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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 (Cameron reminded the auditorium that that standard is long outdated, having been established in 1927 when "The Jazz Singer" was released.)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


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

Comments () | Archives (15)

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sounds great, now how about better stories?

Yes, we have movies running at 60 fps. They're called TV soap-operas. It's not realism we want, it's beauty.

Everything old is new again. Google "Doug Trumbull Showscan". Among other things, he "biometrically wired up" test audiences to help determine the optimum frame rate. He settled on 60 fps. There were a few Showscan theaters where the general public could see 60 fps featurettes. The cost of new projectors spooling 2.5 times as much film stock through the projector was simply too high to make this viable at the time (1980s).

JC is obsessed with the "reality experience" of seeing a movie. Only in a time when the content of the movies is this bad do we seek to make "technological improvements."

"The King of the World" is apparently unaware that the system he's proposing has existed for over a decade, for film. Called Super Dimension 70, it uses 5 perf 65mm film photographed at 48 fps and looks terrific. Chris Nolan considered it for INCEPTION and passed on it because it looked more realistic than what he was going for. Plus, its developer, Robert Weisgerber, has had enough experience in the business to develop special projection equipment that can easily be fit into any medium sized or larger projection booth. He has also successfully converted his images to 35mm at 24 fps, all video formats, and even converted 35mm 24 fps images to 65mm 48 fps with quite amazing results. Unfortunately, at the moment there isn't a local facility set up to show his promo film, but perhaps his hypocritical highness could use some of Rupert's money to see it for himself. More information can be found at superdimension70.com.

Rick Mitchell
Film Editor/Film Historian

60 fps is bad in USA because it beats against 60Hz lights and causes bad flicker. Remember computer tube monitors in a room with flourescent lights? This issue might be less of an issue today, but it should be investigated with various types of room lighting

This man is working at his best. And that's what we all should do in our respective fields :)

Yep. Great idea.

Why not a simple four times 24fps?


Cameron is talking about an upgrade in frame rate using digital technology. This approach has a huge advantage because it requires no new hardware purchases for film makers or film displayers.

going to have to change the name of your column

Another issue with filming in 48 fps is that it is literally twice the amount of footage which is a problem for small productions with smaller budgets. You will need to use twice the amount of film, and in the case of 3D animation like Pixar you need to render out twice as many frames. For the big boys this might not be much of a problem, but for smaller studios or indie moviemakers the extra cost required to match the quality of large players will make the gap even larger.
Also we could possibly end up with the same issue that the jump to HD caused. Now that the picture quality is so high it's much easier for the audience to spot flaws and tiny details, which is making visual effects much harder to pull off successfully these days. We might see the same thing happen to vfx again, as well as feature animation and maybe even acting!

I'm all for not being grounded in the technical limitations of the past, but it's not like this comes without any tradeoff.

Glad to see someone remembers history and Doug Trumbull's high frame rate Showscan process. Doug was years and years ahead of his time. Rumor has it that Trumbull is working on an updated approach that fits the current technologies now in use. We need something different that people can't see at home if we want the industry to survive.

I wonder whatever the improvement in resolution of higher frame rates, would it be at the expense of shorter film life with increased scratches an aberrations.

Hmm..... won't it look "cheap"

In 1999, film editor Dean Goodhill invented Maxivision 48; a Film projector that showed the movie at 48 frames per second (verus the normal 24 fps). A flip of the switch would allow the projector to show movies at 24 fps. Roger Ebert said: "The Maxivision 48 image looked Four times better than the movie normally seen at the cinema". Maxivision 48 went nowhere, because it used Film at a time when Cinema projectors were going Digital, and no longer using film to show most of the movies. It sounds as though James Cameron has heard Roger Ebert write about faster frames per second (since 1999) and has come up with a Digital reply to Maxivision 48's use of film. With HDTV and Blu-ray, the cinema needs something (besides IMAX, IWERKS, and 3D) to get people to see movies at the theater.


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