VFX Trailblazer Douglas Trumbull Describes His Radical 3-D Experiment to Save Movies

Between the rise of digital media and the shortcuts many theaters have taken to alleviate waning profits – forgoing film rigs for digital projectors, replacing projectionists with button-pushers, lowering projection-bulb levels to cut replacement costs – many filmmakers are concerned about the state of their industry. Visual effects veteran and filmmaker Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters, The Tree of Life), for one, is doing something about it: He hopes to bring back the spectacle of the theater-going experience – and revitalize the industry in the process -- with a project he’s shooting at 120 frames per second, in 3-D, to be projected at seven times the luminosity often seen in theaters today.

Trumbull rocked the visual effects community with his big ideas for change while accepting the Georges Méliès Award at the annual Visual Effects Society Awards last night in Beverly Hills. Named after the cinema pioneer whose groundbreaking work in motion-picture art was celebrated in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated Hugo (which, incidentally, took home top honors for Supporting Visual Effects), the Méliès Award “honors a special individual who has pioneered a significant and lasting contribution to the art and science of the visual effects industry.”

Trumbull, who collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ridley Scott on Blade Runner, and most recently contributed mesmerizing effects to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, pointed to his work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as the kind of moviegoing experience he hopes to recreate with his 120 FPS, 3-D project. The key, however, and the element that makes many a filmmaker cringe when their product is released into the world, is the substandard light level at which many theaters project 3-D films, which Trumbull argues diminishes the power of a movie and the often amazing visual effects work that created it. While the industry standard recommended luminosity for a projected film is 16 foot-lamberts for 2-D projection, many theaters wind up projecting 3-D at much dimmer levels, as low as four foot-lamberts, and Trumbull suggests this has led to diminishing appeal for moviegoers.

Trumbull has nearly twice the ideal standard -- 30 foot-lamberts -- in mind for his new project. Add in the 120 fps frame rate Trumbull is working with and that's one helluva recipe for mind-blowing visual presentation; standard films use a frame rate of 24 frames per second, but a few filmmakers have recently begun exploring filming at a higher than standard rate for increased picture clarity and smoothness, especially with 3-D. Peter Jackson is currently filming The Hobbit at 48 fps; James Cameron was considering either 48 fps or 60 fps for his Avatar sequels, explaining the choice thusly: "The 3D shows you a window into reality; the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window. In fact, it is just reality." So just imagine Trumbull's movie projected in 3-D, brighter and more detailed at 30 foot-lamberts and 120 frames per second. If Cameron and Jackson think 48 fps and 60 fps will bring us this much closer to a perception of true reality at the movie theater, what will the Trumbull experience do to the way we see movies?

From Trumbull’s VES Awards speech:

“I am horrified when I go to a movie theater and I see any of our movies projected on four foot-lamberts or less. This is bad. The mission that I’ve been on ever since I’ve had the really great pleasure and responsibility to work with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 was that that movie was shot and projected in Cinerama, on giant 90-foot-wide screens -- which are unheard of today except in a few IMAX theaters -- and it was an experience that went beyond normal cinematic conventions. It took you on an adventure to outer space, and it was a first-person experience, not necessarily a third-person experience. It didn’t have much in the way of drama, conflict, suspense, or action in the normal sense, but Kubrick wanted to get out of the way and let you go on this trip in outer space, and was enabled by this amazing giant screen movie process… and a lot of special effects. So I’m looking forward to a time that I think is achievable in the very near future with this mission that I’m personally on right now. I feel that I have to direct a film the way I want to see a film be made and to be seen. I’m experimenting right now, amazingly, at 120 frames a second in 3-D on giant screens, 30 foot-lamberts after polarization. And I have to tell you that the illusion is like a window unto reality.

So it’s not just like going to a movie, it’s like going to a live Broadway show. It’s like Cirque du Soleil, a spectacle. It has potential to unleash the power of all of the work that you all do, to deliver to the audience incredible… if you’re going to spend $100, $150, $250 million on a movie that’s being throttled through a very narrow bandwidth of a 4:2:2 digital cinema package to go to a theater to get projected in four foot-lamberts, I think it’s unacceptable. So my job is to try to fix that for you. I don’t find anybody else working on it, strangely enough; Michael Bay talks about his frustrations with the brightness of his movies, as do other movie directors. I’m hoping I can make some progress and I’m hoping I can make a movie that actually demonstrates how this all works.”

Meanwhile, Trumbull also has designs on improving the industry for the artists themselves -- not the celebrity actors who already earn big bucks and hog the spotlight, or even the directors themselves, but the below-the-line talent, the technical artists who create movie magic by building the worlds that actors play in. “We are the most important players in the whole movie industry.,” Trumbull told the hundreds of Visual Effects Society members in attendance. “You guys do all the heavy lifting.”

The biggest problem for technical artists, he said, is that they’re not compensated well enough for their contributions, especially since their CG work and effects arguably make possible the tentpoles and billion-dollar franchises that keep the studio system afloat.

“We don’t get to participate in the profits, and this is a very big problem,” he declared. “I was very lucky in the early days when I was working with Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters; I was able at that moment in history to negotiate a piece of the net profits on Close Encounters. I’m looking forward to a time in the hopeful near future where you will all receive residual checks for the work you do.”

And Trumbull is willing to put his money where his mouth is; uniting both of his big ideas, he promised profit share for any VFX artists who come work on his movie.

“If we want to bring people back into theaters and show them all the work that you did," he said, "we’ve got to make the screens bigger, we’ve got to make theaters more spectacular, we’ve got to have showmanship in theaters like they did in the old days. We’ve got to bring people back in theaters because what you can get out of a movie theater is so different, so better, and so spectacular that you couldn’t possibly get it on your iPad.”

Impressed as the VES Awards crowd seemed with Trumbull's potential game-changer and his rousing cry for artist recognition, at least one effects professional I spoke with seemed skeptical of his plan. It'd be too risky and, he thought, too costly, to jump in with the visionary, profit-sharing or no. That said, Trumbull said he's determined to see his 120 fps/3-D experiment come to life to show the world his vision for film's potential. "Even if I can only show it in one movie theater, I will be happy to do that."

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  • Ovenball says:

    Most theatres aren't lowering the bulb levels to save electricity, they are using lower watt lamps because they have longer warranty hours. Also, many digital projectors will have a seriously hard time reaching 16 foot lamberts. I don't think you're going to be able to get to 30 in many theatres even running the highest watt lamp possible.

    • Jen Yamato says:

      Trumbull seems to acknowledge that the 30 foot lamberts bar is going to be difficult to achieve in widespread exhibition; he also wants to show it on giant screens larger than most theaters have. So this will likely be a very exclusive attraction, wherever it ends up.

  • Max Renn says:

    With all due respect to Doug Trumball, what makes this former cinemagoer cringe at the theater is the substandard storytelling on offer. Visual style and effects mean nothing to mean without a good story and script. THAT is what's lacking in Hollywood product lately.

  • Max Renn says:

    * With all due respect to Mr Trumbull, what makes this former cinemagoer cringe at the theater is the substandard storytelling on offer. Visual style and effects mean nothing without a good story and script. THAT is what's lacking in Hollywood product lately.

  • Bruce Jacobs says:

    Watch Doug in the Great Frame Rate Debate:

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