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Framing the ‘Hobbit’ hubub: Think bigger

Cinemacon reax aside, higher frame rates are set to become a new standard

The media freakout over the mixed reaction to Tuesday’s CinemaCon preview of “The Hobbit” footage with high-frame-rate 3D had me rolling my eyes.

Some exhibs compared the image quality to that of “behind-the-scenes” footage or soap operas. “In other news,” I said to myself, “water is wet.” But for those who have been following experiments with frame rates, the mixed reaction to the “Hobbit” footage was entirely predictable.

Ten days before the “Hobbit” footage debuted, James Cameron told me about the high-frame-rate (HFR) look, “I think there will be people that love it. And there will be people that say it looks like video, because video is the only way they can process something that looks too real. But it’s really quite magical.”

The big crowd at CinemaCon just got its first glimpse of something that smaller gatherings of technologists have seen all along. HFR looks different, and some people say it looks like TV.

So will high-frame-rate (HFR) 3D could catch on? Or will auds throw cold water on the whole thing? I predict:

•The 48 fps format of “The Hobbit” will not be widely adopted, because it’s a compromise that doesn’t deliver the full impact of HFR;

•Eventually, but probably not soon, the default frame rate for most studio movies will be something around 60 fps, with directors choosing higher or lower frame rates for creative effect;

•Bizzers in both TV and movies are going to be making creative and financial decisions about HFR for years — maybe forever.

Since the conversation about HFR is just getting started, here’s some fodder for your next barroom argument on the subject:

First, HFR solves a couple of problems, especially for 3D. At 24 fps, when the camera pans or an object moves quickly across the screen, the image smears with “judder” or “strobing,” which is annoying in 2D but infuriating in 3D. Higher frame rates reduce or banish strobing.

Higher frame rates also let projection get brighter. With brighter light comes more flicker. If the frame rate goes up, flicker goes down, so brightness can go up, too.

In fact, movies would flicker at even today’s standard light levels, but each frame is flashed two or three times, depending on the projector, to prevent flicker. So in that sense, projectors have been delivering a sort of ersatz version of HFR (48 or 72 fps) all along.

But frame rates do change the look of the picture radically. While movies were at 24, standard-def TV was 30 frames per second. The difference between 24 and 30 may not sound like a lot, but it is.

During the High Frame Rates panel at the recent SMPTE Summit on Cinema, Northrop Grumman Aerospace’s Stephen Long took to a microphone to discuss research his company had done on frame rates a decade ago.

“We learned very quickly that the ‘film look’ was all about 24 (fps), it’s not about film,” Long said. “As soon as we rotated the variable speed to 30 it looked like television. When we cranked it up above 50, it started to look different than anything.”

Long’s team found a “jump” at around 54-60 fps.

“Wow, something changed,” he said. “It looked better. That’s not a scientific description. It changed the perception, the sense of reality.”

Doug Trumbull, who pioneered HFR movies with his Showscan process, followed Long to the mic and said his research had shown a similar jump at around 60-66 fps, leveling off at around 72. Trumbull also added that “Single-flashing is vitally important to keep continuity of motion.”

Asked why “The Hobbit” is being made at 48 instead of 60, which seems to be “better,” Phil Oatley, head of technology for Park Road Post, said “Because we can’t show it (60) yet. … It came down to how can we get a high frame rate film made by the end of the year?”

That’s why I don’t think 48 fps is going to be the new standard: It’s an only an interim step.

HDTVs are already capable of 60 fps or more, and some broadcasts use a version of 60 fps. In fact, TV is the elephant in the room in this conversation, because it’s pushing the entertainment world toward 60 fps.

HFR is really part of a larger issue: How will movie theaters continue to deliver a better experience than TV when TV is getting better all the time? And what does “better” mean, anyway? HFR is sharper and clearer and more natural. Is that always better?

Those are questions for psychologists and physiologists as well as artists, and nobody has the answers.

In the meantime, here’s another prediction about what will happen when “The Hobbit” hits selected theaters in HFR 3D: Some people will love it, and others will say it looks like TV.

You heard it here first.

Bits & Bytes

Cinedigm has named Larry McCourt head of software sales and marketing. … Moviola has added Barbara Wagner and Annadee Henson-Locke to its media sales team.

NBC is using Avid for its broadcast of the Summer Olympics from London later this year. … Deluxe’s Company3 is back as an Industry Sponsor for the Tribeca Film Festival.

Sony Colorworks is working with The Creative Cartel and others to provide a 4K workflow for the Sony F65 CineAlta camera. … Fotokem has introduced the version 3.0 of its nextLAB digital camera software, incorporating the Academy Color Encoding Specifications (ACES). Fotokem has also unveiled its nextLAB 4K file-based workflow for the Canon Cinema EOS C500 and C500 PL cameras, based on ACES. These cameras are the first to take files from production to post entirely in ACES.

Litepanels is offering a $100 rebate through July 15 on the Croma variable color temperature LED light and the Sola ENG LED fresnel lighting fixture. … AJA has introduced the Ki Pro Quad portable video recorder, which supports 2K and 4K recording.

Video cloud production platform Aframe went live in the U.S. last week. Aframe had been running in the U.K. since 2010. Upload partners so far include AbelCine in New York and Burbank; DigiNovations in Acton, Mass.; PostWorks in New York; Hula Post Production in Burbank; Rule Broadcast Systems in Boston; and WH Platts in Atlanta, Charleston, S.C. and Charlotte N.C.

Christie has installed “boothless” projection systems in six auditoriums in Mexico’s Cinepolis circuit, allowing the exhibs to add more seats. … Sony Digital Cinema and Regal Entertainment Group are installing new tech for hearing- and visually impaired moviegoers. Deployment is skedded for completion by first quarter 2013. Tech includes glasses to display captions to hearing-impaired viewers. … Qube Cinema has completed d-cinema conversion for all 39 screens of the Kuwait National Cinema Co. … CFG Barco (Beijing) is supplying 500 d-cinema projectors to China Film Group. … Tremor FX has unveiled its Active Theater Seating. The tech is similar to D-BOX but Tremor says it responds to the soundtrack of the pic on the screen, and so does not need individual programming to make the chairs vibrate along with the action on the screen. Tremor FX chairs are also the same size as regular theater seats.

RealD 3D has passed 20,000 screens worldwide. … XPand 3D was the official 3D supplier for last week’s Kino 2012 in Baden-Baden, Germany.

Adobe previewed Creative Suite 6 Premium at the NAB Show in Las Vegas.