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Trumbull lights up ‘Hypercinema’

Tentpoles could tap technology to raise the bar on immersion, spectacle

Last week must have been surreal for Douglas Trumbull.

On the one hand, he was showered with accolades — the George Melies Award from the Visual Effects Society, honoring his pioneering vfx work; and the Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette, from the Academy for his work across a wide range of technological and creative fronts — but while he was being feted by the industry’s movers and shakers, he’s still seeking financial backing for those innovations.

And while Trumbull got a lot of press for his efforts to upgrade cinema images, few seem to entirely grasp just how revolutionary his efforts could be. Trumbull is not just talking about a better way to present movies. He wants to fundamentally change movies themselves — some movies, anyway.

Working on a stage on his property in Massachusetts, Trumbull is combining high frame rates and 3D on the production side with advanced projection tech and curved screens that get brightness up to 30 foot Lamberts — more than a full stop above the current standard of 14 foot Lamberts for standard 2D projection, and several stops above the typical brightness at multiplexes for 3D.

Trumbull hasn’t come up with a formal name for the suite of technologies, but he’s calling it “Hypercinema” for now. He told Variety he doesn’t want to change all movies over to Hypercinema: “I think 24 frames-per-second movies on normal movie screens is a wonderful, beautiful, long-lasting art form that will go into the future and it is completely appropriate for most films, actually.”

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But the major studios are mostly in the blockbuster business, said Trumbull, and it’s blockbusters that stand to benefit from his innovations, which would amp up cinema spectacle and showmanship to new heights.

Beyond that, though, Trumbull is aiming at something more profound.

“No one in the industry has seen a 3D movie at 30 foot Lamberts at 120 frames per second,” he said. “What happens when you get into this hyper-real realm of a movie, that seems to be a window onto reality, is that the entire cinematic language begins to change.” He wants to make a movie using Hypercinema and move away from the master shots, two-shots, over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups we’ve all seen thousands of times, to create “an experience of tremendous participation in an alternate world, which I think people will crave and are ready to pay for.”

If Trumbull is right, then he may have put his finger on a big problem facing the movie industry, bigger even than poor presentation and tired storytelling: What if auds are becoming bored with the very medium itself?

Today’s audiences are media-saturated, after all. And it’s hard to surprise them doing the same old thing. Audiences pony up for novelty and surprise. Videogames have that. Do Hollywood features?

Right or wrong, Trumbull is walking a lonely road. Even tech-forward directors like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Michael Bay tend to use their advanced tech to tell stories in traditional ways. There’s little talk of new techniques for new tech.

“I think I am a complete lone wolf in this area,” Trumbull said. “I don’t hear anybody that is even thinking about it.”

He lamented the lack of technology departments at the studios and exhibitors, but he hopes to find investors to move his efforts along. “I have just decided I have got to show (the movie industry) what the result will be if you do all these thing simultaneously and then back up a little bit and see if the industry wants to go there.

“I can’t make it go there,” he said. “I can only lead a horse to water.”

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