Judging high-frame-rate technology


Technology is changing so rapidly in the motion picture arena that keeping up with it is nearly a full-time job. It certainly stood front and center at the recent CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, where there were demonstrations of high frame rates, laser illumination and immersive 3D sound systems.

Warner Bros. wanted to share with exhibition some footage from their upcoming Christmas release The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D, and during their product presentation in Las Vegas they screened a ten-minute clip filmed at 48 frames per second. It made good sense to want to get word out on the film and show theatre owners what they can expect when it opens in North America on December 14.

The overwhelming consensus was that the content looked great and the excitement for the release of the film was well-founded. There were, however, some people in the audience who felt that though the images looked more lifelike than ever before, they seemed oddly cold and too much like digital footage from live sports channels or daytime television. The press in attendance generally criticized what they saw and wrote or tweeted about it—unfairly. This criticism is based on a ten-minute screening of unfinished footage.

Warners should be applauded for their determination to let the industry see what Peter Jackson is creating and for their bravado in showing images to a large gathering that were not color-corrected or were generally unfinished. Too often the press is premature in criticizing technologies in their early stages and should really be more understanding. Perhaps when there is unfinished product being shown via a new technology, the press should be barred from seeing it in this type of format and venue. Warners achieved their goal of creating great buzz for a brilliant filmmaker and getting exhibition psyched for the release of the film. Exhibitors have fallen in love with Jackson’s storytelling and the footage screened was universally praised. Complaints only centered on the technology used to project the footage.

With major filmmakers behind 48 fps movies, this innovation is here to stay, just like digital and 3D. 48 fps also allows for the creation of very smooth slow-motion scenes, simply by double-printing each frame to yield a 24 fps half-speed version. Even for full-speed scenes, 48 fps has advantages. Fast camera moves no longer cause “strobing” and individual frames are sharper. Action scenes are definitely smoother and more lifelike. Audiences are bound to get used to it and will even demand it in the future. Whatever problems they might have had during this brief preview in Vegas, be assured that Jackson and Warners will correct it by release time and exhibitors can already count the box-office dollars that are bound to be plentiful.

The Theatre of the Future
So what will the motion picture theatre of the future look like? We certainly got a taste of it over the last 12 months with high frame rates, laser technology, 3D immersive sound systems and booth-less cinemas all making news. Regardless of the new technologies, content remains king. The theatre may be constructed differently and what’s on the screen may be projected in a new way, but business will be predicated on the film itself. If it’s good, box office will be strong, and if it’s not so good, grosses will spiral downward.

Of course, new technologies will help differentiate what’s on the screen from home entertainment, and that’s why it is important to continue to upgrade, innovate and experiment. The previous editorial outlined the advantages of filming at 48 frames per second. One of the other technologies that is creating interest in the market is lasers. Although commercial laser projectors may not hit the scene until early 2014, the demonstrations at CinemaCon showed the evolving technology’s great clarity and brightness. Other advantages include improved color, higher contrast, uniformity up to the edges of the screen, unlimited dimming of 3D and lower power consumption.

There are roadblocks, but they will be overcome by bringing down costs, removing archaic FDA restrictions on lasers, and finding a business market model that would make yet another expensive hardware upgrade more appealing to exhibitors.

On the audio front, 3D immersive sound systems add a new element of play for movie audiences. And five companies are hoping that the implementation will accelerate now. Here’s how they describe their innovations:

Barco: Auro 11.1 is the next-generation 3D sound format for the cinema industry developed by Galaxy Studios and powered by Barco. Auro 11.1 turns conventional cinema audio into a fully immersive 3D sound experience with sounds coming from all around and above the listener.

Package one, distribute everywhere—that’s the promise of Dolby Atmos. At a time when distributors must create multiple versions of a movie for a wide range of theatre configurations, Dolby Atmos introduces a single DCP that will play in any theatre. Dolby Atmos redefines the cinema experience by offering content creators new ways to tell their stories. It adds the ability to control distinct sound elements in a soundtrack to the traditional channel-based approach for mixing, and it ensures that the audience experience is always the best possible for the specific playback environment.

imm sound:
imm sound technology allows for a faithful reproduction of 3D soundscapes by the placement of extra loudspeakers, including in the theatre’s ceiling, that completely surround the audience. But it is not only about locating sound sources in all positions in the theatre. It is also about recreating beautiful reverberations and ambient sounds…total immersion is the goal. imm sound is also fully compatible, and 3D soundtracks can also be enjoyed in 2D systems like 7.1 or 5.1, just like stereoscopic movies can also be played in theatres that are not equipped for 3D.

SRS Labs: With MDA, the exhibitor is no longer confined to the number of channels and speaker locations dictated by the content provider. The freedom exists to design the cinema playback system based on the requirements of the space and to potentially use the configuration as a competitive differentiator.

IOSONO: With IOSONO 3D sound systems based on their Spatial Audio Processor IPC 100, you will add a new dimension to the movie experience. Immersive and captivating soundscapes jumping out of the screen with the latest 3D image will keep customers thrilled. Thanks to the technical capabilities of the IPC 100, sounds can easily be moved in a three-dimensional space—an experience that makes every IOSONO-equipped cinema an attraction.

Booth-less cinemas are another new concept that could catch on, as they can eliminate nearly 20 percent of the construction costs of a new theatre. At a time when exhibition is being asked to spend a great deal of money on upgrades, 3D, HFR, lasers and 3D sound systems, the opportunity to save construction dollars will be vital to exhibition. FJI will report on this topic in the near future.

Physically, the theatre of the future will be quite different, but what keeps people coming back is the story. And as long as our great filmmakers keep making movies that are emotionally entertaining, audiences will flock to them. It certainly is one of America’s favorite and cheapest pastimes.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column stated that the Hobbit footage was screened with MasterImage 3D. The demo used Christie Duo projectors and RealD XL-DP 3D.