Every year, I try to check in with the legendary Richard Edlund, ASC, to gauge his view of industry advancements in the worlds of cinematography and visual effects, and this time around, as always, the conversation was educational. My decision to tap Richard’s formidable brain was timely—he received the Visual Effects Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award in early February to honor his legendary career. In the unlikely event you didn’t already know, Edlund is among the most decorated visual effects’ supervisors in history, with a slew of Academy Award nominations, wins, special awards, commendations, and Sci-Tech honors for his various inventions and collaborations dating back to his days on the front lines helping George Lucas and John Dykstra, ASC, craft the original Star Wars at an embryonic ILM to his breakthrough years running Boss Film Studios, among other high points. He’s an Academy Governor, has been a driving force in the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards program for years, is a 2008 ASC President’s Award winner, and that doesn’t even count all the BAFTA’s, Emmy’s, and other honors that have come his way. (Not to mention Richard’s rich previous life photographing rock album covers, inventing the Pignose portable guitar amplifier, and shooting inserts and low-budget visual effects for many of the TV shows you and I grew up with back in the day.)
But Richard is also that increasingly rare breed of visual effects’ supervisor whose background is in photography and cinematography first, not computer science—he’s also an important member of the ASC, in fact. These days, he is busy as ever, working with partner Helena Packer to line up projects for their duMonde VFX company in New Orleans. But Richard still found time recently to offer his thoughts on the higher frame rate (HFR), 3D, and 4k movements sweeping the industry, and lots more.
Edlund calls himself “a longtime cheerleader” for the higher frame rate work that Douglas Trumbull and Gary Demos advocated back in the analog days (and still), but he suggests the real revolution has been digital projection, because that development has made both 3D and HFR viable creative tools and feasible for big-screen viewing on a wide scale.
“It’s interesting to note that just a few years before the time that Peter Jackson decided to shoot The Hobbit at 48fps, digital projection started to become common in theaters,” Edlund notes. “As a result of digital projection becoming common, the strobing artifact [from mechanical film projectors] essentially goes away.”
That’s because the digital projector, as Edlund explains, is capable of reducing “dark time” between frames to almost nothing. “It’s just the time it has to reload the next frame from the server—a [tiny] percent of the full time [a frame is projected before switching to the next image],” he continues. “So there is no double-bladed shutter [on a mechanical projector] involved anymore. For each frame projected mechanically, the pulldown takes a quarter of the time, and during this time, the first blade of the shutter closes, and then the shutter opens for a quarter of the time. Then, the second blade of the shutter closes for a quarter of the time, and then the shutter opens on that same frame for a quarter of the time. The reason for this is that, unless projected images are flickered on 48 times per second, the images will appear to flicker [to the human eye]. What happens is the camera moves too rapidly, and so, the brain anticipates movement from frame to frame, and will interpolate the action, and so, the subject will see vertical lines, stars, and other sharply contrasted objects doubly. This is an unwelcome 24 frame per second artifact, which we call ‘strobing.’ To the visual scientist, it is known as the ‘phi effect.’ Most people have no idea that, when they go to see a movie, they are only seeing it half the time!
“The point is that digital projection has brought us several advantages that are not much ballyhooed about, and one of them is the fact that you do not have to deal with that strobing, and let’s not forget about weave, jitter, dirt, scratches, and fading. The other big thing is that, when the cinematographer composes the image, the projector will project it exactly as he composed it. The projectionist can’t be slightly out of frame or cut something off anymore.”
Freedom With Limits
Thus, for all these reasons, Edlund happily rejoices in the rise of digital projection and the looming end of film projection. “It’s time we left the technology of the Industrial Revolution behind,” he declares with a chuckle.
However, as HFR enters the discussion, Edlund points out that largely it was “engineering decisions” that led to previous standards, such as 24fps, which rose out of the need to run film at a high enough rate to provide adequate sound fidelity. In order to find room on prints for the sound track, he points out, the Academy Aperture eventually evolved. Even today, he stresses, there will likely continue to be similar parameters, or technological limitations, resulting from other types of engineering or economic pressures, even in the era of digital projection.
For example, “when you pan and move the camera real quick, you still don’t want to pan left and right too fast, because then it will judder,” he explains. “That is a term that became useful to people shooting IMAX, where the image changes greatly when the camera pans. The image can change by three or four feet on the screen if you pan too fast, causing a ‘judder’ effect when [digitally] projected on a huge screen.”
Therefore, while one artifact may die quietly, new technology gives birth to others.
“So it’s a matter of taste, isn’t it? I mean, some people are noticing the differences in higher frame rates and others aren’t,” he points out. “I’ve done lots of 60 frame per second tests. I worked on Showscan movies. What increases is the apparent resolution, which is why people say that [The Hobbit] looks maybe too clear in some frames. Someone I know told me they thought Gandalf’s staff looked like it was made of resin, for instance. Keep in mind; shooting at 24fps, each frame is exposed at about a 48th of a second. Therefore, when you pan the camera, the resolution at that speed can go to hell—you lose horizontal resolution. But, at 72fps, that period is just 96th of a second, and therefore, each frame is much sharper—you don’t have so much blur—but that might make some things in the frame look sharper than you want them to. So, in the end, what you do is trade one artifact for another whenever you switch from one technology to another. You are losing things you are accustomed to, and therefore [seeing different or new things, which you might perceive as artifacts]. When David Fincher shot [2007’s] Zodiac using the [Thomson Viper FilmStream camera]—a system with a tiny 2/3-in. chip, he got enormous depth of field. And he decided to leave it—he shot it with infinite depth of field. Since then, most cameras have one Super 35mm size CMOS chip, which have the same depth of field and soft backgrounds that we have all become used to [in the film world]. But still, these are all artistic choices that filmmakers are able to decide on.”
And that is Edlund’s ultimate point: what is really remarkable about today’s advances is not any one particular advance, in and of itself. It is the fact that, under certain conditions, creative people have been freed to make creative decisions about whether to use those abilities at all, and if so, how, and to what extent, in order to express themselves artistically.
In fact, Edlund predicts that as 4k takes hold and continues its current advance into the consumer space, with home viewing and theatrical viewing becoming more similar experiences, filmmakers “could choose frame rates on a shot-by-shot basis. You could shoot something like a quiet scene in a dark room with two people talking at 12 frames a second. And then, if there is an action scene with a semi-truck hurtling at you, you could shoot that at 120 frames a second. And that is what is really exciting—what artists will be able to do with these kinds of advances.”
Edlund points to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, shot by Claudio Miranda, ASC, as an example for, in that case, not only its artistic use of 3D, but also its artistic use of high resolution imagery generally, even for the 2D version—a feat that duly impressed him.
“I didn’t see that movie in 3D, but I did see it at a very high resolution,” he says. “I found it mind-boggling, what the guys at Rhythm & Hues [under direction of supervisor Bill Westenhofer] did. A believable CG lion that Ang Lee could direct, covered with hair moving every single frame at a high resolution? And each of those frames taking probably a week of number-crunching time to process it, using the fastest technology available today? One of the most amazing scenes to me was the animation where the hyena was attacking the zebra and then the lion gets into it, and the hyena freaks out and bounces off the side of the boat—hair-raising! That was really believable—great work.”
Will it be Necessary?
But, mixed into Edlund’s awe is the need for compromise once again. As he mentioned, it took “outrageous number crunching, centuries of number crunching on Life of Pi ” to achieve such a feat. And that is the rub for Edlund’s discipline—4k, 3D, and other innovations mean that “terrifically more data” needs to churn through visual effects pipelines, “more number crunching than we have ever seen before, which can slow things down like [rendering used to do].”
In that case, he adds, it won’t in the long term be a big deal because manufacturers will no doubt continue the processing speed march that has been going on unabated for years now. However, Edlund wonders how and when will we know when the demand is real and necessary? 3D, for instance, he suggests may continue its theatrical advance, but he doubts that home 3D viewing will ever take off the way he expects that 4k home viewing of 2D imagery will for the simple reason that home 3D viewing in most circumstances simply can’t replicate the experience in a large cinema.
And, besides, if HFR can make images seem hyper real, doesn’t that lead to a paradox by which real-world images will logically always look better at higher frame rates than will manufactured, fantastical, supernatural, or sci-fi imagery of the type that Peter Jackson and James Cameron are using to promote HFR? Perhaps HFR’s niche should be small, thoughtful dramas rather than the Hobbit’s and Avatar’s of the world?
Perhaps, Edlund says, but perhaps not—the innovation probably isn’t necessary in most dramatic settings, he suggests.
“If a director has a particular reason to do it, he’ll be able to do it, but the question is, will it be necessary?” he asks. “Will it add anything? As [Marshall McLuhan] said, the medium is the message. If the technology works, artists will grab onto it and use it, and patrons will flock to theaters to see it. But if it is expensive, or there are flaws in the technology or presentation, then they won’t use it or people won’t want to watch it. So it kind of self regulates. Just because we will have [HFR] doesn’t mean many people will need to be using it—same with 3D and all the rest. It’s all a tradeoff. [Cameron and Jackson] can afford it and like it. Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan is still shooting Batman movies on film.”
All that said, when it comes to the visual effects profession, Edlund both raves about the digital revolution and laments that some of his younger peers are losing the kind of photographic foundation that launched Edlund himself to such dizzying heights. Like many people, he is glad that “we don’t have to shoot our plates in 65mm anymore and then lock the camera off, and we [usually] don’t have to worry about motion control anymore. I love that I can now operate cameras with an iPad or use a little Nikon or Canon high definition camera for shots. I have a tiny HD camera in my office sitting next to an old monster [Bell & Howell 2709 35mm camera], and we are talking less than 100 years elapsing between those two technologies. I can shoot 40 minutes of HD on that little camera and record sound with it also. It’s beyond belief how far we have come.”
However, at the same time, Edlund hasn’t changed his traditional desire to “find guys who ran camera or made a movie” to work on his visual effects crews. “At Boss Film, we used to have a list on the bulletin board of ‘must watch movies.’ We had folks coming in who had never seen Gone With the Wind or Citizen Kane. These days, I meet artists out of [major schools] and they don’t know any movies that pre-date Jurassic Park except, maybe, Star Wars. They can still learn a lot by running a camera, making mini movies, watching movies, and studying the world around them.”