Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Movies Will Change Forever - This Year!

Last year, I commented on an exciting report that James Cameron was planning on using a higher frame rate for his still-in-the-planning-stages sequel to Avatar.  Well, while Mr. Cameron has been busy with deep sea diving, Peter Jackson has beaten him to the punch by shooting this December's Hobbit movies at 48 frames per second.

Why will this matter to you?  When more visual information is put in front of your eyes, the brain is more convinced that what it's seeing is real, is present in the room with you.  After all, life has no frame rate at all; the closer movies can get to "faster-then-the-eye" frame rates, the more movies will look like life.  This, in most people's opinions, is more effective than stereoscopic "3-D" movies.  The effect is that there is no screen with images being projected onto it; it appears as though you're watching fully-dimensional objects behind a proscenium.

Many filmmakers have been pushing for higher frame rates for years; decades, even.  But the goal was a financial burden that no studio was ever willing to carry.  It would have meant not only doubling (or even tripling) the amount of money spent on film stock while shooting, but also doing the same for every single print of the movie sent to the thousands of theaters it would be exhibited in.  Also consider the double or triple weight of the physical film, effectively doubling or tripling the shipping costs.  And, of course, it would have meant that movie theaters themselves would have been responsible for buying new projectors that could handle higher projection speeds.  Increasing the frame rate would mean a complete systemic overhaul, and an expensive one at that.

So why is it finally happening?  Once again, it's digital to the rescue!

The Hobbit films are being shot digitally.  And while it's a bit of a burden to handle so much data (reportedly up to 12 terabytes are being shot for The Hobbit every day, with 265 shooting days scheduled; for those of you who don't understand computers very well, that's what's known as a "shit ton" of data), the cost of shooting, storing and distributing the movie digitally keeps the total cost down to manageable levels.  And since theaters have by and large converted to digital projectors, it's only a minor software and hardware-component upgrade for theaters to exhibit at the higher frame rate.

I'm conflicted about the inevitable dominance of digital cinema.  Don't get me wrong, I love the digital revolution; it's done more for our society than any individual person can account for.  But digital imagery looks different from film; many people don't notice or care, but that doesn't mean it's not the case.  I will miss film.

At the same time, there are many aspects of digital cinema worth championing.  The actualization of increased frame rates is one of them.  In an age when movie theaters are desperate to distinguish themselves from the increasing quality of the home video experience, movies with increased frame rates are, in this viewer's opinion, going to be a far superior value-add to cinematic history than stereoscopy.

This December, with the release of the first Hobbit movie, a new standard will be set, and movies will be changed forever.

(Note: Some initial reactions to advanced footage of The Hobbit from CinemaCon are very negative.  Click here for more.)

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