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Meet the Hollywood eccentric who invented high frame rate film 30 years before 'The Hobbit'

Meet the Hollywood eccentric who invented high frame rate film 30 years before 'The Hobbit'


Douglas Trumbull tried — and failed — to bring HFR to theaters in the 80s. With digital cinema, he's getting another chance

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Douglas Trumbull
Douglas Trumbull

The hyperreal high frame rate style that came into theaters with The Hobbit is usually described as cutting edge, but it's older than most of the people buying tickets. HFR has actually had a nearly 40-year journey to the theaters, starting from a small Paramount lab run by Douglas Trumbull. Along the way, it's battled through a thicket of industry inertia to emerge as one of the most important and controversial technologies in Hollywood.

The final product was called Showscan, the first theater-ready HFR Hollywood had ever seen

Trumbull's history with HFR starts in 1978, when he co-founded a lab called Future General Corporation as an offshoot of Paramount Studios. Part of its business was special effects, taking on projects like the first Star Trek feature, but the other half was straight R&D, developing an early interactive game and the first mini-theaters built on hydraulic lifts for "flight simulator" rides. The high frame rate project emerged out of a study of different film formats that had been deployed throughout history. The initial results were disappointing. Simply changing the dimensions of the film and the screen didn't provide the kind of breakthrough Trumbull and his colleagues were hoping for. "We realized only then that the one thing we had not changed was the frame rate." When they finally hit on increasing the projection speed, they saw the difference immediately.

To test out their new discovery, Trumbull's team hooked test subjects up to electroencephalograms, pulse monitors, and electrodermal conductivity readers, then showed them projections of the same footage at different frame rates. The result was a rigorous study of the physiological effects of higher frame rate film. The numbers showed a notable jump in pulse with higher frame rates, along with other classic signs of excitement. "That proved to us — and to the patent attorneys — that we'd come across something that had the potential to tremendously increase the impact of movies."

StartrektrumbullTrumbull's Future General Corporation shooting an effects sequence for Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The final product was called Showscan, a 70mm film stock shown at 60 frames per second, the first theater-ready HFR Hollywood had ever seen. Already an acclaimed director after 1972's Silent Running, Trumbull planned a film in which Showscan could be revealed in only part of the film, the same trick Wizard of Oz pulled with Technicolor. The movie was called Brainstorm, about a team of scientists who discover a way to playback experiences inside a person's brain. Whenever a character tried out the machine, the film would switch to Showscan, either for an abstract floating-through-space scene or an immersive POV shot. Since Showscan looked so different on the screen, Trumbull didn't bother with the usual filmic language of establishing shots and closeups. He was aiming for a 2001-style head trip.

Getting it into theaters proved more difficult. Any theater that wanted to project in 60fps would need a new projector, and exhibitors weren't willing to shell out for the new equipment unless every studio committed to filming in Showscan. At the same time, the studio wasn't willing to commit to the cost of shooting with Trumbull's new process if there weren't any theaters that could show it. "I had shown it to tens of thousands of exhibitors, actors, producers, directors, studio heads, and virtually everyone thought it was incredible and amazing," Trumbull says. "But it was just an impossible barrier to get past." In the end, he made Brainstorm on conventional film and Showscan went back to the lab. Trumbull lists it as one of the greatest disappointments of his professional life.

1983's Brainstorm

Brainstorm ran into more difficulties from there, with the tragic death of Natalie Wood in mid-production and a lengthy legal battle that permanently soured Trumbull on Hollywood. In the years since, he's used HFR for specialty projects at unconventional frame rates, mostly in customized one-theater venues for clients like Universal Studios or the Luxor Casino. His patent on the technology is long-expired, but he's watched the recent revival with satisfaction, as Peter Jackson navigates the same technological ground he’s been exploring for decades. Trumbull’s general rule is to think of HFR as less cinematic and more like a live event, along the lines of a theatrical performance or a ride. "A lot of Avatar is kind of like a ride, so that's perfectly appropriate for high frame rates," Trumbull told The Verge, "but I see how a close up of Gollum might seem weird or uncomfortable."

"What do you do when you have a medium that's more powerful or more visceral or more lifelike?"

These days, he works from his own studio in the Berkshires, doing R&D outside of the system, and dipping back in for the occasional effects project, as he did last year with Tree of Life. He's even filing new HFR patents, including one for a dynamic system that would let filmmakers vary the frame rate between the foreground and background of a single shot.

Peter Jackson has given the technology a big push, but a bigger factor is the rise of digital cinema, which has pushed aside most of the old barriers. Digital projectors are in tens of thousands of theaters. The current generation of pro-grade digital cameras can shoot as fast as 120 frames per second, speeds that would shred a conventional film reel to pieces. If audiences were alienated by the HFR on display in The Hobbit (and at least some of them were), Trumbull suggests it's a matter of filmmaking rather than technology.

"What do you do when you have a medium that's more powerful or more visceral or more lifelike?" Trumbull told us. "What's the new relation between the audience and the camera and what's going on on the screen?" After The Hobbit, he won't be the only one looking for the answer.