Illuminating the future: SMPTE's Peter Ludé discusses frame rates and lasers
During NAB 2012, the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas (www.nabshow.com), the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (www.SMPTE.org) will once again produce a dedicated program on digital cinema. SMPTE “will provide an in-depth global view of the new wave of technology coming soon to your local multiplex,” the organization noted in the program announcement, “with an eye toward how it might later affect the broader media ecosystem.”
Founded in 1916 “to advance theory and development in the motion-imaging field,” it is not surprising that SMPTE takes a decidedly grounded approach in describing the current state-of-engineering. “Cinema technology has historically been in the forefront of motion-imaging invention. Over the years, revolutionary new technologies were first tested and proven in the movie theatre, only later to become mainstream in television broadcast or gaming.”
Until last year known as the Digital Cinema Summit, the April 14 and 15 series of events has been renamed the 2012 Technology Summit for Cinema (TSC), presenting “Advances in Image and Sound.” SMPTE president Peter Ludé feels the name change is emblematic of the progress made over the past decade. In his view, the basics of digital-cinema projection have been firmly established, so it is now time to look at additional improvements and benefits to be drawn from the technology, with help from the engineering and creative communities.
Film Journal International had the opportunity to speak exclusively with the noted technologist in advance of the Summit about some of the topics to be discussed and emerging trends to be analyzed there. As our conversation readily confirms, with his day job as senior VP of Sony Solutions Engineering overseeing all U.S.-based engineering efforts for digital-cinema systems, software development and other professional media solutions, Ludé is also very much in tune with the practical side of implementing innovations.
In line with our February issue’s report on the Moody Gardens Digital Cinema Symposium, co-presented by Barco and D3D, Ludé confirms upgraded sound environments, higher frame rates (HFR) and laser projection to be among the main topics. “Hey, all of this is exciting to us technologists,” Ludé enthuses. “I spend a lot of time talking to exhibitors and they have confirmed their interest in all of these possibilities as well. From an audience participation impact, in my mind, it is a tie right now between HFR and laser.”
Beginning with the latter, “almost everybody that you talk to would like to see brighter 3D images. Now that this will soon be possible with laser technologies, what should the new standards be?” Drawing the comparison to current DCI-defined 2D and de-facto 3D brightness levels, he puts that range “probably somewhere in the middle” between 14 or 4.5 foot-lamberts coming off the screen.
“You could take a projector today that is already in the field,” he continues, “take out the Xenon lamp house and cold mirror and replace all that stuff with lasers and it could work just fine. Obviously, there are complexities in optical interface, control, cooling and many other details, but in theory it can be done. On the other hand, a laser projector designed from the ground up will enable the use of different optics and overall system design, which would have advantages in brightness efficiency, contrast ratio, lower costs and smaller size. It will also facilitate a greener environment—with less power consumption, fewer cooling vents and less carbon emission.”
That “whole bunch of benefits” with laser illumination includes an expanded range of available colors as well, Ludé adds. “The wonderful thing about the DCI specs is that they can accommodate virtually any white points and color gamut. Now that we have lasers that allow us to represent colors that are not possible for Xenon, those need to be established in order to support the overall workflow from capture to exhibition. Sometimes, when everything is possible, it is more difficult to manage all the variations and to establish the foundation.”
While lasers do not have to be different, Ludé makes a case for creative expression. “It is very easy to engineer a laser system to exactly match the current P3 color gamut that you see today. It’s very readily done. The interesting question that comes into this is whether we really want to limit ourselves,” he muses. “Specifically in the deep reds and cyan regions, with lasers audiences will be able to see something on the screen that has not been possible before. Until someone from Pixar, for example, decides, ‘I would love to use that color because it would help my storytelling.’ Then the engineers will scratch their heads: ‘OK, how do we redefine that expanded gamut beyond P3?’ Technically, it is not so difficult,” he assures once again. “But in order to have a universally accepted new standard color gamut, we have to get our heads together and decide what exactly we want to extend it to.”
Creatively, “it’s similar to 3D,” Ludé asserts, drawing another comparison. “You don’t need to use 3D, but now that it is available, you could choose to use it if appropriate for your movie. Color gamut is the same way. It is very simple to replicate what we have today, if that is what is desired. But now there is this new, tempting, unique enhancement allowing you to extend color range. Let’s work through that and enable the filmmakers to do what they want to. As a matter of fact, they can still display a black-and-white movie just as well when there is a laser in the projector.”
Given the need for an industry-wide consensus, not to mention that costs have to come down significantly, is Ludé not taking a rather optimistic view? “Maybe I’m biased,” he admits, “because another one of my night-and-weekend jobs is being the chairman of the Laser Illuminated Projection Association.” Realizing just how much work “needs to be done from a regulatory reform standpoint” too, LIPA was set up earlier in the year (www.lipainfo.org). “We need to clarify the laws that apply to laser projection as opposed to standard lasers, because they are both very different. A laser-illuminated projector doesn’t really represent any more optical hazard than the Xenon projectors that we have been using for over 50 years. And carbon arc lamps before that. Yet, they are subject to entirely different rules under the FDA and OSHA regulations,” Ludé has observed about the Food and Drug Administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Impact Assessment. “Those government agencies recognize that discrepancy. However, they really don’t have a mechanism in order to create the proper updates to their rules that would make laser-illuminated projectors more practical in theatrical exhibition.”
Moving on to another improvement on the horizon, just how practical will the implementation of higher frame rates turn out to be? “When James Cameron and Peter Jackson say that it looks better, you have to pay attention to them,” Ludé states up front. “Technologists as well have been noting for years that the use of 48 or 60 frames per second, especially for 3D, provides a very perceivable benefit, such as less eyestrain and more fluid 3D motion,” he says, naming but two improvements. “I think audiences will be excited about both of those. Laser-illuminated projectors and HFR are very possible in the near future. Again, it is a matter of having the industry come together—studios, exhibitors and manufacturers—and agreeing on what the new target is. The engineering community is probably not the best one to answer that. Technically, all are quite feasible.”
Asked to elaborate, Ludé ventures, “You could make an argument from the scientific data that retinal retention has been proven to be pretty strong up to around the 60 fps rate… But I have also talked to some people who say it needs to be much higher, like 120 frames per second. Other people feel, practically speaking, 48 fps is virtually as good as 60 fps, although 60 fps might be ideal.” Ludé defers to noted filmmaker Douglas Trumbull, the founder of Showscan, among many other accomplishments, and the 2012 recipient of the Academy’s Gordon E. Sawyer Award “for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the motion picture industry.” (www.oscars.org/press/pressreleases/2012/20120111.html) “He actually did very exciting tests many years ago,” Ludé tells us. Using electroencephalograms and galvanometers, Trumbull measured “people’s perspiration, heart rates, EKG while they watch movies to gauge their emotional reaction… His results indicated that the human visual system and brain respond incrementally as you raise the frame rate up somewhere in the mid-60s. After that, raising the frame rate further only tends to make a tiny bit of difference. That’s why Trumbull came up with 60 as being a good target number. By happenstance, so did James Cameron when he made his announcement how he would like to do Avatar 2. At the same time, for practical reasons, among others, Peter Jackson settled on 48 fps for The Hobbit.”
Along the same lines, Ludé acknowledges that many filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere see 60 fps as too similar to television. “They prefer to be at 24 frames to maintain the well-established aesthetic of cinema. So this is one of the techniques that a director should be able to continue to use to create a certain effect. From a technology standpoint, we can’t get ourselves in the middle of the crossfire in that discussion. I think there is a very valid artistic dimension to the discussion…it’s a filmmaker’s choice. You should be able to do 24, or 16 frames for that matter, 60 or 120 frames per second. You pick what you want. Some folks, Trumbull notably, say why should the entire movie be at the same rate? Run those emotional dialogue scenes at 24, and when there is a car crash, do that at 120 fps. So the question to the technical community is: Could we have variable frame rates within the same movie?”
To tackle all this and more, a new SMPTE study group was established under its 21 DC (Digital Cinema) Committee. “Over 60 people are participating in this discussion of how good is good enough,” Ludé says. “How do we decide what is practical? And reflect what is already installed and what we might need to upgrade? How do we assure backward compatibility? Even if a film comes out at 48 or 60 fps, some theatres still want to run it at 24 fps because they haven’t been updated yet. How do you accommodate that?”
While a variety of frame-rate conversions are already standard on television, this is “not something that you would commonly go to see in a movie theatre,” he notes. “Perhaps frame-rate conversion can be accommodated in the post-production pipeline. But we really have to be sure that it works before we move any further. In doing those conversions, you have to be very careful not to introduce anything contrary to what the original creative intent was.”
Another one of the key messages in advance of the Technology Summit is that cinema is the original place for technological innovations. Ludé provides examples: “The introduction of sound, then multi-channel sound. Widescreen images going back to anamorphic, the use of special effects, fast cutting, computer graphics, stereoscopic 3D—all these innovations were originally implemented in theatres. A more recent example is 4K imaging, which incorporates four times the resolution of high-definition television. 4K was pioneered by Sony in digital cinema, and has now become the premier standard for the best exhibitors. But at this year’s CES show, it is clear that 4K is heading for the home theatre as well.”
Ludé thinks this “will continue to apply, [although] cinemas will not be the only mechanism of getting new things into the home.” The strength of movie theatres lies in the “simple” fact that “it’s not that hard to control the entire chain. Say Peter Jackson decides to shoot his movie at 48 fps—a whole new standard in 3D—and he could work out with his distributor to get some 4,000 screens to exhibit it in that way. Boom, it’s out there. You try to do that with television and you’ll find huge obstacles. Getting a new standard into 100 million homes in the U.S., and billions worldwide, is a very big challenge to go through with all the different set-top boxes, cable systems, satellite delivery, home recorders, Blu-ray/DVD players. This is a much more complex infrastructure that is much slower to change.”
He brings up Disney’s decision “to go 3D with Chicken Little back in 2005. They made that happen in some 80 theatres in just about six months. It takes five years to get that same level of functionality into people’s living rooms.”
What does Ludé personally think about the movie theatre? “My own view, and that of many of my peers, is that the cinema is the gold standard in terms of imaging technology. It is, in fact, the highest standard. Cinema is used for the most important stories told by the biggest-budget producers. So when a studio wants to produce a good movie and they are spending $40 or $50 million in production cost, they are going to be very persnickety about the creative as well as technical aspects. They are going to spend a lot more time on the lighting, on the lens selection, on exactly what film stock or digital image to capture on, every detail of color correction and so on. A lot more effort and thought, and creative intent and brilliant engineering, go into the creation of those movies. You contrast that with a typical television program, a reality show or the nightly newscast—just for practical reasons, you don’t have the budget. It’s good but just not that extravagant.”
Although “we didn’t even talk about sound systems—and you will see a lot of new thinking on the acoustical front—it is a very exciting age for cinema now,” Ludé concludes. “I think the whole movie experience is going to continue to evolve. We currently have Digital Cinema 1.0 up and running. Now we are working on version 2.0, which will offer additional enhancements to maintain the cinema as the highest-quality viewer experience.”