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  • January 11, 2012

    Statement by Douglas Trumbull

    Everything in a movie is an illusion, beginning with the simple idea of photographing and projecting photographs in rapid succession to create the illusion of motion. Literature can be transformed into movies. And stories can be written specifically for the screen. Photographing subjects that move includes the art and science of motion picture photography, which is now transforming from one of sprocketed film strips to streams of digital data. Editing a sequence of images together compresses time and tells a story via the linkage of ideas. Acting was once only for live performance on stage, and has now evolved into the craft of creating a seamless performance, even though weeks or months may be required to film a performance that can play out in an hour or two. Directors orchestrate all this into a film, which hopefully becomes a seamless compilation of illusions including makeup, wardrobe, sets, locations, performances, camera moves, precise edits, sound effects, and music.

    I am a filmmaker, and have made it my responsibility to understand all of the associated arts of film making, and to question them in order to see if we can do things better.

    For example, the simple idea of photographing a series of stills into a sequence emerged from early stage illusions, and became movies as we know them. A movie industry was born, and it has gone through a few iterations along the way from 18 frames per second (silents) to 24 fps (talkies), to color, 3D, and wide screen. Cameras used a mechanical pull-down claw synchronized with a shutter in order to advance the film from one frame to the next, closing the shutter to do so. And projectors have used a geneva type sprocket movement to advance the film, while using a double bladed shutter to show each frame twice in order to reduce the flicker (that's why early films were called "the flickers Ð or flicks", since they really did until the Lumiere Brothers invented the double shutter illusion).

    I questioned all this beginning in the mid 1970's, studying every film format ever developed. The result was the SHOWSCAN process of photographing and projecting 70 mm movies at 60 frames per second, showing each frame only once, yet still using claw pull-downs in the cameras, and Geneva pull-downs in the projectors. I realized that it was not necessarily the shape or size of the screen that made enough difference, but a higher frame rate led toward a new kind of realism. Few professionals understood that by pulling down the film on every shutter closure we could get 48 fps without any additional stress or speed of the film in the gate. We only had to increase the speed 25% to get to 60 fps, and the technology was entirely compatible with existing film practices. Yet it created a profound sense of "being there", with what Roger Ebert described; "It is as though the screen has become a window, and you can look into that window and what you see seems completely real".

    I fully intended to use SHOWSCAN for feature film production, and although the process was met with unanimous enthusiasm, and we did quite a number of expo films and simulation attractions, the movie industry presented a catch-22: no studio would make the first film in SHOWSCAN unless there were thousands of theatres to show it in, and even though all the exhibitors praised the process argued that it made no sense to invest in new projectors and larger screens unless all movies out of Hollywood were made that way. I had to move past this industry dead end.

    The movie BRAINSTORM was my plan to introduce SHOWSCAN, but no studio would agree to that. And to compound my disappointment, Natalie Wood died under extremely suspicious circumstances during principal photography and that made it possible for MGM management to declare Force Majeure and terminate production, without even consulting me, the Director of the film, about whether or not the film could be finished without her presence. I was all that stood between MGM and a $15 million dollar insurance claim, but I still pushed on to finish the film against almost insurmountable odds and over strong studio objection. At the film's completion I came to the conclusion that directing movies was something I would have to do without at that point in my life.

    I moved to Western Massachusetts and set up a studio designed to tackle difficult production challenges, soon thereafter getting the job to fix vexing problems on the BACK TO THE FUTURE RIDE for Steven Spielberg and Universal Studio Tours. They had hit a wall and no one in the industry could figure out how to make it work. Having invented the entire idea of entertainment simulation during my SHOWSCAN years, I eagerly set to work to make the ride an attraction that Universal and even Disney folks would later regard with the greatest respect. To me, BTTF (as we called it) was a grand experiment in extremely immersive cinema. Unlike a movie where viewers are non-participating voyeurs, and directors honored the "fourth wall" cinematic conventions of having actors always looking off-camera, this ride was a full blown first-person experience where audience members were yanked out of their seats and virtually thrown through the proscenium arch to ENTER INTO THE MOVIE. Having worked closely with Stanley Kubrick on 2001's ground breaking non-verbal first person "Ultimate Trip", this was my next chance to experiment in a totally new cinematic language.

    It is the concept of exploring new cinematic form that has drawn me ever closer to reaching my holy grail of a movie that offers a profound and immersive, overwhelming personal experience. Not an experience empathizing with actors via a third-person voyeurism, but a direct first-person experience where each audience member feels that they are inside the movie -- participating IN the movie, not just looking AT the movie.

    Of course every filmmaker and director wants the audience to become overwhelmed by their movie, and they will typically stop at nothing to try and provide powerful and expensive effects, locations, sets, fast-paced action, and amazing illusions to achieve their goals. This is why 75% of the total world box-office receipts are currently special effects driven "tent-pole" movies that are costing $200-400 million dollars each.

    Jim Cameron made an amazing breakthrough with AVATAR, cleverly combining an intense effects-driven 3D movie, with intense 3D digital photography and projection. This is the most complex, technology driven film of all time (at least so far) and is also the highest revenue generating film of all time as well. Jim has delivered something close to an out-of-body-first-person-immersive experience, while deftly retaining tried and true cinematic language.

    What does this mean? It definitely does not mean that all movies should therefore be in 3D. It does reveal, however, a frightening lack of industry-wide understanding of how to move forward toward a more powerful cinematic form and format that is more immersive.

    I grew up on CINERAMA's giant 90 foot wide screens, as well as AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS using Mike Todd's TODD-AO at 30 fps. I fondly remember experiencing HOW THE WEST WAS WON, which used CINERAMA's ultra-wide aspect ratio and giant screens to tell the first dramatic story in that format. And I grew up reading about what a miserable creative experience it was for all concerned to work in the three camera/three projector process, how difficult it was to adapt to a new and different cinematic language, and how it gave way to 70 mm and SUPERPANAVISION, which Kubrick chose for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

    CINERAMA and many other formats emerged as the challenge of television threatened to draw audiences away from theaters. Today, the very same thing is happening and the theater chains themselves are terrified that what they have to offer is little different from the home experience, and in some cases, maybe not even as good. And just as importantly, filmmakers must adapt and acommodate both markets, since the lion's share of revenues now occurs after theatrical release. The capability to entertain with all release formats is vital.

    The theatrical movie business is beginning to suffer from youth audiences defecting toward the immediacy and low cost of downloading and streaming their entertainment. And now with major studio focus on "tentpole" and "franchise" content, I believe the industry is suffering from a severe bottleneck of quality reduction: small screens, dim images, low bandwidth standards, low frame rates, and an overall lack of showmanship at theaters. The vast money being spent on production is not getting to the audience.

    Knowing this, I have made it my personal mission to not write, produce, direct, or provide special photographic effects for any movie project that does not help break new ground and point the way toward a new cinematic form. Now I find that all of my planets are lining up and I am about to launch a new endeavor to do all of the above, including writing, producing, and directing movies made with 3D, Virtual Sets, higher frame rates, larger screens, brighter images, and more showmanship.

    And here's how:

    Writing a script that meets the criteria of exploring a new set of cinematic conventions can be an exercise in futility if it is impossible to both explain and show what the new form is. So I have been writing scripts while simultaneously developing the enabling photographic, projection, sound, and screen technologies to support them. I am preparing demonstration films that show all the variables of 24, 30, 48, 60, and 120 frames per second, in 2D, 3D, and projected onto new and larger high-gain screens, using more powerful and higher resolution digital projectors.

    I believe that a paradigm shift in the technology of experiencing a movie in theatres is urgently needed. Yet the exhibition industry is already reeling at the challenge of converting to expensive digital projection and the associated costs. They are extremely reluctant to install expensive new projection equipment, and even question the value of 3D, as both the novelty wears off, and most producers lack a comprehensive grasp of what 3D should be about. To me, 3D is a large step toward the first-person immersive experience I've been discussing, but unfortunately the content of films has stayed much the same. Producers too often think, "Just make the same film in 3D, and we'll make more money". 3D suffers from a profound lack of adequate viewing brightness as a result of necessary polarizers or filters on projectors and in glasses (and there is tremendous resistance to wearing glasses at all). There is a lot of talk about a workable "3D without glasses" technology, yet almost no talk about the language of cinema that is needed to explore more immersive and powerful experiences.

    Higher gain "Torus" screens are one way to recover the lost light of 3D, yet there seems to be almost no institutional memory that Torus screens ever existed, or could be applied to this purpose. Now is the time to reconsider this, and the concept is an important element of what I am developing.

    Few professionals are aware that digital projectors are regularly operating at 144 frames per second, since the movies are still shot at 24 fps, and thus each frame is projected several times in order to retain the "no flicker", while also accommodating the needs of 3D, where each frame is "flashed" three times for each eye alternately, so that each eye receives 72 flashes, thus the total of 144. This potential to dramatically increase the frame rate is being largely ignored, although modest increases to 48 fps (such as Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT, in production) have been adopted, and Jim Cameron's AVATAR II & III may soon be shooting at 48 or even 60 fps. These filmmakers have realized that the old standard of 24 fps is inadequate to 3D's needs, and often results in objectionable blurring and strobing that diminishes or destroys the 3D effect altogether on fast action.

    Yet whatever frame rate turns out to be better or best, most of these film's releases will still be at 24 fps, due to the inertia and infrastructure of industry broadcast, DVD, and Blu-Ray standards. It is also vitally important that all productions be down-converted to 24 fps without any objectionable flaws such as a 3-2 pulldown or other process used to match television standards. Making a 24 fps version of SHOWSCAN was a serious problem although it perfectly matched the 60i television process.

    Television, as we know it in the US, uses a broadcast standard of 60i, which means 60 frames interlaced. Shooting and broadcasting in this format results in a "texture" that is associated with live news, sports, soap operas, and other "live" events, and is considered inappropriate for feature motion pictures. Nevertheless, the broadcast industry is implementing plans for 60-frame 3D content, for sports, news, and live performance.

    I have been developing a new technical approach to digital photography and projection, which is now enabled by both digital cameras and digital projectors. For the sake of compatibility, I have used 60 as the most comfortable and compatible frame rate in order to retain long-term viability. However, I have been shooting at 120 fps, using a 360-degree shutter in the camera. This makes it possible to digitally merge any number of adjacent frames in order to recover the appropriate amount of blur necessary for 24 fps display. Keep in mind that the movie medium we are accustomed to has used a 160-200 degree shutter, resulting in the "texture" that we know as movies (not television). Having shot material at 120 frames with a 360-degree shutter, it is a simple and perfect conversion to digitally merge three frames into one, and delete the next two frames, thus resulting in a 24 frame movie without any artifacts, and while retaining the normal blur. This patented process will provide a compression of visual data that will bring immense improvement to the viewing experience, and also offers the unique opportunity to "embed" 60 fps object motion within a 24 fps overall "look", thus preserving the cinematic texture while enabling unblurred fast action.

    Since most digital projection systems such as RealD use an alternating left-right cadence in their polarization technique, it makes sense to utilize this same cadence in photography as well. This way there are virtually no artifacts in projection, and what is perceived by the viewer is as close to reality as possible. Thus, it is possible to delete every odd or even frame from a dual stream of 120 fps material, so that a perfect temporal sequence of motion is viewed, while also providing 3D without any objectionable artifacts. Other current processes such as that being used by Peter Jackson have missed the important factor that the only way to get a real improvement is to stop double-flashing the frames, as will happen with the HOBBIT.

    Higher frame rates will not be appropriate for all films, yet this technology is uniquely suited to films such as AVATAR where the director's vision is to transport viewers into another world or dimension. It would have been great for THE WIZARD OF OZ or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, STAR WARS, and many other films, but absolutely inappropriate for CITIZEN CANE or THE GODFATHER, etc. Nevertheless, virtually all films, whether sci-fi, period drama, or any other, made in 2D, 3D, or IMAX, all will devolve to television, computer screens, tablets, and even smartphones in their final market iterations. This compatibility is vital, yet another opportunity also presents itself: OVERSAMPLING.

    Oversampling is the concept of acquiring more information than is immediately needed to satisfy present exhibition needs, while retaining upward quality mobility as the various display technologies advance toward higher resolution, greater bit depth, more color gamut, higher frame rates, and so on. The technology proposed here captures more than enough information to satisfy any realistically anticipated media transport systems of the foreseeable future.

    2001 is one of only a handful of films that have survived beyond 45 years and retained a strong value of extremely high viewing quality, because it was meticulously photographed on the 65mm negative, and designed for the largest possible screens. David Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is another example of a film that includes vast detail and expanse as part of the cinematic palette, a quality lost on most of today's filmmakers.

    Another important aspect of what I have been developing relates to production cost issues that have continued to worsen over time. Since the movie industry still retains and uses the arts and crafts of building sets on sound stages, or going on distant locations, the result is movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars, including the added expense of extensive visual effects. The problem here is that it is difficult or impossible to create the visions called for in "tent-pole" comic book extravaganzas, thus these require even more expensive visual effects, and many more cuts to create the desired sense of immersion. Computer graphics effects are only as good as the daily algorithms, resulting in quick obsolescence as the audience's expectations increase. Strangely, films I have contributed to such as SILENT RUNNING, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE, and BLADE RUNNER have not suffered from aging or obsolescent algorithms, since the effects were a combination of photorealistic miniatures and matte paintings. Today we have green screen digital compositing that has virtually no objectionable matte lines or artifacts, and digital compositing, which causes no image degradation with each layer's duplication. It is now possible to superimpose actors into virtually any environment, be it a set, location, or other dimension -- at quite low cost. What costs so much are the huge crews, long shooting schedules, and expensive location costs. And I believe that the use of CGI, which has inappropriately subsumed the use of analog miniatures, is resulting in higher costs and lower believability.

    Virtual Sets and Locations are an important part of the answer, as they are inexpensive to build, require less space, need a smaller crew, and allow for faster shooting. This is now possible, and this is an important part of what I intend to do next.

    I have developed and patented a "Zero Gravity Jib" that allows total camera freedom of movement throughout a defined stage space without tripods, dollies, grip equipment, shims, plywood, or tracks. The camera hangs weightlessly in the shooting envelope, and generates real-time metadata that informs a graphics engine that then produces a real-time set or location instantaneously. The stage space needed is relatively small yet can appear to be infinitely large. The cinematographer, actors and director see the action in the virtual environment in real-time. This enables real-time rehearsals in a virtual mock-up environment so that a complete "live action animatic" can be produced quickly. Stories, dialogue, characters, blocking, pre-lighting, and many other factors can be developed, debugged, modified, analyzed, and perfected early in the process. Metadata of all developments are then carried through the production pipeline seamlessly, resulting in an optimized "main unit" shoot that is truly informed and simplified. This will bring huge cost savings and efficiencies of production.

    Think about having all this at 120 fps in 3D. For certain films, such as those mentioned above, this could be a powerful game-changer in the same way that AVATAR changed the landscape and became the highest grossing film of all time. It is what the audience wants. It is what exhibitors desperately need. This is not for all films, or even most films. For example there is a strong body of experience and talented people who will continue to make great crime movies, chase movies, love stories, musicals, etc. Although the costs of making those films will remain relatively stable, only somewhat reduced by the advent of inexpensive digital cameras, fewer lights, digital post production, etc. The balance of script, cast, director, crew, etc., will remain largely unchanged due to the nature of shooting on sets or locations.

    Nevertheless, sci-fi/fantasy, effects-driven movies account for over 75% of worldwide grosses, but so far have remained the most expensive to produce. Even a 25% overall reduction in cost could mean many millions in savings.

    George Lucas, one of our greatest writer-director-producers and a pioneer in the field of sci-fi/fantasy as well as advanced technology for film production, has concluded that today's marketplace for a television version of STAR WARS must be produced at 1/10th the cost of normal feature versions of the same material. He is experimenting with virtual sets and locations towards this end and doing so with great success.

    Nevertheless, serious problems remain with theatrical and television distribution that disenfranchises creatives. It is now time to reexamine old business models and consider the advantages of digital distribution direct to consumers.

    More revenues are currently generated each year by the computer game industry than the entire movie industry. Games are a first-person experience. A powerful accolade for a successful and exciting super hero movie is that it is a "great ride". Rides are first-person experiences, too. And "a new ride" is where the audience wants to go. That is where I have been focusing my energy, and how I now intend to make films.

    AVATAR was the most technically complex movie production of all time and explored radical new technologies that put into question: What is a script? What is an actor? Where is the location? Where is it in space-time? What is an illusion? Is everything an illusion? Why have audiences been drawn to this other reality? How did this geeky film "Avatar" become the biggest grossing film of all time? How did one film earn more in one year than almost every other film that year combined?

    I intend to make films that go into this new territory, at substantially less cost, less risk, and with higher rewards. It is possible to steer the motion picture theater-going experience in a new direction that not only brings back the showmanship of the giant screen epics of the past, but also surpasses them, while making the content compatible with virtually every known or anticipated emerging medium.

    I recently participated in the Giant Screen Cinema Association's meeting, where I saw the most powerful all-digital 3D giant screen projection ever seen, using off-the-shelf digital projectors. This was extremely encouraging to me, and proved beyond any question that we can now make the theater-going experience even more powerful with higher frame rates, while remaining completely compatible with all subsequent forms of viewing, and we can do it now.

    I believe that it is time to reconsider the spectacle and showmanship of the giant screen and reverse the small multiplex screen concept toward fewer yet larger and more spectacular theaters. This would be in sync with the Hollywood blockbuster direction, finally delivering all that production value to audiences, and keeping the exhibition business healthy and profitable.

    Many thanks to Christie Digital, Barco, Vision Research, Stewart Filmscreen, the Visual Effects Society, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and many others who share my goals and who are contributing to this effort to reinvigorate the movie-going experience.

    Now that I have finally recovered from the trauma of having to depart Hollywood, I am back hard at work toward my personal goal of directing again, and trying to explore the future potential of a new kind of intelligent science fiction movie that is epic in scale, and that transports audiences INTO the movie, and into a cinema experience that goes beyond the technical limitations of today, paving the way for a renewed audience enthusiasm to "go out to the movies" as an experience they can't get any other way.

    Douglas Trumbull
    January, 2012

     
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