Film Fund-amentals: The Future Was Yesterday

James Cameron is planning to set up mining operations on near-earth asteroids within the next two years. But before he becomes the first plutocrat on Mars, Cameron also wants to move the standard running speed of film from 24 frames per second to 48 fps. In his spare time, Cameron also enjoys the occasional cruise at the bottom of the ocean, a reminder that he is just an average guy who enjoys a little fishing.

What can one say about asteroid mining except that the technology is still running a little behind on that idea? Besides, Bruce Willis may not be available. However, the issue about film’s running speed is both curious and controversial. A lot of theater owners are protesting the idea because of the cost involved in making the change. But to be honest, I thought that the change to digital sort of makes the whole debate pointless.

The traditional running speed of 24 fps was basically coincidental in the first place. It just happened to have been the speed that most closely matched the audio tape speed of 7-1/2 inches per second. Obviously this became a useful match-up for sound movies. Before that, the running speed was determined by how fast the cameraman could crank the camera.

Over thirty years ago, Douglas Trumbull helped to invent Showscan, which moved the running speed up to 72 fps (and used a 65mm film gauge). This went over like a lead balloon with theater owners. Though the image produced by this faster system was sharper and more “realistic,” most theaters were not interested in the cost of technical adaptation.

Today, with the advent of digital 3D, the running speed issue is an open book. The IMAX 3D system runs nearly twice as fast as anything Cameron is talking about. In fact, the IMAX system is running right around the threshold that Trumbull was hoping to promote years earlier with Showscan. When a film runs at the standard speed (24 fps), the mind is still faintly aware of the flicker effect, and the average viewer retains a basic ability to register a difference between reality and the projected image. But once the projection speed reaches 72 fps, this difference dissolves and the mind can no longer make the distinction between the projected image and reality.

Back in the 1980s, Showscan demonstrated this effect by a presentation stunt. A display of the system would start with a person standing in front of the screen, explaining the concept. At some point during this presentation, the speaker would slip through a slit in the screen while his filmed image replaced him in front of the audience. Virtually no one could tell the difference between the real figure and the image.

If you saw Avatar in IMAX 3D, then you got a hefty taste of what I am talking about. In a conventional 2D screening, the alien characters of the movie were extremely impressive examples of high quality computer graphics. But you also noticed that they looked like computer graphics. In the IMAX 3D presentation, the residents of Pandora appear as life-like as the human cast (heck, they were more life-like than some of the cast). It really was a different experience. Of course at the running speed used by IMAX 3D, even Bugs Bunny is going to look real.

In 2009, a research group with the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers settled on a new range of six different running speeds for movies. The SMPTE recommendations are all very well researched (and 48 fps is one of the slower speeds). However, I’m not sure if it really matters, since the rapid technological change will take this issue in whatever direction is necessary (well, that and the cost of the technology).

This is due, in part, to the fact that the frames per second approach to speed measurement is becoming irrelevant. Likewise, some of the parameters are not actually being mapped out by members of the SMPTE. Part of this “speed” issue is being worked out by gamers (most of whom would find this discussion to be a hoot from an old fuss-budget). By their standards, all of the SMPTE recommended speeds are too dang slow. Gamers represent a different part of the digital universe, but they are part of the greater technological scene and they have a distinct influence on digital development. In fact, they have a bigger influence than the SMPTE.

Which suggests to me that the current projections of future development in the motion picture industry are largely based upon concepts that were primarily valid as of three days ago and became invalid just yesterday. 48 fps is already out of date. Theater owners are going to remain extremely unhappy about everything yet to come (starting last week). Within a few more years, none of this industry is going to much resemble anything we are currently debating. The only prediction concerning future development that I feel confident in making is that movie popcorn will remain grossly over-priced. The rest involves a wild range of variables, half of which practically sound like something from outer space.

Which may be why Cameron is now looking to jump-start the industrial revolution in the Alpha Centauri star system.

Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t this how the bad guys in Avatar started out?