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NAB: How Higher Frame Rates Could Change Filmmaking

NAB: How Higher Frame Rates Could Change Filmmaking

On Saturday, Ang Lee kicked off the NAB conference showing new footage for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which was shot in 120 frames per second.  The next day, Sony announced its new camera: the HDC-4800, which shoots at an astonishing 480 frames per second. With Lee’s track record (“Life of Pi,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”) and “Billy Lynn” promising to play part in the 2016 Oscar season, there’s no question that increased high frame rate (HFR) will continue to be an active conversation throughout the year, leading many to asking if “hyper-realism” will be the hot new thing for filmmakers around the world.
Those attending NAB, especially on the narrative, documentary film and television side of the business, are skeptical. The Sony camera that was just announced is designed for shooting sports, for which the ultra realism and extra detail makes sense. On the ENG (electronic news gathering) side of the industry, a camera like new HDC-4800 very well might be the future, but things are much less clear on the storytelling side of the business.  

The other thing to take into consideration is that if Lee uses the higher frame successfully for “Billy Lynn” — and it seems he likely that he will, based on his track record of effectively pioneering new technology and the positive response to the footage that’s been screened — that might not translate to other movies.

For a story of war hero with PTSD entering the overwhelming environment of a crowded football stadium, the hyper-realism of 120fps could be an interesting tool for Lee to access his protagonist’s subjectivity, but might not apply to other films. It’s also unlikely that the behind-the-scenes story of Lee’s cumbersome shoot and the technical demands the 120fps put on his production design and lighting team is an extra burden productions are willing to take on without a good reason.  

Digital cinematography has spent the last two decades being perfected to the point their product has been accepted as cinematic and shed the “hyper-real” label that initially kept filmmakers from wanting to give up celluloid.  In talking to camera companies, many have already been experimenting with higher frames rates and see it potentially being a useful tool for special effects films. But most are taking a wait and see approach.

A company like Canon could see the benefit a higher frame rate as option for their filmmakers, allowing filmmakers to shoot cool slow-motion shots, but the tech that goes into getting information off a camera sensor that fast costs money and the high quality and affordable cost of the Canon line is what has defined the company’s recent success, especially with indie and doc filmmakers.  

While hyper-realism is a topic of debate, the buzz word at NAB, and in Hollywood in general, is immersion. Content creators, especially with the emergence of VR, are looking for films that envelop the viewer in the experience that takes full advantage of higher priced specialty screens like iMax or Dolby Cinema, but also the increasingly bigger and better TVs consumers have at home.  

It’s in this sense that higher resolution is the holy grail.  As 4K consumer TVs have dipped below the magic $1000 mark the entertainment industry is prepared for this Christmas to be the year that households start converting to 4k in larger numbers, which means companies like Amazon and Netflix are already demanding their shows not only be delivered in 4K, but shot natively in 4K.  Currently the options for shooting natively in 4k are limited, with TV cinematographers only having the choice of the Panasonic Varicam, Sony F55 and the Red Dragon.

Which is why it was interesting that Canon was showing off a protype of an 8k camera at NAB — a camera the company has no immediate plans to go into production with and might not end up even manufacturing. Watching footage from the 8K prototype — which was mostly shot from the perspective of a slow moving train riding through various landscapes — highlights how 8K is the first resolution that exceeds the capabilities of the human eye, with objects like far-off trees being laser sharp in their detail. 
So why is Canon jumping into 8k when camera companies are struggling to keep up and meet TV’s demands for 4k and giving a prominent showcase to a product they may not even build? Canon’s Larry Thorpe, at the company’s annual NAB dinner, explained, “If 4K is coming to our living rooms, 8K is coming to our theaters.” It was line that got the biggest applause of the night and one no disagreed with it — especially with the new “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie already having shot using Reds new 8K camera.

For Arri — whose Alexa line has become the go-to camera for a large percentage of indie movies, TV shows and big budget films (“The Revenant” won best cinematography and was shot on the Alexa 65) — the pressure from companies like Netflix and Amazon to follow Red’s path of increasing resolution is real. The company believes strongly that its move to increase resolution must happen organically and not come at the sacrifice to image quality. Simply adding extra sensors to their image capturing chips to pad their resolution stats is not how Arri lured top cinematographers, who are drawn to the camera for its incredible dynamic range and ability to get detail in low light. 
With all the increasing emphasis on the quality of the image being largely driven by the onset of 4K televisions, one growing problem is that content often looks bad on consumer’s high quality televisions. The reason is that even for the home theater enthusiast calibrating their television panel is a lost art, while calibration for watching a movie on Netflix is completely different than the calibration required for watching a football game on Sunday.  

At NAB, Technicolor highlighted this problem by displaying various content on a properly calibrated screen and one set calibrated using the TV’s “standard” settings.  The difference in dynamic range was stunning, which is why Technicolor revealed they are partnering with Philips to a create a calibration tool that would allow consumers to easily get the most out of their sets.

The product will be available to all television manufacturers, who must weigh if the added feature is worth the expense (Technicolor will not reveal any pricing information). If Technicolor’s new product does become industry standard, it would certainly be embraced by the content creation community, which is demanding technology make that the home viewers’ experience as immersive and high quality as possible. 

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