The Hobbit & The Dawn of High Frame Rate Cinema
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : The Hobbit & The Dawn of High Frame Rate Cinema
Sony Imageworks 3D supervisor Rob Engle saw a screening of The Hobbit in HFR (High Frame Rate) 3D just days before the U.S. premiere. "I was astounded by one scene in Bilbo's home, early in the film," he says. "It's very intimate and at one point, I saw a dust mote cross the frame. And I thought to myself, I've seen that in 3D, but it had such a strong sense of being there. Clearly, one of the benefits of HFR isn't just more frames per second, but more detail.
48 fps can give a much more intimate portrait to the audience. Rob Engle, Sony Imageworks 3D supervisor notes that at a screening, he could see a dust mote float across the frame. Photo by Mark Pokorny.
While there are those who may decry the HFR aesthetic, I love the fact that directors like Peter Jackson are experimenting with new filmmaking tools and techniques," Engle adds. "We can't advance without people trying things." Forget the critics. Forget the reviews. HFR is here and it's here to stay. Although early viewers -- mainly critics -- have largely been lukewarm about the look of HFR (with some notable exceptions), the market forces behind HFR 3D have already spoken. Peter Jackson decided on 48 fps, while James Cameron has suggested he might make Avatar 2 in 60 fps. That's all it took for the industry -- from the studios and distribution companies to the projector manufacturers and hordes of exhibitors eager to reverse the trend of sagging attendance numbers -- to jump to attention.
Much has been written about the fact that Warner Bros. has released The Hobbit in "only" 900 screens worldwide, 400 in the U.S. and the rest worldwide. It's instructive to recall that when Disney debuted its first CG 3D film, Chicken Little, in 2005, it played in a mere 84 theatres in 25 markets nationwide. Similarly, the adoption of every new technology from talkies to HDTV and Digital Cinema was far from an overnight phenomenon.
(L-r) IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf and HUGO WEAVING as the Elf Lord Elrond.
"I remember getting negative responses to HD," recalls John Galt, Panavision Senior Vice President of Advanced Digital Imaging and a pioneer in HD imaging. "It used to be that whenever we'd roll out new technologies in cameras, people would say, Well, what does it look like on film?"
Still, there's a tendency to regard the limited debut as modest or timid, with many people linking what they perceive as a small number of cinemas to the largely negative feedback to 10 minutes of The Hobbit shown at CinemaCon 2012. "To be honest, given the initial tepid reaction when they did the pre-screening this summer, I'm surprised that The Hobbit will show in as many as 400 screens in the U.S.," says Galt. "Rather than compare it to 24 fps screenings, it's more like IMAX if you like, and how many IMAX screens are there? To me, a release on 400 screens for a single movie for what's really a big experiment really isn't bad."
Gandalf the Gray speaks with Bilbo Baggins about the long and winding road to great adventure.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO 48 FPS
To understand how Warner Bros. reached the point of choosing those 900 theatres, let's take a close look at how HFR became a feasible format for the release of a major commercial motion picture.
Aylsworth's direct involvement with HFR began at NAB 2011 where she happened to be when she heard the news that Peter Jackson would make The Hobbit in 48 fps. "There had been discussion and buzz about it before," she recalls. "James Cameron had been talking about making a movie in HFR. The industry knew it was coming and manufacturers were talking about it. Peter Jackson's announcement drove home the need for all the manufacturers to see what they could do in the timeframe."
Immediately after NAB 2011, says Aylsworth, the information exchanges began informally at SMPTE and the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF). "Later on in the year, we started having more planned dialogue with each company about what they thought was possible to be achieved," she says. "I'd say it was somewhere in between feeling frantic and confident that they could do it. Some of the manufacturers felt they could eke out more on the equipment already deployed and others new they'd need to build new IMBs (Integrated Media Blocks). Other manufacturers building IMBs for the first time really focused on completing this design, quickly."
Because Aylsworth has also been involved deeply in Digital Cinema, from the beginning she constantly networked to make sure as much as possible was being done to bring it along. "The real effort of calculating what the world looked like started about a year ago," she says. "We had to determine what percentage of the existing deployment would be able to be upgraded via software versus what percentage would be upgraded through hardware, which is more expensive, versus a deployed base of very, very early Series I projectors that can't be upgraded."
The good news is that less than one-third of the installed DLP projectors needed to be replaced in order to display HFR. "After that, it was evenly split between those who needed software and those who needed hardware," says Aylworth. Although she does not interface with exhibitors, her take from CinemaCon was that "the entire industry was excited and interested in trying to make it happen."
If you're a fan of IMAX 3D, you're in luck. According to IMAX Chairman/President of Filmed Entertainment Greg Foster, "Ten to fifteen percent of [IMAX] theatres are showing in 48 fps. Our point of view is very consistent," he says. "We support the vision of trailblazing filmmakers and that's the thesis of everything we've done for the last decade, whether it's the first mainstream 3D movie like Polar Express, the initial conversion of movies from 2D to 3D which we started with Bryan Singer's Superman Returns or shooting with IMAX cameras for the 2009 Dark Knight or exploring HFR like Jackson is doing with The Hobbit. Our mantra is to support the vision of the best filmmakers out there." [Find an HFR theatre showing The Hobbit here]
Getting ready for HFR 3D cinema was a matter of upgrading the software and the server, the latter, which had to handle the doubled frame rate. "I've seen it, and it works very nicely," says Foster. "HFR is particularly compelling in the big action sequences. When you have 3D and you have a sequence with big pans left to right, 24 fps can create motion blur. When you have HFR on fast whips from left to right, the eye automatically catches up with it in real time, so the blur doesn't exist."
Foster says IMAX will figure out a way to do 60 fps if that is ultimately what director James Cameron shoots for Avatar 2. "The ones who give us the directions are the filmmakers," he says. He also notes that critics of The Hobbit in HFR haven't yet seen how it looks in IMAX. "I look forward to people seeing it," he says. "In my humble opinion, the biggest issue facing the movie industry is that more of the same doesn't work. If 48 fps creates less strobing, it is an unqualified good thing, especially in 3D."
The speed at which Digital Cinema projector manufacturers have come up with solutions is an indication of the enthusiasm with which they anticipated exhibitors would embrace 48 fps. Their educated guess has paid off.
Cate Blanchett with director Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit . This journey leads us from digital acquisition with the RED Epics to digital HFR display on Barco projectors, seen below.
Barco's DP2K-32B projector
"From my end, there is a lot of interest," says Barco Director, Product Management, Entertainment Division Andrew Gaweda, who reports that 3,000 projectors in the Cinemark chain have been upgraded to play HFR 3D, utilizing an IMB from Doremi. Barco has released a projector configuration file to simplify the set-up process, says Gaweda. "We've pro-actively sent it to exhibitors so they can do it easily," he says. "We are also ready to help, but so far no phone calls from exhibitors
The majority of Digital Cinema theaters are outfitted with Series II projectors from one of the four main manufacturers (Christie, Barco, NEC and Sony). Unlike Series I projectors, which are not capable of playing HFR imagery, the Series II projectors are fairly easy to upgrade. "The upgrade is just installing some free software," says Dr. Don Shaw, Director of Product Management for Christie Entertainment Solutions. "Upgrading the software is part of a routine maintenance. They also need an Integrated Media Block (IMB) instead of a traditional external server, to get the bandwidth to sustain the higher frame rate."
Christie's newly released Solaria I projector integrates a Christie IMB. "It's HFR capable if you buy an HFR license, which is the business model we chose to go with," says Shaw, who declined to name a cost for the license. "We've sold a number of IMBs for Series II projectors and we've sold a number of HFR licenses." Shaw estimates that, of Christie's nearly 35,000 projectors worldwide, "in excess of 20,000" are now capable of playing HFR material.
Many exhibitors choose to use a third party IMB for their DLP projectors, and Doremi is a common choice. According to Michael Archer, Vice President of Doremi Cinema, the company's install base is 14,000 IMBs that support 3D HFR content.
"Exhibitors are expressing more excitement than caution," says Archer. "Not that you want to risk money in experiments, but it's easy to experiment. You can have a HFR showing for a couple of days and if it's unsuccessful, all you have to do is load the non-HFR one. Digital Cinema gives exhibitors the ultimate in flexibility."
Archer reports that his company has spent over a year of development in getting the IMBs capable of playing HFR. "There has been a lot of investment made by manufacturers to ensure The Hobbit is successful," he says. "We believe it'll be a very different presentation for patrons. I think more exhibitors than not are very excited about the opportunity to see if HFR can help increase attendance, and I haven't spoken to any exhibitor who's happy it's a limited release. There are a lot of exhibitors who wanted The Hobbit in HFR who aren't getting it."
The White Council Chamber
VETTING THOSE 900 THEATERS
Perhaps nobody has more at stake in the success of The Hobbit -- in any version -- than New Line Cinema (a unit of Warner Bros. Entertainment) and MGM, the studios that produced it, and Warner Bros., the company that is distributing it. Peter Jackson wanted HFR. Manufacturers made it possible to display and exhibitors got ready. Now, as the U.S. premiere approaches,
"Warner Bros. is trying to make it controllable such that all those sites can be vetted," says Christie's Shaw. "They want to make sure -- justifiably so -- that the product is being shown at its best."
Worst case scenario? "No show," says Shaw. "You have a theater full of patrons who've paid for their ticket and don't see anything on the screen or it fails in the middle of the movie. That's possible with any technology and HFR isn't any more risky, but Warner Bros. is being extra special careful to make sure the sites have been thoroughly tested and are technically capable of playing the movie."
That vetting process (among other tasks) is what has been running Aylsworth ragged as the premiere approaches. "Although I'm so tired, I am so excited," she says. "Test results are still rolling in and we're reviewing them on a daily basis."
Early on, the Warner Bros. team conducted early tests through 'Plug Fests' at the ISDCF, where any manufacturer can put equipment in the theater projection booth and run through the test to see if it responds correctly to the stimulus. According to Aylsworth, one and a half of these Plug Fests have been dedicated to HFR 3D.
"We developed a suite of digital cinema packages (DCPs) that could be run on any system, comprised of any projector/server/3D glasses, that would let the exhibitor know that things were functioning correctly," she says.
The initial DCP test package for exhibitors was made up of three 30-second trailers. "They were 30 seconds of content that emulate the traditional trailers: a 2D 2K trailer, a 2D 4K trailer and a 3D trailer at 24 fps," says Aylsworth "These emulate the regular formats you'll see in any theatre prior to The Hobbit. We told exhibitors that after the trailers, they could put in their policy announcements, such as to turn off your cell phones or buy popcorn."
Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
This test package was followed by two more pieces in HFR 3D: a one-minute "featurette" with burned-in marks to indicate that the left and right eyes were working properly, and a 20-minute "feature" that exercised the projector/server/glasses system to make sure that it didn't lag or have other problems over time. "In a computer setting, if you start loading it with heavy processing, sometimes you'll see buffering or latency problems," she says. "Sometimes the problems crop up after long runs." To make certain that the systems could handle a longer run, the 20-minute feature was looped into three hours and played back multiple times.
Technical glitches did arise. In the summer Plug Fest at ISDCF, says Aylsworth, they tested flipping between traditional frame rate and HFR content. "It wasn't that any one of those pieces didn't play back correctly but when the projector switched from one to the other, there would be all kinds of interesting flashing and screwy things with the glasses," she says. "This wasn't something we anticipated."
Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast. Photo by Mark Pokorny
That issue was resolved at a second Plug Fest when they found that one out of several manufacturers was able to switch back and forth smoothly while the others still struggled with glitches. They focused in the issue and found the problem. "It's based on the IMB and the glasses," says Aylsworth. "It turns out passive glasses can switch at any speed whereas active glasses need more time to get the switching correct. All manufacturer have had to provide instructions on leaving time between the traditional and HFR content and douse the light on the projector between them."
When the countdown to the premiere was in the single digit number of days, HFR 3D playback still presented a few isolated issues, mainly with theaters that are still in the midst of their upgrade. "Maybe they got a bad board that needs to be replaced," says Aylsworth. "Theaters are seeing some odd issues with their glasses. Sometimes it's not knowing the correct setting or configuration and putting them in touch with the manufacturer. There have been a couple of minor issues dealing with older auxiliary equipment that got resolved quickly. In one situation, three theaters had the exact same early model version of 3D glasses, and a fix was quickly found."
Is 48 fps fast enough?
READY, SET, GO…
The process that got HFR cinema into place was a dizzyingly fast event: one year from start to finish. Compare that with the painful decades-long path to High Definition, and perhaps HFR's quick readiness is a signal that the studios, the exhibitors and the manufacturers that serve the motion picture industry realize that the status quo has got to change. Stereoscopic 3D movies have largely been playing well in theaters, but even that has not been enough to stop the slide in attendance.
Is 48 fps enough? Is HFR enough? That's up to the content creators: those visionary filmmakers who are figuring out just what HFR means for storytelling on the big screen. Creative COW speaks with Douglas Trumbull, John Galt, Rob Legato and Rob Engle for their thoughts on the aesthetics and creative potential of HFR Cinema.
In the meantime, with the work put into the process by the studios and all the manufacturers, it seems unlikely that anything will go terribly wrong when The Hobbit opens on Dec. 14. The newspaper and magazine critics have had their say, but the tweets have not yet begun. Now it's up to audiences to decide if The Hobbit in 48 fps gets the green light.
Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis
Image credits from THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, as they appear in order:
MARTIN FREEMAN as the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
(L-r) IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf and HUGO WEAVING as the Elf Lord Elrond in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
(L-r) MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo Baggins and IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.
(L-r) CATE BLANCHETT and director PETER JACKSON on the set of the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo by Todd Eyre
The White Council Chamber in a scene from the fantasy adventure THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
(L-r) IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf and RICHARD ARMITAGE as Thorin Oakenshield in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
(L-r) IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf and SYLVESTER McCOY as Radagast in the fantasy adventure THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo by Mark Pokorny
MARTIN FREEMAN as the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Gollum, performed by ANDY SERKIS in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Title treatment: The Hobbit -- © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.