Douglas Trumbull's been on a mission to improve the theatrical moviegoing experience for decades. But now, digital technology has finally caught up with need, and the tech guru ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner") believes he can do something about reviving a sense of showmanship with superior-looking, mind-blowing presentations before it's too late.
And this week Trumbull has the best possible platform for preaching the gospel of faster frame rates, which is his latest goal. Last night, he was honored by the Visual Effects Society at the Beverly Hilton Hotel with the Georges Méliès Award, and Saturday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will bestow the Gordon E. Sawyer Award at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
Talk about climbing "The Tree of Life" (for which Trumbull served as VFX consultant).
"We're in an age of tremendously changing technology that's enabling tremendously changed viewing habits," Trumbull told me this week. "And so we have huge audiences growing very fast that are streaming their movies, downloading their movies, they're watching them on their iPads or iPhones or computers or TVs at home. And my conclusion is that if the motion picture theatrical screen industry wants to survive, it has to offer something that is so different and so spectacular, that it will be recognized by the audience as something they're not going to get at home or on their apps. Part of the equation is already done because Hollywood is making event pictures every day. The problem is that the event picture production value is not getting to the audience because most theaters have not caught up."
As a result, Trumbull has been experimenting recently with faster frame rates beyond the 24per-second industry standard at his Berkshires studio in Massachusetts, and has already achieved remarkable results with 120 frames.
"Twenty-four frames have been proven to be inadequate for stereoscopic presentation because the 3-D gets completely lost when there is fast action," he explains. "So they need to increase the frame rate to capture the full effect."
But while Trumbull applauds the fact that Peter Jackson is currently shooting "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (Dec. 14) in 3-D at 48 frames, and that James Cameron has similar plans for his "Avatar" sequels, he argues that it's not the optimal solution. What he's discovered (and is in the process of patenting) is that if you shoot with a digital camera at 120 frames with a 360-degree shutter, none of the action is lost, and if you blend adjacent frames together, you can recover the blur that you would've had if you had shot it at 24 frames.
For instance, with Trumbull's technique, if you shoot at 120 and want 60, you just delete every other frame. "It now has contiguous motion," Trumbull explains. "You can get back to 24 frames perfectly with no 3:2 pull down and no artifacts. Secondly, you can get to 60 perfectly, which is great for progressive scan TV, and you can get to 48 and to 30. This really offers the most compatible way to go."
This is coupled with Trumbull's Showscan Digital process, which embeds 120 or 60- frame motion inside a 24-frame movie. In other words, you can selectively update certain pixels to retain a film-like look, but then upgrade a portion of the scene to accommodate action. This allows you to retain all the clarity of motion and excitement of the spectacle while the rest of the frame looks like a normal movie. "This is a pretty radical idea that will take a while to get some traction," he admits. "It's a lot of data and data's cheap. I'm working with various purveyors of very high-bandwidth pipelines so we're comfortable finding a solution that is straight forward, simple, and compatible with Avid and Final Cut. And can conform to any output with ease."
But what Trumbull really wants to do is return to directing. His last film, "Brainstorm," the virtual reality fantasy from 1983, was supposed to be shot in his pioneering Showscan process (an ultra-realistic experience akin to HD today). But the 70mm/60 frames format was too costly and wound up being successfully applied to theme park rides.
However, the trailblazing Trumbull has figured out a cost-effective virtual production solution in his studio requiring no physical sets or location shooting. He also has his sights set on making small, more personal, outside the box movies, taking a cue from Stanley Kubrick and "2001." You can transport viewers to other worlds in a more dynamic and immersive way with new kinds of narratives, almost like the virtual reality he conceived in "Brainstorm."
"The whole philosophy that I'm exploring is to see if we can benefit from having almost no physicality at all and not go on any locations, and have a lot of meta-data that informs the lighting matching to the environment," Trumbull continues.
Trumbull's other rant is the brightness issue, particularly when viewing 3-D movies. However, all is not lost. "I saw a demonstration of Barco's new 50,000 lumen laser projector in Galveston and it was absolutely stunning because the illumination across the screen was absolutely even, the color gamut was much broader — reds were much redder, blues were much bluer — the contrast was very high, and the brightness was very high," Trumbull enthuses. "We were seeing about 23 foot-lamberts on a 70-foot screen. It was a whole new movie experience and I'm collaborating with Christie Digital and Barco toward doing some experiments at high frame rates."
With Trumbull, there's always hope for a better moviegoing future.