CinemaCon: James Cameron Demos the Future of Cinema at 60 FPS
by Alex Billington
April 4, 2011
I've seen the future of digital cinema and it's 60FPS. If you don't yet know what FPS - frames per second - stands for and means, I'm sure within a few years it'll be an acronym everyone is familiar with. I attended a great presentation at CinemaCon late last week that was essentially the leader of the movie industry sharing with the leaders of the movie theater industry a brief glimpse at what the future of movies will be like. James Cameron presented a tech demo - he shot footage four weeks ago - to the industry to show the difference between 24FPS (the typical shooting framerate) and both 48 and 60FPS in 3D. One word: wow.
"It's about framerates, man." It's very hard to get into a discussion about framerates because, first of all, it's a very technical aspect of filmmaking - both from the production side and the cameras and so on, as well as a distribution side, in terms of projectors. But Cameron confirmed that in order for theaters to be able to use/show 48 or 60FPS, all they would need is a software upgrade to any existing "Generation 2" projectors - those manufacturer in 2010 and beyond. So most digital cinemas are already capable of running these framrates, it's just a matter of making them the norm. Cameron emphasized that the future of projection is not yet pushing the resolution above and beyond 4K, but rather improving framerates and light output first.
In fact, movies are behind in the framerate game. Not only are TVs already running at higher framerates than 24FPS, but the sports world is already broadcasting at 60FPS. And of course, PC gaming has already been pushing FPS above/beyond 60 easily, but that's not really a comparison that works here. Cameron also mentioned that Douglas Trumbull, the FX wizard who worked on Stanley Kubrick's films and Spielberg's early sci-fi films, created a method for shooting/using 60FPS back in the 1970's, but it wasn't logistically usable at the time. However, it was Cameron's message with this presentation that upgrading framerates wouldn't necessarily be a major cost to anyone - filmmakers or theater owners. Instead, it would be more of a technical challenge, but it's exactly what he is pushing for in terms of the future of cinema.
Most may think that they've already seen high FPS footage, but in the cinema world it's very rare, so rare that James Cameron himself was the one that had to show us what the differences look like. He shot a series of basic scenes with Titanic DP Russell Carpenter on a simple medieval set, using some of the most troublesome camera movements (pans and sweeps) that cause the dreaded "strobing" or flickering effect, which is especially evident in 3D. Most movies, in fact pretty much all movies, are shot and project at 24FPS at the moment. Cameron shot his scenes (one a feast at a dinner table, the other sword fight action scene) in 24, 48 and 60, and in 3D, and showed them back-to-back to give us a direct comparison between each one.
I wish I could show everyone Cameron's presentation in a theater myself, but since that's impossible, I'll have to do my best to describe the experience. Most have probably had the "realistic" video experience at some point, maybe even on their home 120Hz TVs, but the jump from 24 to 48 was astounding. However, it was 60FPS that really made the scenes feel completely and utterly realistic (think almost Public Enemies or Collateral, in a way). All the action, not only from the actors in the scene, but the camera movements themselves, were unbelievably smooth. There was no flickering and it was easy to remain focused on all of the important elements of the screen, even as they moved in and out of focus. The jump up felt like skipping from cinema to watching a realistic medieval sword fight like it was documented by the Discover Channel.
As Cameron explained at one point, if watching 3D in cinemas is like looking through a window - making the jump to 60FPS was removing that window. And that was true and in cinema, not many have been able to see that yet. Just wait until you actually get that opportunity - your jaw will drop as well.
Now this obviously presents some problems and of course my first reaction is that I don't like seeing "realistic" looking cinema, despite immediately wanting to see an entire movie shot/projected in 60FPS (just because it would look so smooth, unlike anything I've ever seen before). I would much rather have movies look like movies, with a stylistic edge, but as Cameron reiterated, that kind of style comes from the angle of the shutter and lighting in the scene, not necessarily the framerate. If Cameron is the one telling theater owners and filmmakers that pushing resolution beyond 4K is not our concern anymore, but getting higher framerates is, then I completely believe that's the technology theaters need to focus on next.
Framerates is obviously one of those areas where the discussion never ends, and Cameron knows that, as he invited everyone there to ask question and discuss openly his presentation and the future of technical cinema. Yes, most of us are already getting high FPS shows on TV, but to be able to go into a movie theater and experience truly realistic lossless non-jittery action would be incredible. The difference was obvious and this presentation should and hopefully did win over many people - especially the movie theaters.
Cameron said there's a minimum of 18 months until he starts shooting Avatar 2, so we have a while to go until then, but I'm guessing he's going to try and push the limits of filmmaking technology again with that movie. I have a feeling he's going to shoot that in 60FPS, but as always anything could happen in the next 18 months. For those filmmakers or VFX industry folks who think this will bring up many other issues at higher framerates, Cameron even proved (with footage) that downgrading the footage from 60/48 to 24 for older projectors would still look fine without motion blur and that even shooting in slow-motion, where framerates also go up/down, would still work well at any of these higher projected framerates. It's a massive technical discussion, but I was convinced by the end. When can we see 60FPS and where? Because I'll already start paying a bit more to make that happen, if only it were possible.
Does anyone have any direct technical experience with framerates in cinema (not just TV and video games)? Has anyone else been able to see a 48/60FPS big screen cinema demo? I wouldd love to hear your thoughts and open up the discussion on this, because as James Cameron said, a discussion about the future of cinema is definitely worth having. Do you think framerates will become the new tech focus for cinemas?