Are higher frame rates the next big thing?

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The most dramatic change in the way movies are shown in cinemas has taken place over the past decade. Digital projection has revolutionized the motion picture industry. Nearly 50,000 screens worldwide now have digital capabilities, and that has led to the resurgence of 3D, screen advertising and alternative content—all in pristine digital. Some 60,000 screens are expected by the end of 2011 and nearly 85,000 by the end of 2012.

So the question everyone is asking is: What’s next? If you attended the NATO Convention in Las Vegas in March, you just might have witnessed the next major step in shooting and projecting movies—at higher frame rates. At least that is what the visionary and master storyteller James Cameron thinks. For the past century, movies have run at 24 frames per second. Is now the time for a new standard to be set?

In the Vegas venue, Cameron showed footage that was shot at 24, 48 and 60 frames per second (fps) and he clearly demonstrated enhanced sense of detail and enhanced clarity in 48 and 60 fps. In his test, Cameron was able to illustrate how panning the camera invariably produces strobing of people and objects at the traditional 24-frame speed. Both the 48 and 60-frame clips were markedly superior, eliminating strobing and bringing greater clarity to objects captured by the moving camera.

This editor caught up with Mr. Cameron when he was showing the first 3D footage from Titanic to delegates of CineEurope. Several minutes into the discussion, Cameron touched on the subject of frame rates and this is when he became quite animated. He believes higher frame rates offer the potential to improve showmanship and should become the standard for the industry. He’s agnostic about whether 48 or 60 fps should be adopted, but emphasized his plans to shoot the next Avatar film at a higher frame rate.

In order for theatre operators to upgrade and be able to show a film in a higher film rate, they have to do several things. Since the standard external server is not able to carry sufficient bandwidth for higher frame rates, what must happen is that an Integrated Media Block must be installed in a Series II Projector; this software upgrade makes it possible to screen at a higher frame rate. The IMB is also needed to screen 4K and this is written into the DCI specifications.

As important as the IMB is, to truly achieve better 3D, it is necessary to have better illumination on the screen. It is generally believed that such an upgrade from a server standpoint would cost under $5,000.

The production and post-production process is too expensive presently to make this happen immediately. However, filming in this process creates a huge difference when going from 24 fps to 48 fps.

The industry will take a long look at this new technology and then weigh the advantages and costs and whether it will be noticed only by film aficionados or is something that will greatly enhance the viewing experience of the average moviegoer. Most of the newer digital projectors in the marketplace can handle the higher frame rates with a software upgrade. This is quite important, because theatre owners recently made capital improvements on digital and 3D systems. Pundits also emphasize that increases in production rendering budgets could be kept to a reasonable level with smart coding.

With such a noticeable difference, this could become justification for exhibitors to charge higher rates for 3D and help their bottom line. If enough major producers and directors make the decision to shoot in this new process, the time it takes to switch to 48 or 60 fps will happen that much quicker.

Good Tidings from Overseas
The recently concluded CineEurope convention in Amsterdam not only welcomed James Cameron, but such major Hollywood names as Ridley Scott, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Antonio Banderas and fast-rising star Michael Fassbender. And no wonder: The box-office numbers out of Europe have been eclipsing those of North America and offered a welcome balm to studio executives disappointed by the performance of certain summer films stateside.

Europe and other foreign territories are the reason Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the latest movie to join the billion-dollar club; its $774 million overseas gross is more than three times its domestic tally. Animated hits Rio and Kung Fu Panda 2 more than doubled their North American takings in foreign markets. And strikingly, the perceived failure of the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie thriller The Tourist is anything but that when you factor in its $210 overseas gross, three times what it took in domestically.

And while North American audiences have become more wary of those higher ticket prices for the wave of 3D movies, digital 3D is still a big draw and an enticing novelty in many overseas markets, especially in places like Russia and Eastern Europe where the screen count continues to grow at a brisk pace.

Domestically, all is not gloomy. After a number of recent releases performed better in 2D than in their heavily promoted 3D versions, director Michael Bay’s aggressive promotion of his latest Transformers outing as the real deal in 3D seems to have bucked the trend. As we go to press, the true test will be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the first Potter film to be exhibited entirely in 3D. Producer David Heyman has urged exhibitors to ensure there’s plenty of light onscreen for Harry’s final adventure, since dark and moody cinematography is a series trademark. Harry Potter is poised to break records worldwide, but exhibitors must do their part to make sure its 3D incarnation is a truly stunning experience for the entire family.