Douglas Trumbull Advocates Higher Frame Rates at SMPTE

Trumbull Photo Canon 7D - H 2011

Trumbull Photo Canon 7D - H 2011

The inventor and "2001: A Space Odyssey" visual effects guru said 3D is forcing filmmakers to deal with the issue.

Pioneering filmmaker and inventor Douglas Trumbull -- whose visual effects credits include 2001: A Space Odyssey and whose inventions include ShowScan, a large format system that incorporated 65mm film, shooting at 60 frames per second (fps) -- continued to advocate the use of higher frame rates in motion picture production and exhibition Wednesday at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

"3D is the issue that is driving the frame rate question," Trumbull said, noting that this issue is about "continuing to improve the perception of 3D and get rid of objectionable artifacts." Higher frame rates, he said, tends get rid of blurring and strobing.

Driving the recent surge in discussion about higher frame rates -- particularly 48 and 60 frames per second (fps) -- has been James Cameron, who earlier this year at CinemaCon said he aims to shoot Avatar 2 and 3 at higher frame rates as he believes its make for better 3D. Peter Jackson is currently shooting The Hobbit at 48 fps.

Frame rates are the number of images displayed by a projector within one second. 24 fps has long been the standard in cinema. Proponents of a shift suggest that a higher number of frames offer a more truthful image by reducing or eliminating things like motion blur.

At SMPTE, Trumbull warned that improving the theatrical experience is critical. "The industry needs to upgrade substantially in order to keep its audience," he said. "We are losing the incoming audience because in my opinion the theatrical experience is not really good enough to keep it. I have been a long time advocate of giant screens, brighter screens and higher frame rates, which can be used in a way that provides an experience far superior to (viewing content on) a laptop."

Dave Schnuelle, senior director of image technology at Dolby, reported that these higher frame rates present some engineering issues, which are starting to be explored by SMPTE.

A key challenge, he said is backward compatibility with digital cinema equipment that is already installed and in use around the world.

North America, for instance, is about halfway to converting its roughly 39,000 screens from film to digital projection. The digital cinema playback servers, as well as Series 1 projectors from Barco, Christie and NEC -- which make up the majority of the installed base -- are an issue. Asked Schnuelle: “What are we going to do with the 47,000 servers (worldwide) and projectors that are out there that were not built for this?”

Work is being doing to develop upgrades for current Series 2 projectors. But of Series 1 technology, Schnuelle said: "(Upgrading these projectors) is theoretically possible. … But I’m fairly confident it would be less expensive to buy a new projector."

This week at ShowEast, Barco and Dolby are demonstrating higher frame rate 2D and 3D digital cinema using a single Barco Series 2 projector with a prototype Dolby Integrated Media Block and Dolby cinema server.

Also this week, Christie announced a software upgrade for its Christie Solaria Series 2 projectors that it said would accept video content at frame rates as high as 60 fps per eye in 3D and up to 120 fps in 2D.

From a production perspective, Trumbull suggested that higher frame rates are effectively an aesthetic choice. “There are a lot (of films) that it is completely inappropriate for… but if you are trying to make Avatar 2 and 3, it is completely appropriate.”

To that end, Trumbull is innovating ShowScan Digital, a patent-pending process that uses 24 frames per second but allows the filmmaker to embed 60 frames per second sequences as desired for creative use.

“I need to show this in the context of a real movie,” Trumbull told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m getting back to directing and writing. I’m hoping to do these (ShowScan Digital) experiments in the context of my feature films.”

His next film will be a sci-fi action adventure, the title of which has not yet been announced.