular improving 3D and action sequences by eliminating or greatly reducing motion artifacts such as blur. Others argue that it looks too real, resembling video.

Trumbull—the developer of the Showscan large format system that incorporated 65mm film at 60 frames per second (fps)—is aiming to provide an aesthetic choice by developing a system that effectively allows filmmakers to embed high frame rates such as 48 or 60fps into a standard 24 fps movie. “You could dynamically change the frame rate on a person or a scene or an object just as you would change color intensity or any other variable that you have in photography. So when you get to a point where the it becomes too vivid, you just lower the frame rate.” He refers to this system as Showscan Digital.

Reflecting a broader vision, Trumbull is also experimenting with creation of an “immersive cinematic experience that I think will be entirely at 120 fps in 3D, at very high brightness on very large screens.”

He told The Hollywood Reporter: “I’m looking for like-minded partners and investors and creative people. My initial indications are that the experience is like a live event.

“I’m moving toward a first person experience rather than a third person experience; it’s not just about frame rates, it’s a creative issue,” he continues. “It is as though the audience is actually in the movie and on the adventure with the characters in that you don’t have to adhere to traditional cinematic conventions of over-the-shoulder shots and off-camera sight lines. You can actually have actors talk into the camera.”

Peter Jackson is making his trilogy of The Hobbit at a high frame rate of 48fps. The first of Jackson’s films opens in December, and much attention has been placed on the subject since an early preview of some unfinished Hobbit footage was screening at April’s CinemaCon at 48fps, drawing mixed reactions.

At Siggraph, Trumbull predicted that Jackson’s “bold step” would “pay off.”