Cinemimi [Thursday April26,2012]
HOLLYWOOD — On a century-old studio lot, a guy juggles oranges as cameras roll, capturing test footage of the flying fruit. Then he tosses a red construction hat into the air, throws a bucket of water toward the camera and pours fizzing cola into a glass.
It might look like the kind of amateur antics featured in Thomas Edison’s 1890 film test Monkeyshines, but the juggler — Red Digital Cinema exec Ted Schilowitz — is performing his modest party tricks to show off the capabilities of his company’s next-generation 3-D movie cameras.
Cameramen film each stunt at the standard 24 frames per second before clicking a button to film a repeat performance at twice the normal rate. Then the bespectacled Schilowitz escorts his visitor into a cavernous soundstage, fires up a computer, and uploads the freshly filmed scenes for a comparison.
It’s here that the mundane demo morphs into something rather remarkable. “The regular footage looks fine until you see how much more there is” in the 48-fps version, Schilowitz points out. “There’s less blur, the colors are brighter, the image is crisper and deeper.”
And that’s just on a computer screen. When Schilowitz flicks off the lights and projects fast-frame-rate aerial demo footage onto a big movie screen, it hits like a knockout punch to the optic nerve — in a good way. Filmed by a helicopter flying over a patch of desert, the video shows grains of sand, flower petals and sparkling beads of dew popping off the screen with such smoothly rendered detail that normal movies suddenly seem blotchy, dull and herky-jerky as a Keystone Kops comedy from a century ago.
Fast-frame footage stands poised to define the future of 3-D movies. Avatar director James Cameron is pushing for higher specs, and Peter Jackson shot his highly anticipated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at double the 24-fps rate that ruled Hollywood for eight decades. When Bilbo Baggins and his Middle Earth pals hit select theaters in December to become history’s first 48-fps 3-D wide release, movie audiences will get a chance to see for themselves why alpha auteurs like Jackson are flipping for fast frame.
Still, widespread acceptance of the new standard is not a slam dunk. In fact, technology that flashes more images per second onto the screen to produce a smoother, crisper cinematic experience has been nixed twice before by Hollywood to save money. Now, thanks to theaters’ ongoing conversion to digital projection, upgrading to fast-frame systems is making the transition easier and far less expensive.
How many theater owners will get behind fast frame? That’s the question unfolding this week as projection vendors roll out their faster-is-better pitch to theater operators meeting in Las Vegas for their annual CinemaCon convention. Warner Bros. screened 10 minutes of The Hobbit footage Tuesday, and Variety reported that not all exhibitors were sold on the 48-fps format’s sharp visuals.
The trade publication quoted one exhibitor who saw the footage: “Some of the closeup shots looked like an old soap opera on TV. But the wide vistas were pretty breathtaking. It will take some getting used to, for sure.”
For Cameron, who plans to shoot his Avatar sequels at either 48 fps or 60 fps to clean up “artifacts” that cause a blurring effect when objects move quickly across the screen, fast frame is the obvious next step.
“People are mired in this dinosaur, last-century frame rate of 24 frames per second, which is not fast enough,” Cameron told Wired in a phone interview.
To demonstrate the point, Cameron’s team arranged a separate test screening at Burbank, California-based Cameron Pace Company, just a few miles north of Red Cinema headquarters. Splitting the screen for an A/B comparison, digital manager Derek Watro freeze-frames dueling 3-D footage of an actor swinging a stick, waving a torch and tossing a ball. Images that would normally appear adequate abruptly look fuzzy by comparison, as if the moviegoer had been wearing glasses with the wrong prescription but now could suddenly see straight.