A funny thing happened when renowned VFX supervisor Dennis Muren bought a new Sony TV. He started to become absorbed by the effects of the MotionFlow system that increases image smoothness by interpolating frames.
"I was looking at the old Mac and PC commercials," Muren recalled at a SIGGRAPH panel on high-frame-rate cinema. To his surprise, he found that the "I'm a Mac" and "I'm a PC" actors were funnier with MotionFlow turned on. Why? "The performances are better at a high frame rate," Muren said. "You see more clearly the intent of the actors. This is an incredible thing …. It's a closer thing to reality and I'm a big proponent of it."
The panelists convened by SIGGRAPH sponsor Christie at the Wednesday-morning session spent their time explaining why higher frame rates are the future of cinema. The session kicked off with a lengthy demo reel curated by James Cameron making the case for the dramatic visible reduction in image strobing at 48fps and 60fps. Other panelists vouched for further advantages of 48fps and faster cinematography.
Matt Cowan from RealD mentioned research IBM performed in the early 1970s that demonstrated 72 Hz was an adequate frame rate to meet the flicker-fusion threshold (the rate at which human observers no longer discern flicker in a moving image). He related that to RealD's own experiments with double- and triple-flashing 24fps images to reach frequencies of 48fps and 72fps per eye, in which it found that 48 fps was still uncomfortable for "a big portion of the population", but that flicker disappeared at 72 fps. "Satisfying the human visual system's flicker-fusion frequency of 55 to 60 frames per second seems to be part of moving to the next level of experience," he told the audience.
"I think frame rates should be variable," said VFX legend Douglas Trumbull, touting the ShowScan Digital system that sprang from the ruins of the high-frame-rate ShowScan system he developed in the 1970s. Because it's possible to shoot a scene at 60fps with a digital camera set to a 360-degree shutter angle (essentially a shutter that doesn't close at all between frames), he says different frame rates for different pixels in a shot can be derived from the original data captures. "You could dynamically change the frame rate on any pixel, object, scene, or character," he said.
Trumbull spoke of a concept he calls "hypercinema," imagining a combination of high-frame-rate 3D footage, an extra-large screen, and extra-bright projection that would combine to make a screening feel more like a live performance. "We can create an experience where you are in the movie and on the adventure of the movie," he said, describing his experiments with projecting on high-gain hemispherical screens and fully 35 foot-lamberts of illuminance. "[The filmmakers could] actually embrace the presence of the audience and take them on the adventure to Pandora."
Hip Hip Hooray (But How Much Will You Pay?)
The session was mostly a cheerleading rally for high-frame-rate cinema, although voices from the visual-effects industry — this is SIGGRAPH, after all — warned of the increased complexity they faced. You might think twice the frames per second at the same resolution means twice as much work for a VFX facility, but Luke Moore of Side Effects Software said the situation is more complicated because perceived detail can also increase. "The effective resolution is much higher at high frame rates," he said, meaning that models might need to be more detailed to pass muster at 48 fps or higher. "You see defects you wouldn't have noticed before." On the other hand, there may be some time savings in eliminating motion blur.
Digital Domain Media Group CTO Darin Grant said the workload will increase dramatically. "It may be two times the data, but it's two times a lot of data," he said. "If you have to do paint-fix and roto in every frame, now you're up to two times the frames."
Producer Jon Landau of James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment had a pointed response to that concern. "There are [also] tremendous complications in going from 2D to 3D," he said. "That doesn't mean it's not worth doing."
But the impact of increasing frame rates for production and post-production budgets was never directly addressed by the panel. Digital Domain's Grant noted, "No one's even asked us to bid on a high-frame-rate film yet."
Cold Hobbit Feet?
Cost was one elephant in the room. The other was the decidedly mixed reception 48fps footage from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit got when it screened at CinemaCon earlier this year (some attendees said the increased frame rate made the film look more like a TV show), combined with a Variety report yesterday that cited an unnamed source who said Warner Brothers was drastically limiting the film's 48fps release to "select locations," and "perhaps not even … all major cities." Panelists largely shrugged off those concerns, with Landau venturing that the studio was simply "managing expectations" for the scale of the rollout.
The big-studio representative in the room was Jim Beshears, head of post-production at DreamWorks, who admitted that he had his doubts when he first saw raw 48fps footage last year but came around after viewing more finished footage. Even now, he said, he thinks 24fps gives more satisfactory results for some types of shots. He also echoed concerns about the costs involved. "150,000 frames in a 90-minute movie is a massive amount of data to move around, and that needs to be addressed through the entirety of the post process," he said. "And we have to be careful. Movies cannot look like television, or we will lose our audience. Otherwise, I'm endorsing it."
Phil Oatley from Park Road Post, which is currently busy on The Hobbit, offered some info about that film's high-frame-rate workflow. He said the production decided to shoot at 48fps because it offered the best prospect for exhibitors to actually have equipment in place to show the film, and a 270-degree shutter angle was selected because it produced motion that was immersive and smooth "but not too video-like," and also because it downconverted well to 24fps with only some shots requiring extra work in post.
The 3D toolkit in use is the SGO Mistika; the stereographer and colorist are working simultaneously. The pipeline incorporates a 24-frame offline editorial workflow that is conformed to a 48-frame online. Anywhere between 6 and 12 TB of camera data was generated on each day of the six-days-a-week production, with about two hours of 48fps 3D screenings taking place daily. A total frame-to-frame equivalent of 24 million feet of film was processed.
Dialing It Up and Down
The main takeaway from the session was the idea that films don't have to be married to a given frame rate, given the costs and complexities involved. If a scene features a locked-down camera and not much motion in the frame, it's not going to benefit from an increased frame rate, and the cost savings of shooting and post-producing much of a film at 24fps rather than 48 or 60 fps could be significant.
On that note, Trumbull — for decades a vocal proponent of high frame rates — pointed out the long heritage of variable-frame-rate cinematography. "In silent movies, projectors and cameras were hand-cranked," he said, describing how certain scenes would be over- or under-cranked on the fly to achieve the best comedic or dramatic effect. "Nothing's new, frankly."
That crack earned the biggest ovation of the day.