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James Cameron champions faster film projection rates

March 31, 2011 | 11:21 am

Cameron James Cameron has long been at the forefront of emerging cinematic technology -- first with digital projection, then 3-D and later the performance-capture technique featured in "Avatar."

Now, the director has a new issue he's pushing on the film industry: faster frame rates.

Faster what? As luck (or conference planning) would have it, Cameron explained the term to a roomful of movie exhibitors at CinemaCon on Thursday morning. In short, frame rates are the frequency at which images -- or frames -- are projected. Currently, the industry standard for projecting movies is 24 frames per second (fps). (Cameron reminded the auditorium that that standard is long outdated, having been established in 1927 when "The Jazz Singer" was released.) He wants to up that rate to 48, or even 60, frames per second.

"This is the low hanging fruit of us improving our showmanship," he said.

To demonstrate the difference a higher frame rate can make in the quality of picture, the filmmaker presented footage shot and projected in all three frame rates -- 24, 48 and 60 -- back to back. True to character, Cameron went to great lengths to create the presentation, saying that over the last five weeks he built a set, hired actors and rented costumes to create a handful of scenes set in medieval times that he could show the audience.

He used a number of cinematic techniques in the footage to illuminate what he called the gravity of the gap between, say, 24 and 48 frames. One scene set at a dinner table included a number of panning shots, so the crowd could see how a 24 fps shot caused the image to "strobe" -- which is when an image looks blurry, almost as if it is appearing in slow motion, seeming out of sync.

While even the filmmaker admitted that he was only able to notice a slight difference between a 48 fps and 60 fps, the audience audibly reacted to the increase in quality between 24 fps and 48 fps. The footage shown at 48 fps was far clearer and also had a much more realistic tone to it. That might be an issue for some filmmakers, Cameron acknowledged.

"Some directors like a stylized approach to action," he said, as a sword-fighting scene played on screen behind him. "This almost feels like two stunt guys mock fighting."

The filmmaker said that when he begins shooting the "Avatar" sequel in about 18 months, he will be shooting at a higher frame rate, though he has yet to decide if that will be 48 fps or 60 fps. He said George Lucas was "gung-ho" to make the conversion, and also called Peter Jackson one of his allies.  Jackson, he said, had at one point been heavily weighing shooting "The Hobbit" at 48 fps.

Most movie projectors already have the capability to project in higher frame rates, Cameron said, and all that would be required to make the switch is a "minor software upgrade." He believes it's an issue the industry needs to be seriously weighing, especially because of the advanced technology already being used on 3-D televisions.

"They've smoked us," he said, referring to sports broadcasted in higher resolution at faster frame rates. "We're trying to say that going to the movies is a special experience and better than what you have in the home -- except the motion sucks."

-- Amy Kaufman in Las Vegas

Twitter.com/AmyKinLA

Photo: James Cameron speaks at CinemaCon. Credit: Associated Press/Chris Pizzello.

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