Cinema visionary Doug Trumbull has been trying to convince Hollywood of a better way to make and present movies for decades. Theatrical exhibition is under threat like never before. Is the time right for a reconciliation?
“I feel we’re at a really important inflection point in the history of cinema where we can rethink what cinema is,” he says. “Because of COVID and because everyone is streaming there’s been a further commoditization of the movie experience.”
He believes the movie industry has compromised the artistic possibilities of what a movie can be. “We’ve lost the art of making epics like Lawrence of Arabia. We design movies to play in a movie theatre while thinking about its play through to TV.
“At the cinema we watch on relatively small rectangular flat screens that are not much different from TV. If want you incentivize people to return to the movie theater you have to have a much better experience. We need to transform what the movie theater is.”
The special effects legend and technical wizard behind large format high frame rate filmmaking famously split from Hollywood in the early eighties after production execs derailed plans to make his film Brainstorm in nonstandard formats and framerates.
He stopped writing and directing and relocated to Massachusetts, about as far east from LA as you can get in the United States. He’s worked independently out of his home studio ever since to find a new way to make movies that are more immersive and more spectacular than anything seen before.
“Making movies for streaming means directors use close ups and fairly intimate shots. They are not showing the epic spectacle of the desert like Lawrence of Arabia or outer space like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s small thinking.”
Trumbull has always thought big.
His first movie, To The Moon and Beyond, was made in 70mm for the 1964 New York World’s Fair and was seen by director Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke when they were planning to make 2001: A Space Odyssey, for which Trumbull famously supplied the visual effects and hallucinatory time travel sequence.
The Next Frontier of Filmmaking
“Cinematic immersion is all about putting you into the movie which is quite different to the drama on TV or normal 35mm movies,” he says. “It’s a combination of storytelling and experience-making which have been a part of nearly every movie I’ve been involved in.
“The next frontier of movie making can be much more spectacular than it ever was or than it is now. We now have CGI which is indistinguishable from reality. We can do photoreal effects in real-time. We still need all the drama and excitement of traditional moviemaking but I also think we need to develop a new cinematic language.”
For Trumbull that explicitly means giving filmmakers the opportunity to create in 3D at high resolutions and, crucially, at high frame rates.
It also means coupling this production methodology with a new exhibition space capable of delivering the experience of heightened reality.
“The home theatre experience is dramatically improving to 8K while the theater is stuck at 2K,” he says. “Television is limited by its small screen and narrow field of view. It’s a great medium but my personal interest is in making movies for the giant screen and getting this epic spectacle achieved by Stanley Kubrick in the days when theatres had panoramic 100-foot wide screens.”
Brainstorm was conceived “under guidance from senior management at Paramount” to exploit Showscan, a 70mm, 60 frame-per-second process that Trumbull invented.
When the costs proved too high, he was forced to make it conventionally. The experience scarred him and he opted out of the Hollywood machine.
The epiphany came soon afterwards when Steven Spielberg asked him to direct and produce the Back to the Future ride for Universal Pictures tours. “We really achieved a super intense kind of virtual reality,” he says. The four-minute ride generated about $2 billion for Universal yet was never taken seriously as a piece of filmmaking, Trumbull claims.
It did however inspire him to research and develop a production process building on Showscan. MAGI is his branded 3D 4K and 120fps format compliant with existing DCP standards but intended to be shown in a modular theater concept called MAGI Pods.
The pods are 20 feet wide, occupy 900 square-feet, house seating for 40 viewers and contain a curved hemispherical screen. A conventional movie theater is 50 degrees wide, but Trumbull says the field of view of the Pods is more than 100 degrees, wider even more than Cinerama once offered. He says the curved screen makes stereo 3D more comfortable to watch because the pod offers a combination of high brightness, high resolution, high frame rate and the wide field of view.
A curved screen, for example, reflects more light back to the audience increasing its brightness three times over conventional rooms.
Prefabing in a factory should mean they cost far less than to build theaters in bricks and mortar. Since they are designed to be temporary installs he thinks they wouldn’t incur the real estate tax costs of permanent structures.
They could be popped-up in existing interior locations such as museums, water parks, zoos, trade shows, sporting events and cruise ships, even universities.
Having smaller lower capacity pods means several pods each with a different movie- would offer the same diversity as a multiplex.
He imagines projections displayed on the outside of the theatre domes too, perhaps trailing the content shown inside.
“My whole drive is how to get even further along that road of a first-person experience where the audience feels much more personally involved in what going on.
High frame rates are a must to deliver an experience “that is so real it seems there is no screen at all,” he says.
Developing Showscan, he even attached sensors to viewers in a lab “proving that high frame rates were the key to improving human visual stimulation and a powerful sense of realism.”
Filmmakers like James Cameron share with Trumbull a frustration that the mechanics of the motion picture process haven’t moved from 35mm played back at 24fps onto a rectangular screen for close to 100 years.
Even modern digital projection blurs live action and fast pans because playback is still at the industry standard of 24fps and because it does so without using a shutter.
“24fps is not enough to fill a very wide field of view because you get blurring, strobing and nausea even in an IMAX theatre,” he says. And that’s before 3D is taken into account.
Yet mainstream HFR experiments by filmmakers the caliber of Ang Lee and Peter Jackson have not been universally received by audiences.
“Using the higher frame rates such as 48fps [as Jackson did for The Hobbit) is close to the TV rate of 60fps which is why audiences complained it looked like TV,” Trumbull says. “Shooting at 60fps is exactly like television.
His solution is to playback high frame rates back using a 180-degree shutter to mimic the classic film look while reducing motion blur.
“The future of cinema is here right now. We’ve developed the MAGI pod. We have all of the kit to produce, post and present new experiences today. There is nothing keeping us from doing it.”
He continues, “If we want the movie experience to be different from TV we’ve got to offer a spectacular, mindboggling experience that is more like a live Broadway show, a concert, a Cirque du Soleil. It’s got to be bigger, better, much more immersive, more intimate and more spectacular.
“There’s are lots of wonderful writers, director and cinematographers who know how to tell stories using cinematic language arts and crafts. But if you want to go one step further and make an epic, spectacular immersive experience that allows the audience to feel inside the movie — you’ve got to think a little bit differently.”
Doug Trumbull will be speaking as a special guest keynote of the Makers Pop-Up Virtual Conference 9/10 June. More information soon at www.thelocationguide.com.