NAB Recap: The Future Never Stops

NAB Graphic

Do you know what the NAB is? It’s the National Association of Broadcasters, which, according to its website: “is the voice for the nation’s radio and television broadcasters. As the premier trade association for broadcasters, NAB advances the interests of our members in federal government, industry and public affairs; improves the quality and profitability of broadcasting; encourages content and technology innovation; and spotlights the important and unique ways stations serve their communities.”

Every year, NAB holds a convention “show” out in Las Vegas, where technicians, engineers and vendors from all of the major (and minor) companies that sell any kind of film and television gear can demo their new products. It’s huge, taking up all three halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

I went there this year, for the first time, to see what it was like. It ran from April 8-11, 2013, with two days of conferences beforehand. I had signed up to attend the Technology Summit on Cinema. Sadly, I came down with something on the trip out to Vegas, and spent the first day of the conference sick in bed, in the lovely Trump Hotel Las Vegas. It’s always great to lie moaning in a hotel room in a city far from home. You should try it, if you haven’t already.

The next day, though still not at 100%, I decided to start forcing myself to see what was what, and so I made it to the second day of the conference. Here are my thoughts.

The main gist of both the Technology Summit and the products being hawked at NAB was this: you cannot rest – newer and higher resolutions of digital cinema, as well as higher frame rates, are barreling down on us, and we must adapt. 4K and 8K are the near future. We all need to start buying cameras, TVs and projectors that can showcase these amazing new technologies, or we will be luddites.

I exaggerate, perhaps.

To explain about 4k (and 2K and 8K) . . . The current standard for your high definition TV is either 1280×720 or 1920×1080, with 1920 representing the horizontal lines of pixels, and 1080 representing the vertical lines. That is “1K.” A very popular digital cinema camera, the Arri Alexa, typically shoots at 2K (or 2048×1152). Another very popular digital cinema camera, the RED, shoots at 4K (or 4096×2304). Actually, there are now RED cameras that shoot at 5K. And just down the pike is something called UHD, or Ultra High Definition, which will be in 8K. The question is, can you tell the difference? I guess you could if we were looking at images on giant screens, but since many of us watch films and videos on computers and mobile devices . . .

A director like David Fincher loves shooting in 4K, since no one really screens in that format. Which means he generally has at least 2 times more resolution in each shot than he needs. He can punch in and create close-ups out of wide masters. He can correct a shaky camera move since the edges of his frame are not necessary. It gives him freedom to keep reframing long after the movie is shot. I bet it drives his cinematographers crazy! If you’re curious about how he works, buy the blu-ray disc of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and watch the special features. They’re fascinating, and will help explain some of what I just wrote.

Remember 3D? Ha! I know, it’s still here, although it hasn’t been doing all that well lately. Well, it turns out that 3D might just work better in higher resolutions. Or . . . in higher frame rates. That’s right. We have clever engineers working on more than just higher resolutions. If you saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last December, then you might just already know what to expect from these higher frame rates. Since the dawn of synchronized sound- on-film, in 1927, motion picture cameras and projectors have shot and played back movies at 24 frames per second (fps). It’s what we’re used to do. When the television standard was created in this country, the original frame rate adopted was 30fps (which has to do with our electrical currents running at 60hz). When color television was created, they had to adjust the frame rate to 29.97fps. You can read about all of that here. Regardless of whether it was 30fps or 29.97fps, those extra 6fps were enough to create a slightly different (smoother) look to the new medium that we have since associated with video. We know what film looks like, and we know what video looks like.

Or so we thought. Over the past 15 years or so, more and more video cameras have added 24fps shooting options, to allow video to look more film-like.

But now, filmmakers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron are pushing higher frame rates, telling us that the 24fps standard was arbitrary, and that with more frames per second, we will see more detail in the image, and thereby enjoy higher resolution. If one wanted, one could view their proselytizing with a cynical eye, since they are both making 3D movies, and 3D, apparently – as I noted above – looks better at higher frame rates.

During the Technology Summit on Cinema, James Cameron appeared in a pre-taped video presentation, during which he presented examples of scenes shot in 24fps, 48fps, and 60fps. He made his own opinion very clear that there was no comparison between the lower and higher frame rates: higher = better. And yet, to this viewer – weaned on 24fps – higher looked too smooth, and the stuttering (in 24fps) that Cameron kept on telling made the lower frame rate images unwatchable was perfectly normal to me. I didn’t like the HFR images, in fact (nor did many of the critics who watched The Hobbit). I expect, however, that if Cameron and Jackson – and the companies that support them – have their way, a new generation of film viewers will be weaned on HFR, and will then find 24fps strange.

I’m OK with that – with changing technologies, tastes inevitably change. When I go back and watch the 1980s TV shows that I enjoyed in my youth, I am appalled at how bad they seem to me now. But what I’m not OK with is the ceaseless promotion of new technologies every few years. Or rather, even that I’m OK with, since companies need to make money, and the market is currently saturated with HDTVs. But please don’t promote new technologies, like 4K and 8K, 48fps and 60fps, or 3D, as if we all must use/have them, and as if everything that has come before them was terrible (which was the gist of Cameron’s message at NAB), when what you really want to do is sell more cars, I mean, cameras. Show me your new toys, let me enjoy them, but don’t try to destroy the memory of my old toys in the process. The cinema that many of us love and cherish was created using technology that lasted for over 100 years. Perhaps we can celebrate the new without denigrating the old.

The future may never stop, but the past will always be with us.

Here some of my notes from the actual Technology Summit:

Saturday, April 6, 2013:

Was very sick with nasty fever. Stayed in hotel room, in bed, all day. 😦

Sunday, April 7, 2013: see my photos in support of these notes

Technology Summit on Cinema, Day 2

SMPTE is sponsor

They have June 18-19 conference at Stanford:

Entertainment Technology in the Internet Age

1.  A Tidal Wave of Pixels: New Workflows for Digital Production

New Capabilities:

  • 3D
  • 4K
  • HFR
  • HDR (High Dynamic Range)
  • Wider Color Gamuts – UHDTV
  • 8K

A data-driven world

Motto in this brave new world is “do or die”

Workflow is the new term of the last 20 years:

  • To and from
  • Place to place
  • System to system

Designing workflow – managing data – must have at least 3 copies

2.  James Cameron on HFR – 24, 48, 60 – plus, show HFR screened at 24

  • I ask – do we want this clarity?
  • I can’t tell the difference between 48 and 60
  • High res is driving HFR, because without it you can’t see advantage of HFR
  • 3D, also, along with High Res, drives the HFR revolution, because it requires smooth edges of the frame.

3.  Advanced Image Capture

UHDTV – way over my head . . .

4.  Jon Landau (producer for James Cameron) interviewed by David Cohen of Variety

Video of the conversation here.

“New Digital Storytelling” (focus on HFR)

  • Filmmakers have to ask why they are using new technologies
  • Nobody watches movies/TV for the technology, but for the content
  • Problems in business model for SFX houses (his answer was lame)
  • One sees more provocative TV than films, these days, as far as content, style & technology are concerned
  • [I am getting tired of the triumphalism of HFR/3D – I think he’s wrong about the theatres in new countries.]
  • Last 3 Oscar winners for Best Cinematography were all 3D films
  • If you want a movie in 3D, shoot it in 3D. [apparently, he’s not a fan of conversion of 2D to 3D.]
  • They edited Avatar in 2D – Jon Landau doesn’t think 3D requires any new film grammar.
  • Stereoscopy = seeing in 3D
  • There are autostereoscopic screens, where you won’t need glasses, being developed.

5. HFR – “What’s the big deal?”

“Neuroscience and HFR” – Christopher Peck, McGill

  • reactions to Hobbit = a) looks weird and b) looks too fast
  • His research shows that 30-60 fps is a powerful stimulus, but one is not necessarily responding to the additional frames
  • But higher frame rates allow us to see faster motion more clearly

Stuart Hameroff, U. of Arizona – “What Is the Frame Rate of Consciousness?”

  • What is “consciousness?”
  • [I don’t want to be someone railing against new technologies just because I don’t understand or like them yet.]

Howard Lukk, Walt Disney

  • If we can do it, should we?
  • Just another tool in the toolbox
  • High Resolution demands high frame rate (Cameron said the same thing) – a direct correlation
  • As we increase dynamic range and resolution, we will have to incerase frame rates

Bert Dunk, DP

  • I like some of the extra detail, but don’t like the way image moves
  • With a higher shutter angle, the greater motion blur that he introduced makes it look more appealing
  • Seeing stereoscopically is affected by age
  • [My main issue with the push to HFR/3D is that it seems driven by engineers, not artists/designers]
  • [For every Life of Pi, there are 10 Oz films]

6. HFR, part 2

Wendy Aylsworth of Warner Brothers on The Hobbit

  • In April 2011, Peter Jackson announced at NAB his intention to shoot The Hobbit  in HFR
  • [Now – not only do theatres have to upgrade to digital projectors, but to ones that can also do HFR – is The Charles doing this?]

Odeon UCI guy – The Hobbit in Europe

  • He admits that the HFR push is to monetize 3D (refresh it)

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