Douglas Trumbull knows a little bit about movie visual effects. In his mid-20s, he worked with Stanley Kubrick to create the look and feel of the final frontier in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He later helped craft the effects for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the gorgeous futuristic visuals of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Last year, after nearly 30 years away from the Hollywood business, he collaborated with Terrence Malick for the symphonic visuals in The Tree of Life.
Trumbull has always been an innovator. For decades, he’s been tinkering with technology to enhance the audience experience, and he knows all about the recent hubbub over frame-rate after Peter Jackson unveiled the first extended footage of The Hobbit — An Unexpected Journey last week at CinemaCon. Jackson is shooting his Lord of the Ring prequels at 48 frames per second, twice the industry standard since the advent of talkies. But when audiences expressed skepticism about the new viewing platform — complaining of a glossy “TV soap opera” effect — one of Hollywood’s surest things suddenly found its Oscar-winning director asking for some faith and patience.
Trumbull must be chuckling a little to himself. Back in the early 1980s, he developed the Showscan system that filmed movies at 60 frames per second. Imagine if the CinemaCon crowd knew he was now plotting his own movie — a giant 3-D space epic shot digitally at 120 frames per second! The Oscar winning effects guru recently chatted with EW about his friend Peter Jackson’s ambitious movie, his own filmmaking, and the future of movies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been wrangling with these frame-rate debates for decades. Why did you initially look in this direction and what did you learn?
DOUGLAS TRUMBULL: I got hooked on immersive cinema when I worked on 2001, which was initially shown on these Cinerama screens, which were all 90 feet wide and deeply curved. It was a spectacle that we don’t see today at all, even in IMAX. I was just an impressionable kid, and Kubrick was doing these lengthy sequences of pure visual effects — they called it the ultimate trip because it abandoned conventional cinematic wisdom in favor of a pure experience. That profoundly effected me, and I’m saying, “Holy sh–, this is so cool. I want to make movies like this, and I want to explore this cinematic language.” And that’s what drew me into the Showscan thing. I’d formed a research and development company under the banner of Paramount Pictures back in about 1975 and its mandate was to explore advanced forms of entertainment, not just movies. So I had budgets to spend on pure research, and Richard Yuricich and I developed Showscan, which was 70 millimeter film at 60 frames a second, after conducting experiments with every film format we could get our hands on. Mike Todd shot Around the World in 80 Days in 30 frames a second instead of 24. He was the first guy to consciously realize that 24 frames is not enough if you’re going to do a really big, widescreen spectacle. The wider the screen is, the more displacement there is from one frame to the next. So we shot tests with 24, 36, 48, 60, 66, and 72 frames a second and showed these films in a laboratory to see if we could actually measure people’s physiological stimulation levels as a result of frame rate. I had tremendous success when the content of the film was very experiential and very directed towards the audience. I had a lot of scenes I was experimenting with where the actors actually talked to the audience; I had a hypnotist hypnotize the audience; I had a beautiful actress try and seduce the audience; I had Ricky Jay do slight of hand card tricks. And that is when we proved to ourselves and the United States Patent Office that it was absolutely true. There’s a perfect curve of increased stimulation with increased frame rate.
But is there a threshold frame-rate figure, where the brain simply can’t register anything faster?
No. It’s not that you couldn’t go even faster than 60, or 66, or even 72. Present day digital projectors are running at 144 frames a second and they do it effortlessly because the technology is completely different. But it all depends on what you’re trying to do. I wouldn’t apply high frame-rates to a love story or a thriller or a film noir or a mystery. Around the early 1980s, one of the jobs that came along was a project for the Italian government called Leonardo’s Dream, to be shot in Showscan. It was a period drama piece about Leonardo DaVinci — costume drama, smoked sets, moody lighting, etc, etc. And the result was that it looked really weird, because it had exactly what people are reporting about The Hobbit, of a texture that is too much like a live television drama. So the distinction in my mind is one of: what’s the appropriate kind of movie to apply high frame-rates to — and what’s not? For example, if you took Avatar and did it at high frame-rates, I think it would be sensational. So Jim Cameron’s idea of doing Avatar 2 and 3 at 60 frames is a stellar, excellent idea because Avatar is kind of a flying dream adventure. It’s not a period drama. And I’m not saying anything to denigrate what Peter Jackson has done with The Hobbit because I haven’t seen it actually. I think one of the issues will be, can the audience get used to this change? Because if you increase the frame-rate, 3-D looks a lot better. It gets rid of a lot of the nasty artifacts of blurring and strobing that happen at low frame-rates. So I think one of the issues that’s been driving Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson and myself and maybe others to embrace higher frame-rates is that it gets rid of, or at least reduces, the problems with 3-D.
You conceived 1983’s Brainstorm as a Showscan film, only to have to abandon those plans when theater owners wouldn’t upgrade their projectors without a studio commitment to adopt your process and the studios said no to the new technology unless there were theaters waiting to host it. Are you worried that the industry is stuck in another potential Catch-22?
No. The new digital projectors are just sitting there, cruising at 144 frames a second, no matter what you give to them. If you send a 24-frame [movie] to a digital projector, each frame is being shown five times. It’s effortless for the projectors, so the big change — or the modest change, actually — is to change the servers and the format of the media to be able to deliver higher frame-rates. And that’s being done now. Believe me, there’s a lot of people racing around implementing servers that will go 48 frames for The Hobbit. By the time Jim Cameron has Avatar 2 out, I can be pretty confident there will be a lot of servers that can go 60 frames. But I’ve also worked out another invention to counteract this weird soap-opera kind of feeling that people are complaining about with The Hobbit, for example. You can conceivably shoot a movie like The Hobbit or virtually any movie at 120 frames, and you can embed any high-frame rate you want within a 24-frame version of the movie. If there’s hockey puck, or a fist, or an exploding car, or some action on the screen that’s moving too fast and it’s blurring and looking crummy, you can ramp that part of it up to 30 frames, 48 frames, 60 frames, or 120 frames, only as needed. Just for the moment of that action. And for the sequences that people — I mean, I haven’t seen Peter’s thing yet — but for instance, people said the helicopter shots flying over the countryside are fabulous because they’re crisp and sharp and vivid, and that’s great. It’s only when you have close-ups of Gollum or something that it looks creepy. Well, I think it’s possible now to give the director complete control over exactly what frame rate the movie is at any moment in time, virtually on any object in the screen. This is one of the revolutionary new opportunities that are being unleashed by digital technology because you can break the picture down one pixel at a time.
So it’s theoretical that Peter Jackson could emerge from last week, go back into his laboratory and lower the frame-rates of the more placid scenes with Gollum while preserving the action scenes that are most enhanced by the quicker film speed.
He could. With the stroke of a key. He could change film rates all through the film. That’s technology that he probably has. See, he’s shooting with a special shutter so that if he deletes every other frame to get down to 24 frames, it will have enough blur to make his 24-frame version look okay. I would assume that most of the release of The Hobbit will ultimately be in 24 frames, particularly because Blu-ray players don’t run at 48 yet. But I’ve designed the technology with a very clever idea — that I’ve applied for patent on — that you can use a digital camera and shoot at 120 frames a second, but if you want to get back to 24 frames, you blend three adjacent frames together to recover the blur that you need for 24 frames — and then you delete the next two frames to get back to 24, because it’s a five-to-one ratio. So I can make a version of my movie that looks like every other 24-frame movie ever made in history. It’s exactly the same, exactly just as good, and completely compatible.
Is part of the reaction to The Hobbit footage just a reflection of our comfort level with the way movies are supposed to look and feel? Might we get over this in time?
I think over time, people will get used to it. You know, many new TVs have frame multiplies built in to them. It’s something you can turn on or off. Some people like it, some people don’t. But it can seem really awkward when you look at some movies that what you thought was a beautiful movie like The King’s Speech or something, and it suddenly looks like The King’s Speech on BBC TV. It’s different. That’s fine to offer that choice, but I’m trying to bring to it some control so you can actually modulate it over time, just like you don’t want every shot to be bright or loud.
Where do you think this technology is ultimately taking us?
One of the problems we face in the industry right now is we’re right in the middle of the age of the multiplex theater, when in fact, the multiplex is in your pocket. The diversity of content is now offered from streaming and downloading, so young people are really not going to theaters because they don’t see any particular benefit. I’ll bet you that your local movie screen is only one-tenth as bright as your iPhone or computer screen. So if a movie was big and bright and vivid and had no blurring and no strobing, it is going to approach reality to some degree. So I think you have to start constructing movies differently in terms of cinematic language to take advantage of that. Because if people are going to go out to a theater, it better be like a live show or Cirque du Soleil or something — not like something they can see on their iPad. Hollywood wants to make these $200 million blockbusters, but they’re being throttled down through a very low bandwidth medium right now. Fundamentally, the production values that they’re paying for — with big stars, and incredible special effects, and stunts, and exotic locations, and all the paraphernalia of these expensive movies — is not really being experienced by the audience at all.
It’s like putting the Boston Red Sox in a Little League sandlot.
Exactly. Exactly. So I’m just thrilled that Peter Jackson has done The Hobbit in 48 frames. It’s definitely a fabulous and brave step in the right direction. And I talk to him regularly and we’re talking about all this brouhaha and trying to figure out, “Well, how do we deal with it?” You know, do we back off, which I think would be a tragic mistake. I hope that he has a lot of success with this movie. I think people are going to learn to appreciate the 48 frames over 24. I hope it doesn’t have any adverse effect on Jim’s ability to make Avatar at 60. It would be tragic not to. So we’re all trying to band together and figure out how to get to the next phase of what the movie experience is.
You mentioned “my movie” earlier. Is that something you’re actively working on?
I’ve been working on this screwball idea all my life, and here I am at this point of my life and I’m looking at what’s going on, and I’m not seeing anyone really understanding the implications of high-frame rate, giant screens, higher brightness, and what I would call extremely immersive cinematic experiences. So I’ve decided I’ve got to direct again because no one else is going to do it for me. The movie I’m developing is a science-fiction space movie; I’m trying to pick up where I think 2001 left off. I’ve been writing screenplays and developing technology to do it. I’ve actually built a stage on my property here in Massachusetts where I’m experimenting with 3-D at 120 frames a second projected on a deeply curved hemispheric screen that is silver, so it reflects the light back to the audience. It’s three times the brightness of a normal movie. I want to make something that goes as far into this very intense immersive experience for the audience that I possibly can. I want the audience to feel like they’re with us on an adventure in deep space, so we’re going to use the highest resolution, the highest frame-rate, the biggest screens, the greatest brightness, the best color saturation — everything we can possibly do to make this experience indistinguishable from reality. I’m even wanting to make a theater that’s more like a holodeck than a theater. It’s going to have this profoundly experiential element to it, where it’s going to be okay for the actors to look at the camera and recognize the presence of the audience in the scene. It it’s successful, the audience will actually be in the movie — not looking at the movie. And so I feel like an explorer looking into the future of experiential cinema, and I’ve got to take it as far as I can take it.