Filmmaker and legendary special-effects guru Douglas Trumbull gave a special demonstration at the Toronto Film Festival, screening 10 minutes of UFOTOG, his high-intensity, 3-D immersive work-in-progress that he filmed at 120 frames per second. Most Hollywood movies are filmed and projected at 24 frames per second, the industry standard for almost 100 years, even though digital camera and projector technology has opened the door for much greater speeds. In 2012, Peter Jackson filmed The Hobbit at 48 frames per second—and though the film grossed more than a billion around the globe, many viewers flinched at the film’s “soap-opera” look.
Trumbull, who famously worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001, as well as Blade Runner, Star Trek, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has long been an advocate for faster frame rates that reduce blurring and enhance the viewer experience of big-screen spectacle. (In the 1970s, he developed Showscan, which used 70 mm film at 60 frames per second.) With TV currently whipping movies at its own game, Trumbull believes it’s essential that the industry differentiate itself from its small-screen cousin—and smartphones and tablets—by creating a deeper experience, one that is bigger, crisper, and more visually immersive. The industry has resisted the newer technologies—even though most all theaters upgraded to high-speed digital after James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster, Avatar—and Trumbull resorted to making UFOTOG in his home studio in western Massachusetts as a kind of work sample that he hopes will persuade influential directors to get on board. “I just want to screen this for a lot of people and just kind of get out of the way,” he says. “Say, ‘Would you like to make a movie this way? Be my guest.'”
UFOTOG is a small portion of a much larger story that Trumbull is ultimately hoping to direct himself, about a savvy techie (Ryan Winkles) determined to photograph and prove the existence of extraterrestrial life (a mission, by the way, that Trumbull himself is nerdily interested). The viewing experience is extremely promising, more evolutionary than revolutionary. The glossy soap-opera motion problems that plagued Peter Jackson on The Hobbit are not evident—though Trumbull has said that certain types of films and genres are better suited for the high-intensity technology—and the highest compliment I can pay UFOTOG is that watching it isn’t jarring. Its 3-D immersion and crystal clarity are more subtle than you might expect, and it lured me in—as if I was putting eyeglasses on for the first time—rather than distracting me with its bells and whistles. One regret is the short’s settings, a dark apartment and a starry sky; a brighter, more vibrant scenario may have better demonstrated the technology’s more dynamic potential.
By any definition, UFOTOG is a success, and it is tempting to imagine what Trumbull’s MAGI production technology of 4K 3-D at 120 frames per second could do for a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, or James Cameron, who is considering a high-frame rate for Avatar 2. “I would’ve loved to talk Christopher into doing Interstellar in this medium,” Trumbull says. “And Gravity. I think they’re going to just love it and they’re going to embrace it, they’re going to fight for it. [The industry] is still averse to the 48-frame process; I just think that they’re stuck in their syndrome. So it takes a powerful commitment from the directors to make the change happen. And once they see it, they’re going to really get passionate about it because they can then go to their own studio and say, “I want to make my movie like this.”