Special-effects master pushes new movie format

Story highlights

  • Douglas Trumbull an influential special-effects artist
  • Trumbull's latest focus: A new kind of cinema format
  • Trumbull's project would use fast frame rates, huge screens, 4K digital
  • He had similar ideas in '70s and hopes in digital era audiences are receptive
You may not know the name Douglas Trumbull, but you certainly know his very influential work.
Trumbull is a special-effects giant. Among the movies that feature his magic are Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."
His creation of Showscan, a hypervivid film process that combined large-format film with a high-speed frame rate, was a pioneering moment for film projection. Even though Showscan never caught on in Hollywood, it helped usher in similar technology used in the "Back to the Future" ride that Universal Studios ran for more than a decade at its U.S. theme parks.
An inveterate inventor -- he says he believes he has "23 or 24" patents and even devised an appliance to fix the BP oil spill a couple years ago -- Trumbull has continued tinkering with image technology.
Though he sold Showscan many years ago, he combined with its current owners to create "Showscan Digital," a format that allows moving images to be shot at 120 frames per second (fps) -- five times as fast as the standard film speed of 24 fps. The high-rate images can be combined with those shot at the standard speed to offer particular detail to action scenes, which often blur images at 24 fps.
Now Trumbull is trying, once again, to expand the capabilities of movies.
He's in post-production on a short film to show off his new creation, a format that makes use of high frame rates, 4K digital detail, 3-D imagery and large screens to create a theatrical experience he describes, proudly, as "substantially superior to IMAX." (He knows IMAX -- he was an executive of the company when it merged with his special-effects shop.)
Of course, Trumbull has been here before. He had similar hopes for Showscan, but was stymied when neither studios nor exhibitors wanted to make the investment in new equipment. In the digital age, he has hopes that there's a market for what he calls an "immersive" experience.
CNN spoke to Trumbull in a phone interview earlier this week. The following is an edited version of our conversation:
CNN: What happened to Showscan?
Trumbull: There's been a bit of confusion about Showscan. The basic problem was, it was film and it was 70 mm and it was a lot of it, so the negative cost was very high, the print costs were very high, and it also required conversion of the projectors and theaters and a lot of costs. I just couldn't get any traction in the theatrical movie industry to do it.
Douglas Trumbull helped create special effects for a number of film classics.
CNN: So what's Showscan Digital?
Trumbull: That's where the confusion has come up. When I talk about it, they think I'm talking about a revival of Showscan, which it is not. I was contacted by the people who own Showscan about three years ago and they asked: 'Is there anything we can do with Showscan that would be a digital version of it?' And I said I do have an idea for an invention that would be a method whereby you could change the frame rate on any pixel or any character or any object or any scene ... dynamically throughout any movie.
So you could have a 24-frames-per-second movie but when the car explodes, it's 60 or 120. That turned out to be quite a unique idea, and we just did receive a patent on it ... and we got a patent under the rubric of Showscan Digital.
I think it's becoming timely. Peter Jackson is a real big hero of mine because he had the nerve to make "The Hobbit" at 48 frames per second.
CNN: That film's high frame-rate scenes looked like television to some critics. What went wrong?
Trumbull: High frame rates do make what you want fantastical to look raw and video-like. I agree that that's a quality "The Hobbit" started to assume and a lot of people felt really uncomfortable with that. (But) I've seen the movie all ways -- I've seen it in 2D at 24 frames, I've seen it in 3D at 24 frames, and I've seen it in 3D at 48 frames. And because I'm so adapted to it, I really like the 48 frames.
CNN: Do you think this is similar to when TV went to HD and they had to develop various new techniques?
Trumbull: My take on it -- and I seem to be a complete lone wolf out there -- my belief over many years is if you want to make movies more realistic and more vivid,