Peter Jackson is shooting The Hobbit at 48fps, and James Cameron is set to follow suit with Avatar 2. But what is the point if films cannot yet be projected at such a high spec? Adrian Pennington reports

With digital transition expected to be complete in the major territories by 2015, high frame rates (HFR) are being touted as the next technical advance in exhibition, a move backed by Peter Jackson and James Cameron.

But while the cost of upgrades to digital projection equipment is said to be minimal, projector manufacturers and the US studios face an uphill task to persuade global exhibitors to adopt it in the absence of HFR content.

“There is no great demand for it at the moment,” says Andrew Myers, CEO of the UK’s Everyman Cinemas, which recently equipped its upmarket nine-cinema circuit with Sony 4K systems.

“Everyone’s focus has been on rolling out digital projection and then 3D which is why there has been no demand for HFR to date,” says Oliver Pasch, head of European digital cinema sales at Sony Professional. “As more and more pictures are shot at 4K the only way to improve the image further is on the timing base.”

Film-makers believe higher frame rates significantly improve image quality over the standard 24 frames a second. The effect is even more apparent on 3D features, as the human eye and brain are more sensitive when separate left and right images are projected. And it is here the impetus is focussed.

The initiative is being led by Jackson, who is shooting The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D at 48 frames per second (fps), and Cameron who plans to shoot the second and third Avatar instalments at 48 or 60 fps.

While it is technically possible today to project at those rates, the current Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) delivery standard does not support it. The original DCI specifications incorporated 48 fps mainly for the purpose of 2x24 fps playback for 3D, not 2x48 fps.

“Along with other manufacturers we are pushing for the DCI spec to be revised,” says Pasch.

The most recent Series II projection and server equipment can support HFR provided they integrate a video processor known as an integrated media block (IMB), which overcomes the bandwidth limitations in the connection from server to projector. One estimate puts the cost at less than $5,000, allowing exhibitors to avoid a full system replacement. 

‘Exhibitors need to be ready for when this is coming’

James Cameron

Sony claims its technology already supports 96 fps (2x48 fps) and that only a firmware upgrade is required to trigger the electronics.

It is likely the brunt of the cost of switching to higher frame rates will be borne by post-production which is required to increase disk storage space and spend more time on special effects.

“The cost [to switch to HFR] is not at the camera, which is very straightforward; the cost is not at the projectors, because it is a software upgrade,” Cameron suggests. “I could go out right now, shoot a movie at 60 fps if it was all live action and project it, and have a stunning effect. What we have to work on is the effects workflow, primarily the render pipeline.”

“I would actually advise people to wait a year until we get sorted out with the render pipeline,” he adds. “Exhibitors need to be ready for when this is coming, but we are not quite there yet for effects-oriented projects.”

“HFR is the next big thing, more so than generic adoption of 4K projection systems,” says Richard Nye, Christie’s European cinema sales director. “It will happen on a worldwide basis but only with the impetus of a major release. Avatar 2 [due December 2014] will likely be the lift-off point for HFR.”

This assumes HFR stereo 3D features will be projected at 2K resolution. A higher frame rate screening of a 4K stereo picture would double the storage  and post-production costs again and is simply not practical at this time.

Switching to HFR gives film-makers another creative option. Exposing twice the amount of film reel and therefore doubling the budget has been a clear impediment so far. But the arrival of digital cameras capable of shooting at least 48fps, coupled with digital cinema projector systems effectively removes these obstacles.