CJ@IBC ‘Doug Trumbull Keynote – An Odessey of Cinematic Innovation’

By | September 20, 2014 4:54 am PDT

“There is no more appropriate visionar than Doug Trumbull to have as our keynote,” Julian Pinn says as he opens the IBC Big Screen Keynote session, listing Trumbull’s many cinematic achievements, ranging from being responsible for the groundbreaing visual effects for ‘2001 a Space Odessey’ and ‘Star Trek the Motion Picture’  to writing and directing ‘Silent Running’ and ‘Back to the Future: the Ride’.

Trumbull begins by thanking the team behind the scenes. (I know that this presentation was particularly bleading edge and that the last 48 hours had been frantic in getting it all together.) He talks about his life-long fascination with science-fiction and how he liked panoramic paintings, but got frustrated that they didn’t move – hence he got into film.

From the beginning it was always the largest of screns that held the greatest fascination for him. “I was disapointed when the giant screen experience went away and they got chopped into multiplexes. 70mm production largely ended,” and this was tough for him, Trumbull admitted. Anyone who has seen a 70mm presentation of ‘2001’ can probably understand his sentiment. He then switched his focus to World Fairs and Expos as a substitute for he big screen experience.

The Life and Times of a VFX Wizard

By way of introduction to his body of work and cinematic vision he then screens a short film and history which charts his journey from ‘2001’ all the way to his Magi process and Trumbull Studios, with cameos by the likes of Roger Ebert, Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner extolling his virtues. He then switches back to explaning how he arrived at the 70mm Showscan process in the late 70s/early80s, which he had wanted to use for his film ‘Brainstorm’, and how this in turn then led him to Magi in the present day.

“We lost track of something a long time ago when we transitioned from silent films with hand cranked cameras – we called them ‘the flicks’ for the flickering – to 24fps to accomodate the optical soundtracks. We have never insreased it since then,” Trumbul bemoans, even as color and other innovations were added. “Unfortunatelly people are now migrating away from the cinema experience, because the convenience of tablets outweighs the inconvenience of going out to the movies.”

He says that the Hollywood studios think they have the tiger by the tail… so they prefer a commonality of formats that works for cinema and television. But Trumbull sees this as a false economy if it dilutes the cinematic experience. Studios also don’t invest in R&D, prefering to leave that to manufacturers, he observes. This left him in a quandry.

Trumbull Studios

“My wife and I decided we have to do it ourselves, so we had to build the stage, bum every camera and light we could get our hands on and put together this UFOTOG film as cheaply as possibly,” Trumbull explains, bringing us into the present with his latest work. “Instead of the two cameras shooting in sync, they shoot sequentially, [and thus] they achieve 120fps for the same price as 60fps.” It is the same (Threality) rig that Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson use, with Cannon cameras. “This captures 100% of the action that goes on in ront of the camera and 120 frames of unique fields of action,”Trumbull explains.

“We use Mirage 4K Christie projector. At the time of making the film we didn’t know about the Christie 6P laser projector, so we interpolated the images to get to 120fs. Wasn’t without teething problems and bleading edge,” he concludes the technical overview of the technical setup of Trumbull Studios, built out from a barn in Massachusetts. He then looks at the big screen in the RAI Auditorium and says that ideally, “I’d like the screen to be twice as big as that.” (In past years the problem has been that it has often been too big to light up properly for 3D!)

“We can get back to spectacular immersive movies that you can’t get at television in the home,” Trumbull says as a solution for getting people back into cinemas. He says that the shot film they shot “won’t be as spectacular as a $200 million budget film, but I kew it wouldn’t have the same impact if we shot flowers and the a pretty model’s face,” hesays as a preface to screening the UFOTOG short film.

He then aknowledges that there were issues in terms of the 120fps DCP and that they couldn’t show the whole 10-12 minute film in one go bcause pf glitches.
“We’re at the bleeding edge, so we will have to break the film into three segments. Not 100% of the film but 95%,” he explains.

UFOTOG

We then see UFOTOG – a fictional film designed to showcase the Magi process. It is about a UFO-obsessive trying to film the illusive flying saucers, while at the same time being pusued by shadowy government agents – think ‘Close Enounters of the Third Kind’ (for which he did the VFX work for the original), crossed with ‘X-Files’ and an ending that could be from ‘2001’. It was shot against green-screen in Trumbull Studios, but you wouldn’t guess that the trailer truck wasn’t out  in the deser under a star littered sky.

I must confess to being blown away by the film. Though I was not taken with the HFR in The Hobbit, this was something completely different. The 120fps combned with the brightness of the Christie 6P laser created a hyper-realism that transcended the ‘soap opera’ look of higher frame rates. The effects were spectacular and the story itself worked, despite being mostly a man alone with his cameras in a trailer.

This sentiment of being hugely impressed seems to have been shared by everyone present that I talked to or that tweeted about the event.

Trumbull then talks about the thinking that went into the vision of the film and how he sees HFR 3D and assciated enhancements of the Magi process chaging the cinematic grammar, saying for example that “the closeup is the most imortant part of the film.” This is why he filmed a large portion of the film with the protgonist talking directly to the camer and audience, thus shattering the ‘fourth wall’ illusion. “This movie is not entirely convenstional because it depends on stereo depth,” he says. This is particularly apparent in the first scene, which looks like it is taking place behind the screen in the theatre were we are.

Trumbull then talks about being astounded to discover that the new digital cinema projectors were capable of projecting up to 144 frames per second. “I didn’t have to invent a new camera, process or projectors,” Trumbull ntes, “so now I said we have most things in place. This is biggest difference between now and when I was doing ShowScan. The last hurdle was brightness and I applaude Christie.”

Dwelling deeper on the subject of the cinematic language he related an anecdote from when he was working on ‘2001’: “Master shots, two-shots, over the shoulder – Kubrick said, ‘why do we have to do this’ ?” This is part of what he has been trying to get away from and that the biggest screen liberates him to do he affirmed.

Big Screen Thinking

“Make a movie that doesn’t make sense for television, do something that has to be seen on big screen. Don’t make something to milk it downstream,” he extolls the industry in a sentiment that was widely re-tweeted, obviously striking a chord. “I’m personally dedicated to the vision of delivering more. And that’s a great social responsibility. We have a responsibility to uplift out planet, because our planet is in bad shape,” Trumbull says (a sentiment that was put across strongly already in ‘Silent Running’, his first film as writer/director). “Having Stanley Kubrick as my mentor was profoundly inspiring,” he notes, stressing the importance of this role in passing on learnings to the next generation of film makers.

“We can increase resolution even further in thefuture,” Trumbull observes during the Q&A, “and it will happen, but my mission was to take what is already there and look at what it is, but not carry the bagage of the old frame rate.”

He also notes that when it comes to HFR “In post producton there is all sorts of benefits. With high frame rates there is less bluring and makes it easier for rotoscoping.” He says that “the problem with The Hobbit was 48fps with 120 degree shutter angle, meaning that in some ways it was inferior to 24fps.” It was also why Trumbull used 180 degree shutter angle for UFOTOG.

While Trumbull is admittedly passionate about the Magi process, he is not proscribing it as a panacea for all films (unlike James Cameron, who advocates 3D for comadies and dramas as much as for action and VFX spectaculars). “What we are talking about here is a niche, something different, another art form,” he says, paradoxically sounding quite humble about his evolution of the cinema language. “We are not trying to threaten traditional movies. Peter Jackson  is shooting 48fps, but each frame is shown twice, so you [still] get interleaving. So it is not what I call perfect temporal continuity,” Trumbull confirms. “That brings up the question of the soap opera look. Is there a safetly zone where we can get to beyond the uncanny valley in terms of frame rate?” [From what I saw it seems to have achieved it at 120fps.]

Discussing problems that bedevil the current crop of 3D films, Trumbull notes that the “Hollywood film industry has become so accustomed to 3-4 footlamberts, that now they notice the judder when 3D is bright. Brightness will bring the stroboscopic problems into focus. A nice thing what we have is a dynamically adjustable medium, those are your creative options now.” He thus suggests that a film can be in conventional 24fps for scenes of dialogue, but increase the frame rate when it comes to an action sequence.

Carolyn Giardian asks, “what’s the next step of this technology, talking to cinemas or directors.” Trumbull replies that it’s a “Complicated questions, but the answere is ‘yes’. Christie and Dolby are in direct relations wih the exhibition and studio community. The directors I talk to are very keen on this, Jim Cameron more than anybody else. He has not seen it yet. Jim Cameron wants 48fps or 60fps, but 120fps solves all your problems,” Trumbull suggests. “You can still extract 60fps. Micheal Bay is going to be able to make even worse Transformers films because there won’t be any blurring,” he jokes.

Dynamic range question: Higher dynamic range is a very important component of the equation. He then relates a discussion he had with a senior member of the Motion Picture (Oscar) Academy: “If we don’t do this, the movie theatrical experience might not exist 10 years from now,” was their stark and gloomy assessment. “There’s no silver bullet, it’s not one thing like Atmos or higher fps, it is a symphony of all these things together,” though is Trumbull’s vision. What about post-production and costs someone else asks. Trumbull replies “We’ve bene through it, it is a headache but I don’t think it is a huge problem.”

And with that the Keynote is over. Trumbull gets a well deserved long standing ovation – as much for an amazing career of having given cinema goers some of the most spectacular images ever projeted onto the big screen, as well as continuing to push that innovation forward even after half a century in the industry. Those of us priviledged to have seen this 120fps high brightness 3D with immersiva audio presentation of UFOTOG got to see something even more rare than a flying sucer; we saw a genuin glimpse of the future of big screen story telling.

Patrick von Sychowski
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Patrick von Sychowski

Patrick was a Senior Analyst at Screen Digest, went on to launch the digital cinema operations of Unique and Deluxe Europe, then digitised Bollywood at Adlabs/RMW, and now writes, consults and appears on panels about cinema all over the world.
Patrick von Sychowski
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