Immersed in Movies: Talking ‘The Hobbit,’ Higher Frame Rates, and Virtual Production at FMX [Updated]

Immersed in Movies: Talking 'The Hobbit,' Higher Frame Rates, and Virtual Production at FMX [Updated]

I'm in Stuttgart, Germany, this week for the FMX conference on animation, VFX, games, and transmedia. This marks the 17th gathering in what has become Europe's most prestigious computer graphics confab in this hub of activity (fittingly, the Museum Square battle in "The Avengers," though shot in Cleveland, occurs in Stuttgart).
Not surprisingly, the emphasis at FMX is on virtual production, the hottest industry topic, thanks to the influence of "Avatar" and the lingering interest in last year's Oscar winner, "Hugo," among others.
In fact, the ability to now perform principal photography in the computer completes the digital production pipeline for movies and points to the total convergence of live action and animation, so there's a lot of attention being paid at FMX to some of Hollywood's latest and greatest eyecandy, including "The Avengers," "Battleship," "The Hunger Games," "The Lorax," the "Total Recall" remake, "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," "Men in Black 3," and "Wreck-It Ralph," among others.

It's all about creating unique and compelling CG characters and immersive worlds with greater photorealism and rendering power. One of the new buzzwords is "world building," which has to do with inventing universes comprised of geography, culture, and history. These worlds can be fantastical ("Total Recall") or grounded in reality (Steven Spielberg's "War Horse"). Regardless, they need to be designed and manufactured with total believability and a visceral power that transport us. One of the amazing revelations was the Third Floor's sophisticated previs of "War Horse," in which every detail was executed effectively in a low-res version from the English period landscape to the "Paths of Glory"-like trench warfare to the choreography of the calvary charge to the emotional power of Joey, the heroic horse. Some of the details were so effective that they saved Spielberg about three week's worth of work, which is previs at its best.

However, the highlight for me was moderating a panel about higher frame rates with the pioneering Doug Trumbull, technology expert Ray Feeney and Arri engineer Johannes Steurer. Trumbull is adamant about returning to directing with a daring new first-person, sci-fi project he's developing that's tailor-made for virtual production and 3-D at higher frame rates, which could be just the kind of game-changer that reinvigorates the theatrical experience a la "2001: A Space Odyssey." Yet Trumbull's experiment would be a low-budget indie made on his Berkshires farm.

But make no mistake: Trumbull is passionate about experimenting with higher frames far beyond what Peter Jackson is doing with "The Hobbit" (at 48 fps) or what James Cameron intends to do with the "Avatar" sequels (at 60 fps) to achieve a mind blowing brand of "Hypercinema" (at 120 fps).

Yet despite the fallout about the hyper real video look of "The Hobbit" after the controversial sneak peek at CinemaCon, Trumbull insisted that Jackson is his new hero and has already been discussing potential solutions with representatives of Weta at FMX. Trumbull's solution is to vary the frame rate depending on the moment and the focus of attention. He explained that higher frame rates not only offer a smoother experience, particularly during thrilling action sequences, but also bring us closer to the action. And you can certainly pull back when needed and use the higher frame rate as a discretionary tool for intensifying the experience. And with certain finishing tools that can be created, you can retain a film-like look, which is what Jackson has already suggested as well.

Feeney, meanwhile, warned against a rush to judgment about "The Hobbit," and to keep in mind that the higher frame rate is a new tool that needs to be experimented with and refined over time to figure out what it can and cannot do. This is unexplored territory, he emphasized, but predicted that we're on the verge of a new kind of cinema in the near future that has all sorts of intriguing holodeck-like possibilities.

Steurer was also cautiously optimistic. He said it's all well and good to push photographic boundaries with new digital cameras (his company manufactures the Alexa) and higher frame rates, but that a balance needs to be struck that's pleasing to filmmaker and audience alike.

So you can bet that I'll be monitoring this topic with much greater interest now that I have a clearer understanding of what's at stake for both the industry and the viewer.

UPDATE: To see Bill Desowitz's panel on FMX click here.

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