By Gordon Meyer
Last week, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) held their annual spring convention, CinemaCon, in Las Vegas. While schedule conflicts prohibited me from being there, I kept up on the show highlights. CinemaCon (formerly ShoWest) is a star studded celebration of movies scheduled to come out between now and the end of the year. Exhibitors get to hob nob with stars and studio big wigs, see advance footage of movies months before their releases and, this year, enjoy a celebration of two technologies whose proponents believe will enhance the movie going experience and therefore sell more tickets.
One of those technologies, 3D, is kind of old news. The master 3D evangelist, James Cameron, made an appearance with fellow director Ang Lee in promoting the virtues of the format. But another format took center stage with very mixed response from exhibitors – the new 48 frame per second (fps) projection speed that Peter Jackson wants exhibitors and studios to adopt.
The idea is that when the frame rate refreshes at double the 24 fps speed that’s been the industry standard since the late 1920s, there’s an enhanced sense of reality with audiences because they are less aware of the subtle, almost subliminal, frame to frame flicker that goes with the slower projection speed. In many ways, this is a 21st Century version of the Showscan format developed by Douglas Trumball over 30 years ago, except that Showscan used 70mm film running at 60 fps. Apparently viewers notice much more detail at the higher frame rate as well.
I would have loved to attend Peter Jackson’s demonstration of the 3D 48 fps experience with his excerpts from the first half of “The Hobbit.” By all reports, the response from exhibitors was split. Jackson himself acknowledged that there’s an adjustment period needed for audiences to acclimate themselves to the higher frame rate. Since New Line only showed 10 minutes from “The Hobbit,” and since those scenes were apparently incomplete in terms of effects and color balancing, it was admittedly not a fair demonstration.
But looking at the mere concept of a higher frame rate raises esthetic questions for me. My friend Doug is one of millions of people who have a flat screen TV capable of 120 Hz or higher refresh rates. That translates into quadruple the standard television rate of 30 fps. Since nobody is broadcasting in these higher frame rates (yet), the additional frames are electronically extrapolated from the video signal. This actually looks pretty cool when watching things like sporting events at the higher frame rate. But movies frankly look weird – almost TV-like instead of filmic. Maybe it’s just because, like virtually the entire populace of the planet, I’m used to and therefore comfortable with, filmed entertainment presented at 24 fps (or 30 fps on a TV screen).
Higher frame rates are poised to become a new tool for filmmakers, just like HD, multichannel sound and 3D. Filmmakers will need to go through a learning curve as they discover the pros and cons of this enhanced format. But it’s an interesting thing about having too much detail on the screen. Ironically, it has the potential to actually feel less believable. Many years ago, I was involved in a tribute to Albert Whitlock, an Academy Award winning visual effects artist who specialized in matte work, where a background painted on a sheet of glass is combined with live action footage to create the illusion that the camera is actually in a different place. When Whitlock showed me several of his matte paintings, I noticed that they were actually less detailed and more stylized than I would have thought. Whitlock explained that, when photographed and projected onto a movie screen, the less detailed, more stylized matte paintings actually read more realistic and believable to audiences than photo-realistic matte paintings.
Recently, I interviewed cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister, ASC for my article on lenses that will appear in the May 2012 issue of P3 Update. During our conversation he said that because many of the newer digital cameras like the RED Epic have such high resolution imaging sensors, as a DP he’s often asked to use things like diffusion lenses to soften the image because the image is so sharp and detailed that it becomes uncomfortable for audiences.
Of course, to be fair to Jackson and other filmmakers promoting the higher frame rate, to render any kind of judgment until “The Hobbit” comes out is premature. But it seems to me that this kind of technology is best used selectively, especially during the first decade or so of its existence, so filmmakers can learn how to use it in ways that enhance the audience experience, rather than feed them so much visual information that it becomes a distraction, much like camera work that calls attention to itself.