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Stanley Kubrick’s VFX Master Would Like to Introduce You to the Technology that Will Revolutionize Cinema

Indiewire By John Anderson | Indiewire May 8, 2014 at 1:38PM

Visual effects master Doug Trumbull gives us a sneak peek at the new technology he developed which will revolutionize cinema.
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Douglas Trumbull
Douglas Trumbull

Douglas Trumbull, the Academy-Award winning visual master behind such films as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner," "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and "The Tree of Life," is about to debut his latest innovation in cinematic spectacle tomorrow at the Seattle Cinerama Sci-Fi Film Festival.

"UFOTOG" a 10-minute short, might be described as state-of-the-art-to-be: Shot in 3D, at 4K, and at 120 frames per second – or about five times the frame rate of the conventional 35mm motion picture – it also portends a revolution in the economics of filmmaking: Trumbull's process involves a skeleton crew, green screen, a "zero-G" camera crane that move with the touch of a finger and virtual backgrounds that are imposed in real time. There are no set ups, no scene changes. None of the costs of the conventional, or even unconventional, mainstream film.

"We cut all the infrastructure out of the equation," Trumbull told Indiewire earlier this week, over coffee in his combination shooting set and screening room at his compound in the Berkshires. "It's not that the studios don’t want it to happen, they just don't make any effort to make it happen. They want to make movies that are completely compatible with all media – if you make 'Noah,' it has to play on a Smartphone. And young people aren’t going to theaters; there's a tremendous dropoff. The whole rationale for the multiplex theater doesn't exist anymore. So if theaters are going to survive, it has to be a much more spectacular experience."

And, as Trumbull has been saying for years, it also has to be about something you can actually see: When one goes to a 3D movie, the projection, and then the glasses, cut the illumination in half. Instead of staring in awe, you're squinting in pain.

"I don't know why the industry allows it to persist," Trumbull said, "because it's very damaging to the industry. There’s a lot of eye strain, a lot of technical problems. So we said 'damn the torpedoes' and did this thing as fast as we can, as high resolution as we can, as big as we can and as bright as we can – and with the best sound. It’s a bunch of things all at once and it’s not a magic bullet. But for me, the most challenging aspect is that one you get past the technological stuff there’s a whole new palette of what you can do dramatically. Because the relationship between the audience and the screen is entirely different."

"I had grown up with Kubrick. He was my mentor and my film school."

The results make anything Hollywood has produce in the current era of the faux 3D spectacle look pathetic. The man on screen – theater actor Ryan Winkles – seems to be in the same room, although the size of the image, the lighting and the proximity of viewer to screen creates something more like hyper-reality. 

Some of this intimacy – an intimacy movies have provided since Griffith invented the closeup -- comes from the fact that Winkles is talking to the viewer: In the story, his character has captured scientific/photographic evidence of the existence of UFOs and government spooks are coming to get him. The viewers are his witnesses on the other side of his computer screen, even if there doesn't seem to be any screen at all.

"I've been trying to reach this goal for 50 years," said Trumbull," a spectacular, immersive medium that is so clear and so sharp and so real that you can do all his new kind of content, that's different, and more beautiful, and is more life-affirming and ... whatever."

He continued, "I had grown up with Kubrick. He was my mentor and my film school and he was on this track of making this first-person, very experiential spectacle of being in space ['2001'] which I worked on, and it’s been kind of my mission ever since then to do try to do as good or better -- despite the fact that the industry had settled on 35mm and multiplexes."

Trumbull has always been an innovator: In addition to the revolutionary FX he created for such directors as Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, he came up with Showscan, the 60-fps process he developed in the '70s and used on "Brainstorm," a film best known for having been Natalie Wood's last, and which achieved little of what its director was trying to accomplish. He had his most recent "ah-ha" moment, he said, about six years ago.

"Digital projectors in every theater around the globe are going at 144 frames a second, whether you use it or not," he said. "That’s the clock speed on the projectors. So if you put a 24-frame movie in there it projects each frame five times. If you put a 3D movie in there it projects each left eye/right eye frame three times, so there's 72 flashes of the left eye, 72 flashes of the right eye for a total of 144.

"I thought, this is fascinating. It would shred plastic film; you could never do it. But I starting asking technicians at Texas Instruments and others, 'Well does that mean I could have a whole new frame of information on every one of those flashes?' and they said 'yes, you could.'"

Which is what he's nearly done, with his 120fps, and a film he hopes to show investors, studios and, most importantly, directors, "who are driving the future of cinema. Peter Jackson is doing 48 frames; Cameron is doing 60 frames.  I'm going to try to talk Jim Cameron into using this for 'Avatar II' because 'Avatar' is like a ride," said the man who developed the "Back to the Future" ride for Universal Studios.

He doesn’t think it would appropriate for everything, but he wants to use it on the space-epic feature he’s planning to direct, and the additional possibility of variable frame rates could make a process naturally friendly to sci-fi/fantasy/adventure adaptable to more kinds of movies.

"Now that you’ve got the projector churning along at 120 or 144, you can change the frame rate on a pixel, or an object, or a person, or a shot, or a scene, or a sequence. You wouldn’t shoot a little love story in 3D. But if it were 'The Wizard of Oz,' they could have cut from black-and-white at 24 frames to color at 120 frames," said Trumbull. 

Check out the trailer for UFOTOG below:


This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Technology, Douglas Trumbull, Visual Effects