SMPTE looks at high-frame-rate 3D

Experts discuss technical challenges

LAS VEGAS — The SMPTE Technology Summit on Cinema Sunday got a look ahead at high-frame-rate 3D – – along with a daunting introduction to the technical challenges it presents.

The gathering watched camera tests for Warner/New Line’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which tried various frame rates and shutter angles, and was generally impressed at the clarity of the image. “HFR” (and “HRFS” — High Frame Rate Stereoscopic) delivers better results in 3D, cuts down on “judder” and other motion artifacts and generally makes the image appear sharper. The consensus was that the 48 fps 3D images did indeed appear noticeably clearer and more immersive.

Anything over the current standard of 24 frames per second is considered “HFR” and there is no small amount of debate about what the best frame rate should be.

According to the discussion at the SMPTE Summit, research suggests the most clarity and impact comes from a frame rate around 60. Doug Trumbull, a pioneer of higher frame rates, was in the audience and stepped to a mic to confirm his own results had pointed to 66 as an ideal frame rate. However “The Hobbit” is going out at 48. Asked why the “Hobbit” team chose 48 when 60 or 66 was so much better, Park Road Post head of technology Phil Oatley gave a simple answer: “Because we can’t show it (60 fps) yet.”

And that is the biggest problem confronting any HFR format today. As Warner senior VP of technology Wendy Aylsworth explained, there are 70,000 digital screens worldwide, 40,000 of which are ready for 3D, but exactly zero are capable of showing HFR pics yet. All will need some kind of upgrade, either hardware or software, just to show “The Hobbit” at 48 fps. Getting theaters ready for 60 fps by “The Hobbit’s” Dec. 14 release date, said Oatley, was impossible.

“We also felt 48 frames still felt filmic,” said Oatley.

That is another issue with HFR movies: some simply don’t like the look of HFR. James Cameron, who did not attend the SMPTE session, is a longtime advocate of HFR because it helps the look of 3D, and he’s said he wants to make the next two “Avatar” pics with HFR. The day before the SMPTE demo, he told Variety “When you see high frame rate, it’s like reality. Some people may find it disturbing, because it seems like what’s happening in front of you is now no longer a flat moving painting, It looks real, and that’s disturbing at first. 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.”

Indeed some cinema technologists have reacted exactly as Cameron said, comparing the sharpness of HFR images to the look of video. But that reaction may fade as a new generation that has not been weaned on the look of 24 fps film comes of age, said some in the SMPTE discussion.

But if the schedule of meetings and demonstrations is any indication, HFR seems to be on the way, at least for some pics. There is a more complete demonstration of HFR footage skedded for Cinemacon in Las Vegas April 23-26, and SMPTE will devote the first day of it’s fall conference in Hollywood, Oct. 22, to discussions of high frame rates.