Douglas Trumbull Sees a Better Filmgoing Future
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He first won acclaim with the visual effects for such groundbreaking features as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his own Silent Running, but with the invention of Showscan in the late 1970s, Douglas Trumbull became the godfather of high-frame rate cinema.
Showscan was based on 65mm negative filmed at 60 frames per second, with 70mm prints from those negatives projected at 60 frames per second. Often projected onto screens at over 30 foot lamberts of brightness, the experience was tremendously immersive, for what viewers often described as "a window onto reality."
In 1993, Trumbull, Geoffrey Williamson, Robert Auguste and Edmund DiGiulio were awarded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Scientific and Engineering for the Showscan camera system.
Trumbull developed the feature film project Brainstorm to launch the ShowScan process but the project was stymied by studio politics and the death of its leading actress, Natalie Wood. This precipitated Trumbull's move from Hollywood to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts and the beginning of his career in simulation rides, starting with "Back to the Future: The Ride," for Steven Spielberg.
Trumbull directing Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood on the set of 1983's Brainstorm, courtesy MGM.
At the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Annual Technical Conference & Exhibition in October, Trumbull spoke about what it will take to make the moviegoing experience the best it can be, starting with higher framerates.
Earlier in the week, he spoke with Creative COW's Debra Kaufman about lessons learned from over 40 years of work with filmmaking and exhibition technology, as well as some hard lessons in the movie business. This is Part 1 of that conversation. Look for more at CreativeCOW.net.
I think there are a lot of opportunities for tremendous improvement in color saturation, frame rate, brightness, and the size of the screen so we can bring back spectacle and showmanship. It would get audiences back into theatres.
Exhibition quality has hit an all-time low and that really bothers me. Not that I don't admire what's been done to transform theatres with 3D and digital. But brightness, screen size, saturation are all in the low end, and it's turning people off.
They can't quite describe what's giving them the headache when they watch 3D, but it's not the 3D. It's the loss of brightness and it's also inadequate frame rates. The biggest complicating factor is that there is little qualitative difference between experiencing a movie in the theatre and in your own home.
Most young people today don't go to movie theatres any more. They've never seen Cinerama, nor do they understand the history of the curved or giant screens of the 1950s when the movie industry was terrified of TV. I think if we can bring that back into play so that the movie-going experience is distinctly more spectacular than anything you'll see on your iPad, we'll bring people back into theatres. It's not an either/or.
But a movie-going experience has got to be as good as going to Cirque de Soleil. The theatre has to be more than a rectangular box with a screen at one end. And all that is immediately feasible.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Courtesy Warner Bros./Stanley Kubrick Productions.
THE IMPACT OF FRAME RATES
When you spend $300 million on a blockbuster, the production value isn't getting to the audiences' eyes. It's limited by the medium itself. It doesn't matter what you pay the cast. If you simply increase frame rate, you can tremendously increase audience impact at almost no cost. That's why Peter Jackson is shooting The Hobbit at 48 fps and James Cameron has stated his plans to shoot Avatar 2 and 3 at 60 fps.
Higher frame rates give a strong sense immersion and realism, made possible by the tremendous reduction of blurring. Showscan was based on photographing 65mm film at 60 fps and then projecting it using 70mm prints at the same rate.
We had done laboratory tests to see the impact of high-frame rates images on viewers. Viewers were shown identical films shot and projected at 24, 36, 48, 60, 66 and 72 fps, and all of them were monitored with electromyogram, electroencephalogram, galvanic skin response and electrocardiogram. The results were conclusive that the 60 fps profoundly increased the viewers' visual stimulation.
DIGITAL CHANGES EVERYTHING
I was part of the team that bought IMAX [along with Richard Gelfond and Bradley Wexler, in 1994], merged it with Showscan and took it public, with the idea of bringing it into commercial filmmaking and make it part of the lexicon of filmmaking. But it was very expensive to get the high frame rate in 70mm when it was film. The raw stock and film lab cost twice as much and print costs were a big issue as well. I couldn't get traction for Showscan 30 years ago because it was prohibitively expensive.
With digital technology, everything has changed. IMAX has been forced to transform into a digital company, because of the cost of 70mm prints and the weight of the cameras. Some exhibitors are making their own version of IMAX by buying the same cameras and putting larger screens and double projectors to create more light. Now, it's relatively easy to make these digital projectors run at a higher frame rate. Data is very cheap and that's all it is: extra data.
CINEMA REINVENTING ITSELF
When I developed Showscan, I really thought it would be a breakthrough in cinematic language.
I had some support at Paramount, which owned my company. That began the mandate to find a story that would launch Showscan [ed. note: Brainstorm, 1983] just as Jim Cameron used Avatar to launch 3D. But then all the Paramount executives were ousted and the mandate went away. The movie moved to MGM, but then Natalie Wood died, and I found out the studio didn't want the movie to be finished.
Ultimately it was made, but not in Showscan. It was a reprehensible conflict between the studio executives and me, and I decided I wasn't up for making movies in Hollywood. I moved to Massachusetts and decided not to even try to direct movies…and then the Back to the Future Ride came along.
The technology I'm developing now is a whole new exhibition experience. I'm developing several projects, working at 120fps, and it's stunning. It opens up a a whole new cinematic language. It's a different kind of cinema, all about immersive, participatory, first-person experiences. I'm going to use the virtual set technology to make a sci-fi movie in the epicenter of what people want to see: a big action-adventure movie. The audience sees what appears to be happening in real time. It would have been appropriate with Gone With the Wind, 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Wizard of Oz. It's not appropriate for love stories or crime dramas, which are story-driven.
It's very much akin to any number of sci-fi operas you can think of that have become successful. I'm in the sweet spot in that a visual effects-driven movie isn't dependent on star talent, and is attractive to a very wide audience demographic. I'll be shooting the film in 3D at 120fps, at high resolution and bit-depth.
I'm working with several camera companies to help develop the next-generation of 3D digital cameras, including Vision Research, which makes the Phantom camera. I've been shooting tests using the Vision Research Phantom 65 with a 3D lens adapter, which works great. Meduza Systems in Irvine is also making the first integrated 3D camera, with a single body that handles the sensors.
And I'm working with some of the projector manufacturers, doing experiments with 120 fps in 3D. Right now, I'm working most closely with Christie but I'm open to working with any of the projector manufacturers.
I'm also working with IRIDAS, which handles a lot of the 3D post production workflow, writing code to handle high frame rates so you can edit at 24 fps and make it match up to 120 fps.
At the projection end, I'm trying to demonstrate what it'll look like when you project at 50-foot lamberts on a giant curved screen at 120 fps in 3D.
When I pull all the pieces of the puzzle together, it'll be a mind-blowing new opportunity for the movie industry to reinvent itself.
Read Part Two of this interview from the November/December 2011 issue of Creative COW Magazine online.
Title graphic, Douglas Trumbull today.