Among other fascinating talks and presentations, SIGGRAPH 2012 was host to a lively two hour panel entitled "High Frame Rate Cinema: Impacts on Art and Technology." The panel, composed of heavy hitters in the film industry and VFX community, was assembled to discuss the controversial subject of stepping outside the bounds of 24 fps, which has been the unchallenged industry standard for nearly a century.
The session started off with a stereoscopic 3D demonstration put together by the legendary director James Cameron. Mr. Cameron, so convinced of the benefits of filming at higher frame rates in general (and the necessity of filming at higher frame rates for stereoscopic 3D), staged and shot a number of lavish scenes from a nonexistent movie that he created explicitly for the purpose of the demonstration. Cameron's presentation was comprised of a handful of shots from the "movie," each of which was filmed three times: once at 24 fps, once at 48 fps and once at 60 fps. The improvement in quality when moving from 24 fps to 60 fps was immediately obvious; objects in the foreground exhibited significant edge chattering at 24 fps, a tolerable amount at 48 fps, and none whatsoever at 60 fps. The action scenes filmed at 60 fps delivered crisp movement and an almost surreal sense of depth. One of the final shots in the demonstration -- which elicited audible "oohs" and "aahs" from the audience -- captured two dancers twirling colorful, diaphanous scarves through the air. At 60 fps, it was entrancing.
Following the demonstration, the panel was animated and full of opinions. Jon Landau, who co-produced Avatar and Titanic with James Cameron, headed up the discussion, describing higher frame rates as the future of film: "We have a responsibility as filmmakers to push technology to help us tell better stories," he asserted.
Visual effects legend Dennis Muren offered his thoughts on the matter by relaying a story of when he first purchased a TV that came with the ability to artificially increase frame rates. He had popped in a DVD of Sinbad and watched it for a bit. His first thoughts were: "I don't know if I like it. It looks like video." But he soon got over his initial resistance."It's a closer thing to reality," he told the crowd, "Once you get past that 'Oh my God, it looks like television,' the experience is completely immersive. I recommend that people try it."
Opponents of higher frame rate filming insist that the traditional film "feel" is lost with 48 and 60 fps, providing an experience so real that it prevents viewers from being drawn into the stories on screen. Douglas Trumbull, special effects supervisor and inventor of the 60 fps Showscan process, counters that argument with the assertion that we have the technology to allow directors to choose their frame rates: "24 fps creates a veil of two dimensionality that's absolutely appropriate for some films," he states, "It's a creative choice."
Artistic preference is not the only factor in determining the frame rate at which a film should be shot, however. In Cameron's high frame rate demonstration, he asserts that the human eye can detect the flickering between frames at both 24 and 48 fps; it's only at 60 fps and above that we achieve a truly smooth cinematic experience. The flickering effect, apparently, is amplified in stereoscopic 3D films. Douglas Trumbull explains why, "3D suffers worse from the shortfalls of 24 frames. Aside from the obvious blurring, when frame-to-frame motion of an object on the screen matches or exceeds the interocular left eye/right eye displacement, the entire 3D effect is lost."
Essentially, our brains believe that we're seeing 3D because our left eye sees an object in one place and our right eye sees the same object in another. If the object moves so fast that it shifts from where it appears in our left eye to where it appears in our right eye (or beyond) in just one frame, we never have a chance to perceive it as three dimensional. It just blurs right on past.
Doug Trumbull actually invented a groundbreaking 60 fps cinematic process, Showscan, in the late '70s -- but nothing much ever came of it. "The studios liked it, but it was too expensive to upgrade the equipment [at the time], and it never took off." Trumbull explains. As the first proponent of high frame rate cinema, Trumbull is understandably enthusiastic about the recent adoption of higher frame rates by big-name directors, but he knows what they're up against: "There could be substantial resistance is movies start looking like television." He gives the early adopters of HFR filming a lot of credit for their courage, specifically Peter Jackson: "I can't thank Peter enough for taking that bold step."
Peter Jackon on the set of The Hobbit. Copyright © Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved.
In July, Peter Jackson attended the San Diego Comic-Con to screen a sneak peek of his 48 fps film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The film was met with an angry backlash from fans, who complained that it "looked weird," "felt like TV," and generally "sucked." The response was rather astonishing coming from an audience more or less predisposed to love any creation of Peter Jackson's. Jackson responded to the complains in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: "I can’t say anything [in defense]. Just like I can’t say anything to someone who doesn’t like fish. You can’t explain why fish tastes great and why they should enjoy it."
Darin Grant, Chief Technology Officer at Digital Domain Media Group, was one of the few panel members who had anything negative to say about the use of higher frame rates: "It [means] a lot of extra work for us on the content creation side," he pointed out, then added: "It will take time for artists to understand how to use HFR to tell better stories. It's not just a matter of shooting at higher frame rates and it's better." Grant's statement was countered by a somewhat agitated Landau: "There are tremendous complexities involved in going from 2D to 3D, too. It doesn't mean it's not worth doing."
The back and forth between Grant and Landau was cut short by a wise and rather eloquent statement from Dennis Muren: "Breakthroughs come from challenges that seem insurmountable at the time."
A glimpse of what can be done with HRF cinematography, courtesy of Showscan Digital.
SIGGRAPH Panel: ACM SIGGRAPH
Jon Landau: Ioan Bacivarov
Doug Trumbull: Julian Herzog
Dennis Muren: lukeford.net