Showscan Digital captures at 120 fps

Just weeks after James Cameron threw down the gauntlet to the entertainment industry to improve moving images by upping frame rates, one of the pioneers of that concept has demonstrated a technology for combining the clarity of higher frame rates with movies’ familiar 24 frame-per-second look.

At the SMPTE Digital Cinema Summit in Las Vegas on Sunday, Douglas Trumbull, the director, cinematographer f/x expert and inventor of the 60 fps Showscan process in the 1980s, unveiled his latest endeavor: Showscan Digital.

The process captures at 120 fps, five times the current standard, and uses that information to go down to whatever frame rate the director wants for the look of his project. It uses the extra frames to cut down on blur and preserve the 3D illusion, even at 24p.

“It’s like oversampling. You can go to anything you want later on,” he said.

The push for higher frame rates is the result of inherent problems with the traditional 24p camera, which has its shutter open half the time. That puts a lot of blur on the frame for anything moving fast across the frame.

“All movie directors, including me, have struggled with this problem for over 100 years,” he said, and with actioners so important to the movies nowadays, it’s become worse. “Just when a director wants the most action is where the technology has the most blur.”

The motion artifacts of 24p are a particular problem for 3D because they can confuse the eye and break the 3D illusion.

In part because of those problems for 3D, James Cameron (who keynotes today at the opening of the NAB Show) has been pushing for 48p or 60p, but Trumbull told Variety that he doesn’t believe the industry will or should switch to a higher frame rate for all presentations.

Trumbull’s presentation on higher frame rates at the Digital Cinema Summit addressed the growing push for improved picture quality, including more pixels, stereoscopic 3D, better contrast and improved color.

There is some pushback, however, because many feel the look of 24p, film grain and other artifacts of filmmaking actually help the audience suspend their disbelief. Without this “proscenium effect,” the argument goes, auds see actors in makeup on a set instead of characters in a story, or, at least, everything starts to look like a soap opera, so those picture improvements may be counter-productive to dramas.

Trumbull said he agrees with the idea of the proscenium effect. “My philosophy is that there isn’t any one size fits all frame rate for entertainment,” he said. “We’ve all become highly accustomed to movies at 24 frames a second. We’ve all gotten used to that as that kind of proscenium texture, which I think is fantastic. It’s the most enduring and successful medium I think the world has ever seen, aside from the printing press.”

Trumbull says higher frame rates are ideal for non-fiction movies, like nature docs. “(Higher frame rates) is not a solve-everything, it’s not a magic bullet,” he said. Instead, improved resolution and color, along with frame rate and 3D, he said, “can be used in a recipe to deliver to the audience the experience you want to deliver to them.”

Trumbull layed down a principle for future thinking on frame rates: Every flash on the screen should have new and correct motion.” But in fact, movies today don’t do that at all. While movies are shown at 24p, film projectors flash 48 frames each second, showing each frame twice to eliminate flickering. Digital projectors flash at 72p, triple-flashing each frame. “Movies are actually starting and stopping 24 times a second,” he said.

Showscan Digital, said Trumbull, can add more motion to those extra flashes, but only for objects that are moving fast across the screen. That keeps the familiar 24p look while reducing blur and motion “strobing.”

At the end of his presentation, Trumbull also announced he is returning to directing, and has plans to use a new virtual production process to make movies in a new way. He plans to adapt the Pixar development process to live-action filmmaking.

By the time the actual cast is even hired, he said, “You know what you need and you can shoot 100 setups a day.”

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