Several days back, I was reading director James Cameron's interview with Daily Variety about the many advantages of filming movies in 3-D, and how much he thinks creating cinema in three dimensions will end up being What Every Filmmaker Does. Then I came to this:
I'm hearing that there are already calls to increase the frame rate to at least 30 fps for digital 3-D because certain camera moves, especially pans, look jumpy in 3-D. I saw that in the Imax 3-D "Beowulf." You've been an advocate for both 3-D and higher frame rates. Have you seen the problem and do you have any thoughts on it?
For three-fourths of a century of 2-D cinema, we have grown accustomed to the strobing effect produced by the 24 frame per second display rate. When we see the same thing in 3-D, it stands out more, not because it is intrinsically worse, but because all other things have gotten better. Suddenly the image looks so real it's like you're standing there in the room with the characters, but when the camera pans, there is this strange motion artifact. It's like you never saw it before, when in fact it's been hiding in plain sight the whole time. Some people call it judder, others strobing. I call it annoying. It's also easily fixed, because the stereo renaissance is enabled by digital cinema, and digital cinema supplies the answer to the strobing problem.
The DLP chip in our current generation of digital projectors can currently run up to 144 frames per second, and they are still being improved. The maximum data rate currently supports stereo at 24 frames per second or 2-D at 48 frames per second. So right now, today, we could be shooting 2-D movies at 48 frames and running them at that speed. This alone would make 2-D movies look astonishingly clear and sharp, at very little extra cost, with equipment that's already installed or being installed.
Increasing the data-handling capacity of the projectors and servers is not a big deal, if there is demand. I've run tests on 48 frame per second stereo and it is stunning. The cameras can do it, the projectors can (with a small modification) do it. So why aren't we doing it, as an industry?
Because people have been asking the wrong question for years. They have been so focused on resolution, and counting pixels and lines, that they have forgotten about frame rate. Perceived resolution = pixels x replacement rate. A 2K image at 48 frames per second looks as sharp as a 4K image at 24 frames per second ... with one fundamental difference: the 4K/24 image will judder miserably during a panning shot, and the 2K/48 won't. Higher pixel counts only preserve motion artifacts like strobing with greater fidelity. They don't solve them at all.
If every single digital theater was perceived by the audience as being equivalent to Imax or Showscan in image quality, which is readily achievable with off-the-shelf technology now, running at higher frame rates, then isn't that the same kind of marketing hook as 3-D itself? Something you can't get at home. An aspect of the film that you can't pirate.
When I read that, the first thing into my mind was: Oh, hey. Fine for live-action, just crank up the camera speed, shoot at 48 fps, no problemo. But what the hell happens to animation?
Visions of Frank, Ollie and the other Nine Old Men animating Sleeping Beauty (and the rest of the Disney hand-drawn canon) at 48 frames per second of celluloid dancing in my fevered brain, I drove to DreamWorks and sat down with an experienced CG renderer. And I asked him the 48 fps question: How would rendering 48 frames per second instead of 24 impact his job? How would it affect equipment? Here's a truncated version of what he said:
Forty-eight frames? Right eye, left eye? Oh yeah, that would mean quite a bit more work for a renderer and the render farm. I'd estimate that the work load for a renderer would increase 50-60% ...
And certainly more work for an animator, yes?
So what happens if, one day in the not-far-off future, Mr. Cameron's dream of the 48 frame-per-second 3-D or 2-D movie becomes standard across the exhibition world? I'm thinking it could well happen, since the capacity is there. And if audiences like it, and big-name directors demand it, then viola. 48 fps is the norm.
Methinks it will create an interesting challenge for animation ... and animated visual effects.
* Actually, that isn't J. Cameron up top there. It's somebody else who sort of looks like J. Cameron. But I thought it was a funny visual.