Catching The Hateful Eight in 70mm

I’m not one of those cinephiles who sees the digital transition as the end of cinema. Far from it. I respect the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of shooting digitally. And as a general rule (there are exceptions), I rather see a movie projected off a DCP than a 35mm print–and that includes classics that were filmed before most people knew what the word digital meant.

But Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the best argument I’ve yet seen for sticking with physical film. Shot in the large and super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 format (the first film shot that way in almost 50 years), it looks outstanding when projected in 70mm. Not only do you see fine details rarely visible on a big screen, but those details have a hue that adds considerable emotional impact.

It helps greatly that this ambitious western is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown–maybe even his best since Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a shame that The Hateful Eight came out while Star Wars: The Force Awakens still controls every first-run theater in the world. My wife and I saw it Sunday at Oakland’s Grand Lake theater, the only place in the East Bay screening it in 70mm. But they couldn’t screen it in their really big, downstairs, main theater.

The Grand Lake’s main, downstairs auditorium, where they’re not screening The Hateful Eight

Instead they showed it upstairs in the former balcony. The screen is reasonably large, but not huge. But at least it has a curtain–a real necessity for a roadshow presentation.

Of course The Hateful Eight isn’t a real roadshow. If it was, it would play on only one screen per major metropolitan area, at high prices and with reserved seats. People in rural areas or looking for a discount would have to wait months–sometimes even years–to see it.

Tarantino has done quite a bit to make the 70mm version of The Hateful Eight feel like a roadshow. It starts with an overture. There’s an intermission, and an entr’acte (intermission music) to bring you back into the story. The movie runs a little over three hours.

This is not the sort of movie that got the roadshow treatment in the 1950s and 60s. It lacks spectacular sets, masses of extras, and historical sweep. Yes, there’s some beautiful outdoor scenery, and Ultra Panavision 70 captures it magnificently. But most of the film is set in a single, darkly-lit, one-room building. It is, to a large degree, a chamber drama.

Yet even that one dim set works better thanks to the greater detail and width created by Ultra Panavision 70. The flickering light from the various fires and oil lamps bring on an urgency that wouldn’t have been there in digital or 35mm. The lens can encompass several actors, at different distances from the camera, with full detail on each face. When cinematographer Robert Richardson shows us a close-up–usually of Samuel L. Jackson–we feel like we could swim in his eyes. And when you consider that he’s both a cold-hearted killer and the closest The Hateful Eight has to a hero, that’s pretty scary.

Jackson played one of two bounty hunters trying to get their catches to town so they can collect, but now trapped by a blizzard in a store and stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere. Jackson’s catches are all dead–easier to ship them that way. But the other bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) is shipping living cargo–a notorious killer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (it’s so good to see her again, this time as a psychopath). Of course there are five other people trapped in that store, and pretty much everyone is trigger happy.

The film occasionally reminded me of my all-time favorite western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That film also had eight very different people thrown together in a difficult, pioneering situation. And as with Stagecoach, some of the people are still fighting the Civil War years after it was over.

But this is Tarantino, not Ford, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by telling you that the film eventually turns into a bloodbath. (Believe me, I’m holding back on some real spoilers, and there are plenty.) The over-the-top violence goes from shocking to gross to funny to disgusting to just barely skirting the edge of too much. Many people will consider it too much.

My biggest complaint: Part II contains some narration, spoken by Tarantino himself. His voice was flat and uninteresting. He should have hired a better narrator.

I’m giving The Hateful Eight an A, at least if you see it in 70mm. And yet I strongly suspect that it would look just as good in a 4K DCP. Let the 70mm print run three times a day for two weeks, and the DCP (which doesn’t wear out) will definitely look better.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film: The 2015 Edition

How many theatrical features are still shot on old-fashioned film? More than you might expect. According to my very casual survey, about 29 percent of this year’s films that could reasonably have been shot on film were shot on film. That’s actually more than the last time I did this survey, back in March.

When I first surveyed film vs. digital production late in 2012, 48 percent of the films that could reasonably have been shot on film were shot on film. A year later, in 2013, the ratio dropped to 40 percent. I forgot to do the survey in 2014, and I didn’t get to it until March. Many of the films I surveyed last spring actually came out in 2014, so I’ll consider it the 2014-15 edition. Maybe it was the difference between December and March, but the drop that time was huge–only 18 percent of the movies were shot on film. It bounced back up to 29 percent this year.

Shot digitally

Shot on film

% on film

2012

14

13

43%

2013

15

10

40%

2014/15

27

6

18%

2015

20

8

29%

How do I survey a selection of current films? I use the Internet Movie Database‘s Showtimes and Tickets feature, which lists all of the movies showing in my area. When I did the survey Sunday afternoon, 48 movies were listed.

But I didn’t include all of them. I skipped animated movies and documentaries, because I could not reasonably expect them to be shot on film. I would have disqualified mockumentaries for the same reason, except that there were no mockumentaries to disqualify.

In the past, I also disqualified 3D movies, since today’s Hollywood considers it impossible to shoot a 3D movie on film–a common practice in 1953. But these days, movies shot in 2D can be converted to 3D after the fact, so I decided to count 3D movies.

For what it’s worth, only two 3D movies turned up on the list, and one of them was shot on film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The other, shot digitally, is The Martian.

Since this is a survey of 2015 movies, I skipped anything from a previous year, such as The King and I.

To find out how a film was shot, I visited its Technical Specs page on IMDB. A few films didn’t give me enough information. I disqualified those, as well.

Three films were shot partially on film and partially digitally. One of these, Spectre, I counted as being shot on film; I had read elsewhere that it was shot almost entirely on film. I disqualified the other two, Steve Jobs and Suffragette, because I just couldn’t be sure.

And so the list of 48 films got whittled down to 28. The others were either too old, too unlikely to be shot on film, or didn’t give me enough information. And out of those 28, only 8 were shot on film.

I don’t have any strong feelings about how a motion picture should be shot–unless it’s shot in something special like Ultra Panavision 70. Shooting on 35mm film provides only a slight visual advantage over digital photography, and I can’t blame anyone for choosing the clearly more practical modern alternative. Digital cameras keep getting better, and I don’t think it will be long before digital photography will look better than film. When it comes to image quality in projection, digital surpassed 35mm years ago.

My favorite new film of this year, Tangerine, was shot on iPhones. Shooting it on film would probably not have been possible.

The Hateful Eight and the Return of Ultra Panavision 70

I really don’t know what to do about Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film, The Hateful Eight. On one hand, I’m a total geek over historic film formats, so I can’t help but be excited about the first film shot in Ultra Panavision 70 in nearly 50 years.

On the other hand, it’s a film by Quentin Tarantino. I loved Pulp Fiction, but lately he’s disappointed me. Although I moderately enjoyed his last two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, I couldn’t get really excited about them. besides, I found his B picture approach to very real crimes against humanity fundamentally offensive.

So I’ll forget about Tarantino, and tell you about Ultra Panavision 70–also known as MGM Camera 65.

Much of the information here, and most of the images, come from The American Widescreen Museum (although I’ve altered them a bit), a website that’s absolutely invaluable for historical film technology geeks like myself. In70mm is another excellent reference, with even more information but not as fun to read.

By the mid-1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer–then in the process of losing its status as the world’s greatest movie studio–decided they needed their own, spectacular wide-screen format. They wanted it to be big and wide, and compatible with all the other big and wide formats springing up at that time. So they contracted Panavision, then little more than a promising startup, to come up with something amazing–but not too different from everything else.

And there were a lot of widescreen formats in those days. It all started with Cinerama, which used three strips of standard 35mm film to create the most spectacular and immersive images of them all.

But Cinerama was impractical, and at this point had failed to leap from travelogues to Hollywood features. CinemaScope was far more practical, using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the image horizontally to half its width, and thus fitting a very wide image into a standard 35mm frame. A complimentary lens on the projector spread the image out again.

Todd-AO compromised between Cinerama’s magnificence and CinemaScope’s practicality by using 65mm film in the camera and 70mm film for projection (the additional 5mm were for sound).

These all had different aspect ratios. Cinerama’s was 2.59:1. CinemaScope started at 2.55:1, but had changed by 1957 to 2.35:1. Todd-AO was a relatively narrow 2.20:1. There were other formats, as well, but I need not discuss them here.

Panavision figured that to be compatible will all of these, the new format had to be wider than any of them. So the company cloned Todd-AO, and added a modestly anamorphic lens that widened the image by 25 percent. The new aspect ratio, 2.76:1, was the widest ever used in Hollywood.

The studio, proving how much it had lost its sense of showmanship, called the new process MGM Camera 65.

The first film shot in it was the largely-forgotten Raintree Country (1957). It was released only in CinemaScope-compatible, 2.35:1, 35mm prints.

But the second film was Ben-Hur (1959), one of the biggest spectacles of the era–and one of the best. MGM, knowing it had something special, gave Ben-Hur the big treatment. It first opened in anamorphic 70mm prints. Theaters had to acquire special lenses and figure out how to project that very wide image (or, more likely, crop it). Even when it was released in regular theaters, the CinemaScope-compatible 35mm prints were letterboxed to about 2.50:1.

But before Metro’s third Camera 65 film opened in theaters in 1962, the company sold the process back to Panavision. Thus, Mutiny on the Bounty became not the third film shot in Camera 65, but the first in Ultra Panavision 70. (This should not be confused with plain old Panavision 70–Panavision’s non-anamorphic Todd-AO clone–nor with Super Panavision 70, which is Panavision 70 with the word Super in front of it.)

Like Ben-Hur, Mutiny was originally released in anamorphic 70mm.

Meanwhile, the Cinerama company decided they wanted to drop their cumbersome technology without losing their huge, deeply-curved screens or the power of their brand name. So they turned to Ultra Panavision 70. When you project a single strip of film onto a deeply-curved screen, the edges stretch horizontally. To fix that problem, Cinerama made special 70mm prints from an Ultra Panavision negative, removing the anamorphic squeeze from the middle of the frame, and increasing it slowly towards the sides.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the first non-MGM film shot in Ultra Panavision 70, and the first released in this faux Cinerama. As a child, I saw it that way at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, and I think that started my fascination with big, immersive cinema. For a few years of pre-adolescence, Mad World was my all-time favorite movie. I don’t care for anymore.

Between Mad World and Hateful Eight, only five films were shot in Ultra Panavision 70. One of them, The Fall of the Roman Empire was projected anamorphically–like Ben-Hur and Bounty. The others–The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail, The Battle of the Bulge, and Kartoum, were released in Cinerama.

And now we’ve got The Hateful Eight. Let’s hope it’s one of the better ones.

Big, roadshow musical movies coming to the Bay Area

A particular kind of movie musical will soon get a lot of exposure in the Bay Area–the large-format roadshow musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. These were almost always close adaptations of popular Broadway stage musicals. They were often shot and projected in large, high-definition, film formats such as Todd-AO or Super Panavision 70. And they opened as what the industry called roadshows–playing in one large theater per major city, with expensive tickets, reserved seats, and an intermission.

In my opinion, not one of these films stands up against such great musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, The Band Wagon, and A Hard Day’s Night. But they have their pleasures. Besides, I have a fascination with the large-format roadshow movies of that period–even the bad ones.

The Stanford devotes the next five weeks to these musicals in their Rodgers and Hammerstein series. Every weekend through November 8, they will screen a large-format roadshow adaptation of an R&H stage musical. They start this weekend with the show that set the template for roadshow musicals: Oklahoma!. In fact, as the first film shot in Todd-AO, it set the template for all of the large-format roadshows–even ones like Ben-Hur where no one broke out into song.

The Stanford series will close four weeks later with the biggest commercial success of the genre, The Sound of Music.

The Stanford press release trumpets that the films will all be shown “in glorious 35mm!” That’s an odd brag since 35mm is a considerable step down from the way most of these films were shot and screened. I’m probably going to get people angry here, but a good DCP transfer can better simulate the glories of Todd-AO than can a 35mm print.

The other theaters will screen these movies digitally off of DCPs.

My Fair Lady, which was not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, will be screened in at least four Bay Area theaters this month:

  • The Alameda will screen it next week on October 13 and 14.
  • The Castro has it on Sunday, October 18, on a very strange double bill with Steve Martin’s The Jerk.
  • The Elmwood will also screen it on 18th, and again on the 19th.
  • Finally, the Cerrito will have a special, 10:00am screening on Saturday, October 24.

The Cerrito and Elmwood will also screen Oklahoma! in November. The Elwood on November 1 and 2. The Cerrito on Saturday, November 7, again at 10:00am.

But the version of Oklahoma! at
the Elmwood and the Cerrito will not be the same as the one now playing at the Stanford. Early Todd-AO was shot and projected at 30 frames per second, rather than the standard 24fps, making it impossible to screen in all but a few theaters. So the film was shot twice: in 30fps Todd-AO for the 70mm roadshow, and in plain old, 35mm, 24fps CinemaScope for the eventual wide release.

I’ve only seen the Oklahoma! movie on Laserdisc (I’ve also seen the live show), and it was transferred from the 35mm version. From what I’ve read, the performances are considerably different.

Since the Stanford will screen Oklahoma! in 35mm, it will be the CinemaScope version. But the Cerrito and Elmwood will screen DCPs from the recent digital restoration, made from the Todd-AO negative. Digital projection can handle 30fps just fine.

I’m looking forward to catching that one…and maybe My Fair Lady, as well.

Technicolor experiences at the Pacific Film Archive

Over the last few days, I’ve attended two separate three-strip Technicolor screenings at the Pacific Film Archive, each projected in a very different way. The first, Jean Renior’s The River, was screened pretty much as the original audiences saw it in 1951. The second, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann, was presented in a way only possible in the 21st century.

I liked both films very much. And I loved both forms of projection. I’ll talk about how the films looked and why, then tell you what I thought about the movies–neither of which I’d seen before last week.

Technicolor’s three-strip format dominated commercial color filmmaking from the mid-1930s through the early 1950s. A special camera recorded each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.

From The History and Science of Color Fi 1 From Filmmaker IQ

The prints made from these tree negatives were prints in a pre-photography sense of the word–as in a printing press. From each negative, Technicolor would make a special intermediate relief print that would be thick and thin instead of black and white. They would use these to stamp the color dyes onto the release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) had a beauty all their own, with gorgeous saturation and reds that really popped. The dyes used were extremely stable; even the oldest existing dye-transfer prints look gorgeous today.

Both films were released in 1951, near the end of the three-strip period, and arguably when the technology, and the artistic use of that technology, was at its zenith.

The PFA screened The River in an archival dye-transfer print made in 1952. And yes, the colors were amazing–beautiful in a way that you simply don’t find in today’s digital projection. Or for that matter, in yesterday’s conventionally-processed color film prints. On the other hand, focus was often unreliable and soft. I don’t know if that’s a problem with the printing, the print’s age, or a flaw in the film itself.

But the colors they had were always beautiful. Such dye-transfer prints will get rarer over the years, so you should never miss the chance to see one (unless you really hate the movie, of course).

The Tales of Hoffmann, on the other hand, has just gone through a full digital restoration. So it was projected digitally from a 4K DCP. The look was cleaner, brighter, and sharper than The River’s dye-transfer print. And while the gorgeous, highly-saturated colors certainly popped, they didn’t pop in the same way as dye-transfer print.

Film shrinks over time, and you can’t expect three separate reels to shrink in exactly the same way. So restoring three-strip Technicolor is an art in itself. You scan the original black-and-white negatives (assuming they survived) at a high resolution. Edge recognition software and human eyes resize the three images so that they match.

With The Tales of Hoffmann, the results were beautiful. The images were sharp (except when they shouldn’t be), and textured. And the color was just gorgeous.

So which was best? The dye-transfer print had a special excitement all its own. You watch it the way you read a first edition copy of a classic book–with awe. You’re experiencing a rare treat and you know it.

Digital projection isn’t a rare treat. But it provides a beautiful way to present these films, sharp and clean. And while the colors may not be as good as dye transfer, they’re still an improvement over conventional color film prints.

And before you talk about “How the film was intended to be seen,” consider this: IB prints were notoriously irregular. No two prints would have the exact same colors.

So what about the movies?

B+ The River

The clash of civilizations appears as a friendly melting pot in this coming of age story set in British India. A happy English family begins to get unglued when the two oldest daughters both develop crushes on the same American veteran–who just moved in with their next-door neighbor. There’s tragedy and near-tragedy, and gentle comedy, and the warm envelope of people who love each other, even when they’re angry. Renoir paints (an appropriate term for Technicolor) an idealized version of British India, where everyone gets along, no one rejects a mixed-race girl, and western and eastern ways of life merge happily.

A- The Tales of Hoffmann

The Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film of Jacques Offenbach’s episodic opera (with the libretto translated into English) merge stage and cinema like nothing else I’ve ever seen–at least at feature length. On one level, there’s no attempt at cinema realism. The sets, costumes, and makeup have all the expressionism of the live stage. But, like the great dance sequence in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, it could only be created in a movie studio. The three stories (four if you count the framing device) are the simplest of fairy tales. But the dramatic use of music, dance, light, and acting makes it all (well, almost all) amazing.

Three Ways to See Three-Strip Technicolor at the PFA

They stopped making three-strip Technicolor movies about 60 years ago. The movies are still around, and they’re still beautiful. This summer, the Pacific Film Archive will screen three different films shot in the still-loved format, and thanks to the way they’re being screened, each one projected using a different technology. You can decide which is best way to see them.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, almost every Hollywood color film was shot in Technicolor No. IV–casually known as “three-strip Technicolor.” These include Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bandwagon, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The African Queen.

The unofficial name tells you how it worked. Through a beam splitter, filters, and special film stocks, a special camera captured each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.


From Filmmaker IQ

From each of these three negatives, Technicolor would create a special relief print that was thicker where the image was darkest. From these three intermediate prints (called matrices), the lab would literally print (in the pre-photographic sense of the word) the colors to 35mm release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.


From The American Widescreen Museum

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) have a considerably longer history than three-strip. Technicolor introduced them in 1928 as an improved printing method for their then-current two-color system. And when three-strip died around 1954, Technicolor started making IB prints off of three-strip’s replacement–Eastman Color Negative film. The company continued this service until the mid-1970s.

So what does all this mean for presenting and watching three-strip films today?

Both three-strip and dye-transfer have significant advantages in preservation and restoration. The printing dyes in IB prints don’t fade as quickly as the photochemical dyes in color film (especially color film from the 50s, 60s, and 70s). And since the three-strip negatives store color information on black-and-white film, fading colors isn’t an issue.

But three-strip has its own problems. Film shrinks over time, and no three cans of film are going to shrink exactly the same way. Even the slightest shrinkage can cause a disaster when three strips have to line up perfectly. Because of their high contrast, dye-transfer prints don’t make good sources for new copies.

Digital technology has solved the shrinking problem. You can scan all three negatives at a high resolution (say, 4K), resize them to match each other, and produce a full image. But this sort of restoration requires three things not always available. You need the original negatives (or at least black and white protection positives made from them), a lot of money, and people who know what they’re doing.

So let’s look at the three films to be screened at the PFA this summer, and how they’ll be projected:

Leave Her to Heaven
35mm Eastmancolor print
Thursday, June 18

I strongly suspect that the PFA will screen the same print I saw in 2008–or certainly one from the same restoration. And as beautiful as I found the print, I suspect this will be the least accurate three-color experience of the PFA summer.

In the 1970s, Twentieth Century-Fox created new, color-film negatives of their three-strip titles. Then they did something unforgivable: They destroyed the original three-strip camera negatives. When the color negatives inevitably faded, they had no way to restore them.

So the Film Foundation basically had to colorize this film, using the sole surviving three-strip print as a guide. In other words, they didn’t really restore the colors, they painted them in.

By the way, this is the only one of the three I’ve seen. A rare Technicolor 40s noir, it stars Gene Tierney as a woman who loves too much. She’ not the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her quest for material ends. She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself. I give it an A-.

The River
35mm Technicolor IB dye-transfer print
Wednesday, July 15

Jean Renoir took the big Technicolor cameras to the newly-independent nation of India to film this coming-of-age story. And the PFA will screen it in an actual Technicolor dye-transfer print from 1952.

That’s about as close to the original experience as you can get.

Note: I altered this section after first posting the article, after confirming when the print was manufactured.

 

The Tales of Hoffmann
4K DCP
Sunday, July 19

If Leave Her to Heaven is the problematic restoration, and The River is closest to the original experience, The Tales of Hoffmann provides an example of an ideal restoration, done off of the original, 35mm three-strip camera negative. I haven’t seen the restoration (or the film in any form), but i trust the people who did it.

Unlike Heaven, Hoffmann will
be projected the way it was restored–digitally. I realize that many will object, but not me. Taking it from the digital domain and converting it back into film loses image quality, and adds nothing except vibration, flicker, and, inevitably, scratches.

Of course, I hope that they have transferred it back to film for archival purposes. it will be decades before we know if we can safely archive bits.

Cinema’s past and cinema’s future: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Yesterday was a very strange day for me at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I didn’t see a single, complete film. But it was still worthwhile.

Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger

The Novikoff Award goes to someone who who "has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema." Sometimes it goes to someone famous, such as Roger Ebert. This year it went to Lenny Borger, whom I had never heard of before the award was announced.

imageIn her introduction, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen described him as a "film writer, translator, scholar, and something of a film sleuth." An American who’s lived much of his life in Paris, he writes English subtitles for French films. The event included the North American restoration premier of Monte-Cristo, a 1929 French silent epic directed by Henri Fescourt that Borger was instrumental in restoring.

This was Borger’s first visit to San Francisco. He was interviewed on stage by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas (Borger was once Variety’s Paris correspondent). Borger came off as shy, and not comfortable talking to an audience.

A few highlights from the interview:

  • When searching European archives, "Being in Variety helped me open the door. Archivists are very secretive people–except for the ones I know who are here."
  • About Monte-Cristo: "What you’re going to see now is what I call the full monty. You have to leave a margin for some shots that are missing. If any of you have reels of film, get in touch with me."
  • "Monte Cristo has no reputation at all. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people to see it."
  • He called Brussels "the best archive in the world. The French are always the last to recognize their own films."
  • On translating dialog into subtitles: In the beginning, it was just information. If you look at old subtitles, they’re often very comic." He described a French subtitle in Sam Peckinpah’s war movie, Cross of Iron, where the word tanks was translated to merci.
  • A single subtitle can’t be longer than 70 characters. "Less than a tweet."
  • About his experiences with Godard: “The first film was a wonderful experience. The next film a little less good because he started cutting titles. Film Socialism was a nightmare."
  • "I worked on Children of Paradise two or three times. I’ve never been satisfied with it."

Then they screened the movie. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to see all of it–I had a 3:00 appointment to interview Douglas Trumbull. But I wanted to see as much as possible.

image

What I saw was wonderful. Beautifully photographed and acted, it pulled me into its epic tale of an innocent man framed and arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, set in the post-Napoleonic period.

The music, though recorded, was excellent. The intertitles were in the original French, with Borger reading his translation live.

And then, a little less than an hour into the movie, I reluctantly got up and left. That was difficult.

I hope to see the full movie someday. Or maybe I should just read the book. It’s my son’s favorite novel.

Douglas Trumbull interview

Douglas Trumbull didn’t remember me, but I could hardly expect that he would. Last time we met, I was a movie-obsessed teenager. My stepfather, John H. (Hans) Newman cut the sound effects on Silent Running, and I spent a day hanging around the studio where Trumbull and his team were creating special effects.

We talked briefly about Hans’ work on the film, then went to the main subject. Trumbull wants to be "directing movies at 120 frames per second."

imageTrumbull has been a major player in special effects for almost half a century. 2001: A Space Odyssey made his name. He also worked on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He has written and directed two features–Silent Running and Brainstorm. He developed Showscan, a special immersive format that ran 70mm film at 60 frames per second (fps).

Breaking away from 24fps–the standard frame rate since the talkie revolution–is clearly a major obsession with him. With digital cameras and projection, it’s become practical. "I started experimenting. I realized there’s another thing we can do here. They have projectors that could run at 144 frames. Let’s try it."

(I should mention that I have never seen a motion picture projected at a fast frame rate. I have to take other people’s words for the quality.)

"I made this kind of discovery, doing some experiments at 120 frames. One of the first things I noticed: You can use any shutter opening you wanted. With a 360 shutter, you can blend frames together. You can get back to a 24-frame conventional release. It looks exactly like 24."

Trumbull decided to use 120fps rather than the maximum 144, because 120 is evenly divisible by both 24 and 60–the American television standard.

I had to bring up The Hobbit, the only Hollywood feature (well, actually a trilogy) shot in a fast frame rate. Even people who liked the movie hated the unusual look created by 3D at 48fps. According to Trumbull, Peter Jackson was "shooting at 48, but projecting at 98," producing a problematic flicker. He described Jackson’s decision to shoot at 48fps "heroic but mistaken."

Trumbull wants to build a 3D camera that will alternate between the left and right lenses, simulating the way most projectors handle 3D sequentially. Shooting each eye at 60fps, this should take care of that flicker problem.

"’You can make a standard DCP. It’s off the shelf in tens of thousands of theaters."

His brand name: Magi.

But he wants more than just a faster frame rate. Looking back at the glory days of Cinerama and other immersive formats, he wants theaters that bring back showmanship–with curtains that open up on huge, deeply-curved screens.

But will today’s 3D movies work on a giant screen? Even on modest screens, they’re too dim. "If you could get the brightness back, you can increase the field of view. Then you’ve got something that’s better than anything."

Trumbull’s solution: Torus screens, a far-from-new technology which would "triple perceived light." These specially-built curved screens "compensate for what you lose [in 3D projection]. And there’s no cross reflection." Cross reflection is a problem specific to curved screens.

image"It’s time to redefine what a movie theater is. People don’t see any value to the movie-going experience, so we got to make a better movie-going experience. If you increase the size of the screen, people will see it."

His solution: Magi Pods. These are small, 40-seat pre-fabricated theaters. He wants to bring these to museums, amusement parks, and anywhere else where you can set them up. 

Like Trumbull, I’m a fan of immersive cinema. I don’t know if his Magi is the solution, but I hope there is one.

State of the Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull

But Douglas Trumbull didn’t come to the San Francisco International Film Festival to talk to me. He came to talk to anyone who attended his State of the Cinema Address.

I hate to say it, but after the private interview–which I totally enjoyed–I found the public talk disappointing.

Playing clips off his laptop as he talked, he spent much of his allotted 90 minutes covering his own autobiography. He talked about his birth during World War II, and the excitement he found as a child with Cinerama and other immersive film technologies. He talked about his work on 2001, and how he learned to direct on the job with Silent Running.

When he discussed his second directorial feature, Brainstorm, he implied that Paramount closed and shelved the film after Natalie Wood’s death. But MGM, not Paramount, financed the film, and it was completed and released. I remember that well; I saw it in 70mm.

Eventually he got to his main point, that the Hollywood system isn’t interested in improving the movie-going experience. The studios are "betting the farm on big sequels," while the theaters "give you better seats because they can’t change what’s on the screen."

Much of what we covered was also in my interview, so I’ll just add some highlights:

  • Projecting Cinerama "was a nightmare.” Fifty percent of the box office take went to technical overhead in the theater.
  • "When you change the medium, you have to change how you direct, how you act."
  • "Today we see some of the same issues with 3D [as we had with Cinerama]. 3D cameras are very difficult to use."
  • "Disneyland was virtual reality."
  • "The state of cinema is led by directors pushing into new territories."

His talk covered the full 90 minutes. There was no time left for Q&A.

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