Cast your mind back to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film franchise – what sticks in the mind? Those with good memories may recall getting the distinct feeling that one book was stretched rather thin over the course of three cinematic instalments. But that’s not what grabbed the headlines (nor was it pre-Poldark Aiden Turner). Stealing the limelight was the film’s use of high frame rate (HFR).
Making ripples in the film world was Jackson’s pioneering use of using a frame rate of 48 frames per second, making it the first feature film with a wide release to do so. The problem being that viewers had long since grown accustomed to the glossy 24fps industry standard, which fits in with a term called ‘persistence of vision’. Essentially, this refers to the optical illusion whereby multiple discrete images appear to blend into a single image in the human mind, enabling the viewer to interpret the still images on screen as moving pictures.
After attending industry screenings of each of The Hobbit films, CIE saw the issue with 48fps first-hand: it was all just too real. Gone was that cinematic, suspension of disbelief movie-feel, and instead was – for all its budget – a harsher-looking world that drew unfavourable comparisons to that of looking like a soap-opera or in CGI-laden scenes, like a computer game (the barrel scene, anyone?)
One of the things that people enjoy so much about the film world is escapism, and social realism films aside, when people pay for a Hollywood movie, they want to forget the ordinary, the everyday, and be transported into another world for two hours.
Using 48fps, although admirable in its push to give the industry something more, ironically The Hobbit ended up taking something away from that escapist experience. Taking into account the popularity of 4K and HDR, bizarrely the images were just too sharp, everything was too in focus – leaving CIE’s confused eyes roaming over the screen taking in everything, but at the same time, too much. When everything on screen is presented in sharp focus, with no motion blur, no depth of field – it is hard to stay immersed in the world presented. Viewers crave that ‘untouchable’ and otherworldly feel that allows them to truly become immersed and invested in the world on screen.
So quite understandably, the film industry braced themselves when hearing that esteemed director, Ang Lee (Life Of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) was releasing his latest epic, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at 120 frames per second per eye – more than twice the previous record set by Jackson and five times more than the industry standard. If audiences sneered at 48fps, how will they cope with 120?
In a recent interview, Lee said that “at 120 frames per second, your eyes get greedy,” adding that the production team had decided to make the film in 120fps because HFR removes many of the limitations associated with 24fps 3D.
The film won’t arrive in theatres until January 2017, but an early screening at NAB earlier on this year garnered mostly favourable reviews, with viewers praising the use of HFR, commenting on how it was affective in contributing to the storytelling, rather than distracting.
The Verge even went as far to say that scenes depicting an Iraq war battle and a football game halftime show were like “looking through an impossibly-clean window,” rather than watching a screen, with the 3D “producing no eye strain whatsoever. Given the lack of blur, it was possible to discern normally imperceptible details that simply wouldn’t be visible in other movies”.
However, the writer did note that the “soap opera effect was still there,” and that the footage “seemed like it could have been pulled from some fantastic and futuristic camcorder”.
The Hollywood Reporter also noted that although “a few viewers complained that the results looked too much like video,” most of the reactions to the footage were “overwhelmingly positive”.
Naturally, when preparing for the film’s upcoming west-coast debut, the director needed to use the best cinema-projection technology available in order to present the 4K, 3D presentation at 120 frames per second per eye.
The event will take place at ArcLight Cinemas’ Cinerama Dome in Hollywood on November 10, which was recently upgraded with a dual-head, Christie 6P laser projection setup. In fact, Cinerama Dome is one of only a half-dozen that can project the film in 3D at a 4K resolution and at 120fps per eye, courtesy of a Christie Mirage system.
Not only is it still projecting more than double the light of an average 3D projection system, it has added the Mirage lens-gear and the Christie TruLife electronics platform to deliver 120fps per eye at the colour saturation and detail of 4K resolution. That platform has an industry-leading video-processing pipeline capable of processing up to 1.2 Gigapixels per second of movie data, enabling guests to view the finest details of the film, no matter how fast the action on screen.
The Christie Mirage 4KLH projector head – the laser version used at the aforementioned IBC screening – combines Mirage’s video processing bandwidth with what is reported to be the world’s brightest laser system, the Christie Freedom laser illumination system.
The projector has a potential of up to 60,000 lumens per head, potentially up to 120,000 lumens when used in a dual 6P configuration (six primary colour system). In the RAI Auditorium at IBC, the configuration was a dual stacked Mirage 4KLH configuration; the 28ft-lambert spec on the 17m wide x 6.69m high Harkness Matt Plus screen required 72,000 lumens and the laser modules were supplied accordingly.
The films’ technical supervisor, Ben Gervais admits, “we never necessarily intended to see this film that way because none of us had ever seen (120fps, 4K) and finally one week before shooting we managed to get a set of Mirage projectors from Christie and all of us were awestruck. We hadn’t seen anything like it before.”
The movie’s editor, Tim Squyres, was equally as enthusiastic: “I had to cut at the highest resolution I could which was 60fps. We were on the edge of what the system could do. Then Christie came in with the Mirages; they brought the Christie projectors into our editing room. We had the best screening room on the planet. Ideally we wanted to see it as near as possible to how it was shot.”
Being able to see what they were shooting daily in 120fps 4K had an impact on the shoot, as often costumes and make-up can seem too ‘costumey’ – for want of a better word, and make up too noticeable and clownish.
“We could see everything in that burning sunlight,” Lee admitted. “We saw we couldn’t use make-up.”
However, this does not seem to have detracted from the film-watching experience, as noted industry expert in creating enticing immersive experiences, Martin Howe, CEO of TEQ4 Limited, also commented on the clips shown at IBC: “The thing is, there are very few places to see 120fps 3D 4K. Simply because presently, there is only one projector that can do that. And that’s Christie’s Mirage 4KLH, 4K 120Hz 3DLP 3D RGB laser projector head. Yes, that’s a long product name, but it’s a whole shebang product; all the options ticked. Truly, Cinerama Dome patrons are in for a spectacular experience.”
The audience at the preview on Thursday may well feel as if they have earned 1hr, 50mins of escapism after the US election vote is unveiled, so it will be up to them give 120fps the thumbs up or down. However one person who is convinced of its contribution to the storytelling experience, is Lee.
“I would go so far as to say this is a moment in cinematic history,” he asserts. “I pick it up and take a leap of faith. I want to stress that the picture is captured, so every format (from 24fps to 120 fps) is improved in my opinion.”