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In 1984, I was one of a lucky handful of people from the LA film festival who were invited to pay a secret visit to Douglas Trumbull’s anonymous, windowless special effects stage and laboratory. Located in an industrial area down at the marina, it was many miles away from the movie studios that paid Trumbull to create magic for films like Columbia’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Warner Bros. Blade Runner (1982). Trumbull called us there to make a dramatic demonstration of his new process, Showscan, which he claimed would grow into much more than just a technical improvement, becoming a profoundly deeper artistic and psychological experience than moviegoing had ever known.
It sounded, I have to say, like an absurdly pretentious claim. But for weeks after that screening, whenever any of us got together, I heard Twilight Zone-like stories of the experience of having those hypnotic Showscan moments merge into their own memories and dreams. 37 years ago, we were among the first to experience the peculiar, uncharted subconscious world of HFR, high frame rate moving images.
Showscan’s main feature was it ran through a camera and a projector at 60 frames a second, two and a half times the speed of normal sound film. At that speed, viewers agreed, everything in front of the cameras became strangely hyper-real, more crisp, immediate, and somehow real-seeming than reality itself.
Today, Showscan itself is gone, the company long bankrupt, but high frame rate is a feature, if a controversial one, of some of the most elaborate fantasy and science fiction films, and an often-overlooked setting on most new TV sets. Yet we still don’t really know much about how or why HFR affects our perceptions at such a deep level, or what the long-term, mind-numbing effects of this new intensification of media might be.
Back in 1984, Doug Trumbull’s iconic, dystopian images of the far-off year of 2019 had already entered film history, like the project that first made Trumbull’s reputation as a special effects wizard, the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The lights went down and the screening began.
This was made up of selected scenes from his film Brainstorm (1983), presented the way he originally intended them to be seen. The stripped-down premise is this: a married pair of North Carolina scientists on the verge of splitting up is part of a medical instrumentation team that’s discovered how to directly record and play back thoughts. Even while the earliest prototype is still a laboratory secret, it’s used and misused to record the actual, total experience of everything from sex to death.
The detailed plot of Brainstorm isn’t relevant to our theme, but the filming and presentation technique was. The original intention was to alternate dramatic scenes shown in regular 70mm at normal speeds, interspersed with the supposed “tapes” of actual human thought. This required switching to an alternate projector running at 60 frames a second, using Showscan’s subliminal effects to make the mind of the viewer perceive those minutes of the movie as being somehow realer than real.
This World’s Fair-like gimmick could have been done, but it wasn’t. They filmed it, but it was too expensive an experiment for most theaters. The film was already in trouble, pushing the limits of what could be done to fix a story whose leading lady, Natalie Wood, died in mid-production. Brainstorm was released to theaters with its Showscan scenes reduced in size and speed to regular proportions. Trumbull left feature filmmaking and went on to make special effects-laden short films for theme park attractions like Back to the Future—The Ride.
The lack of industry support for 60 fps was, naturally, a disappointment to Eastman Kodak, which looked forward to selling two and a half times as much film. But the idea came back in a different form when high definition television became a practical reality. Japan’s analog HDTV system, seemingly on the brink of world conquest, was struck down like Godzilla by a small laboratory in San Diego that created an all-digital system that became the universally adaptable HDTV that you have in your home today. As an afterthought, the standards included the later possibility of HFR, high frame rate video.
There’s little or no motion blur in HFR. We’re subconsciously used to a bit of blur in artificial media like film, though it isn’t as prominent a factor in live television. In Catch 22 (1970) the most intense scenes on the bomber are filmed with a short shutter opening, clipping, and “freezing” the most horrifying moments of the film in an almost stroboscopic way, heightening the reality by artificial but very effective means. This is a technique known to still photographers but rarely used in feature films.
By the time 21st-century flatscreens were capable of HFR, the movies were back in the game, with Peter Jackson one of the leaders of new experiments in the medium. “Films” and television are now made with roughly the same kind of digital equipment.
Jackson’s cheerleading for HFR (The Hobbit was made at 48 fps) was influential. Ang Lee’s making films like Gemini Man at 120 fps is more controversial, because more filmgoers, especially not-so-young ones, complain of the “soap opera effect”, a paradox: the more real it looks and feels, the more obvious that it’s a fake. If you see even a conventionally made film like Star Wars: A New Hope on an HDTV at high frame rates, you are seeing the same movie you’ve always known, yet it’s strangely different. Instead of being immersed in the Star Wars story, you’re aware of watching three young American actors spending the summer of 1976 horsing around on an English sound stage.
Younger viewers seem to have less resistance to HFR. They haven’t spent decades growing accustomed to the way movies have traditionally looked in theaters. Ricochet member @misthiocracy, who knows pro cinematography, suggests that HFR’s effects on human consciousness may not be built-in, but acquired, subconscious training in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Fellow member @hankrhody, the best explainer of scientific mystery on Ricochet (and just about anywhere), speculates that the human mind stitches together moments of perception in such a way as to create an artificial continuity. That sounded reasonable, which in this context means “Damn, that’s good. I bet I could steal that idea”.
There’s an arena of film where that you-are-there sensation is riveting, not distracting, and that’s nonfiction film. I don’t (necessarily) mean documentaries, whose narration and selective point of view would show up under HFR as being as artificial as fiction, but the unedited raw footage that documentaries are made from.
The 16mm movie cameras that accompanied Apollo to the Moon ran at only 12 frames a second, to save film and weight. That’s slower, more flickery, and blurry than old-time silent film ever was, which ran at least 16 fps, usually more. When the lunar film was processed, it was double-printed to run at a normal, if stuttering 24 frames a second. Today, using modern graphic technology, we can do a lot better than that. We can insert four artificially created in-between frames between each original one, giving those Apollo films a vividness and an immediacy they never had before. At sixty frames a second, you are no longer even looking at old film, but through an invisible window at something live and unique, something real: mankind’s few precious moments on the Moon.
It’s not crazy to wonder if direct, immediate access to alternative reality would make the whole canon of the dramatic arts up through now, from Sophocles to Cecil B. De Mille to Aaron Sorkin, seem strange, remote, too old fashioned to matter, like the way we now think of musty 1890s stage melodrama, or soap opera on old-time radio, or quaint Forties musicals where farmhands spontaneously burst into song. Altering the whole perception of “watching something” in ways we didn’t anticipate, creating movies with a reality so heightened they don’t feel like movies anymore: if this phenomenon somehow turned against us, would we even know the difference in time?
Altered Images (aside from being the name of an ’80s band) is a short series of posts revealing how motion picture images can be altered, with a specific emphasis on changing reality.Published in