Filmmaker Douglas Trumbull has invented a super-immersive film format and projection technology in hopes of improving the cinematic experience. Now he needs to get the industry to pay attention.
By Elizabeth Woyke
In a tiny private theater in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, filmmaker ¬Douglas Trumbull is screening one of his latest creations. At first, the movie looks familiar: it’s footage of astronaut Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in a clip that went viral on YouTube a couple of years ago. But halfway through the song, the film shifts from Hadfield strumming his guitar in the International Space Station to 3-D shots of planets and stars so detailed that I feel as though I’m on the ISS itself, looking through its cupola windows. A huge image of Earth fills my field of view and begins rotating. I’m wearing 3-D glasses, but the picture is far brighter and sharper than is typical in 3-D movies. Next to me, people mumble things like “Completely unreal” and “Awesome.”
This is Magi, a system that captures images in 3-D and “4K” ultrahigh resolution and displays the resulting frames at five times the usual rate. Trumbull developed the technology as a way to create movie experiences more immersive than regular 3-D or giant-screen IMAX–and restore the joy of going out to the movies.
Trumbull, 74, has spent his entire life thinking about how people experience the illusions of cinema. He grew up in Los Angeles fascinated by the Cinerama widescreen movie format; got his first Hollywood job, doing visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, in his 20s; and went on to direct two cult-classic films (Brainstorm and Silent Running) and design visual effects for Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Now, in an age when the movie theater is losing its allure, he’s hoping to wow people yet again–this time using Magi’s “hyper-¬reality,” which enables audiences to connect intensely with stories and vividly experience a character’s perspective.
Magi isn’t suitable for all movies, just as 3-D isn’t appropriate for intimate dramas and many other conventional films. But Trumbull hopes filmmakers will use Magi when they want viewers to feel awestruck in a highly sensory way, as I did upon seeing shots of Earth in Trumbull’s space-station demo movie. “What interests me is being able to create profound personal experiences for audiences,” Trumbull says. “Whatever it is, I want you to feel like what’s happening on the screen is actually happening in real time, to you, in this theater.”
The movie industry could use some magic. North American box office receipts have been relatively flat for years. Many consumers prefer the convenience and affordability of watching movies on their TVs and mobile devices, especially since manufacturers keep developing sharper, brighter, more color-accurate screens.
To develop something far better, Trumbull built a studio on his sprawling Berkshires property; hired a multitasking crew that ranges from four to 50 people, depending on the project; and produced a series of demos that tested new cinematic techniques, such as how to combine different frame rates and resolution levels in one movie. On top of all that, he has created a new type of movie theater optimized for showing Magi films.
His self-sufficient approach means Trumbull can have an idea in the morning, shoot it in the afternoon, and view it on a screen by evening. Going it alone suits his personality, but he admits that his quest has been frustrating at times. “I really like the excitement of the exploration, but I’ve spent many years of my life trying to make this happen and also feel like I’m a fish out of water in the sense that I’m having to pay for and do all of these experiments myself,” he says.
But Trumbull isn’t alone in his obsession with using such techniques to improve the moviegoing experience. Director Ang Lee shot part of his latest film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, using a similar process, combining 3-D, 4K resolution, and ultrahigh frame rates. Lee’s drama about American soldiers returning home after fighting in Iraq attracted early praise ahead of its November opening and should lend legitimacy to this still-experimental technology.
Most movies today are shot at 24 frames per second (fps): in the course of every second, the projector shows 24 still images. The standard was established in the 1920s, largely to sync film images with soundtracks, and is ill suited to action movies, where it can cause blurriness because the camera’s shutter is open too long to keep up with the fast motion.
Motion blur is particularly bothersome in 3-D movies, because most digital cinema projectors show 3-D by quickly switching between images meant for the left and right eyes to create the illusion of depth. Blur makes it difficult for our visual systems to fuse the images, which can cause eyestrain, according to Tim J. Smith, a visual scientist at Birkbeck, University of London.
At higher speeds, however, the mind isn’t distracted by the stitched-together effect. After years of analysis, Trumbull thinks 120 fps is the optimal projection speed for digital 3-D movies. To make Magi movies, he uses two cameras or two sensors in one camera, and he photographs the left- and right-eye images at a slight offset instead of simultaneously, which is how conventional 3-D movies are made. Because one of the two camera shutters is open at any given moment, the Magi process captures all the action instead of just half of it. Trumbull then projects the movies in the same way they were shot–alternating left and right frames at 60 fps per eye–for a result that looks incredibly realistic.
A few other directors similarly believe that high frame rates can pull audiences more deeply into their movies. James Cameron has said he intends to use 48 or 60 fps for his Avatar sequels, the first of which is expected to be released in 2018. Between 2012 and 2014 Peter Jackson released 48-fps versions of all three of his ¬Hobbit films.
Some critics and viewers complained that Jackson’s footage was so crisp it looked more like high-definition TV than a movie, exposing flaws in the sets, props, and actors’ makeup. But Trumbull thinks he can avoid that problem by staying away from standard TV rates, which are roughly equivalent to 30 to 60 fps. Pushing the projection rate far higher, when combined with the other aspects of the Magi process, yields a completely new cinematic experience that he likes to compare to the holodeck from Star Trek–a place where you can essentially inhabit a made-up space and “what you see seems to be real.”
You have to see the Magi effect to understand it, so Trumbull plans to invite directors to the Berkshires to view his demo movies. He has lived there since the early 1980s after weathering disappointment and tragedy related to his movie Brainstorm. First, Paramount refused to let him make the movie using Showscan, an immersive high-frame-rate film process that Trumbull developed starting in the 1970s. Then, the actress Natalie Wood, who played one of Brainstorm’s main characters, died during filming. Trumbull had to fight Paramount for the right to finish and release the movie. Disillusioned, he relocated to western Massachusetts, where he had friends.
In 2014, Ang Lee trekked to the 50-acre compound, where cell-phone reception drops out long before you reach the secluded driveway. Trumbull’s main studio resembles a two-story barn, or maybe it just seems like one because the area is a working farm and chickens, donkeys, and goats roam freely in the rolling meadows nearby. It’s currently being reorganized, but when Lee visited, it housed a green-screen stage and screening room, as well as offices and a small kitchen. Afterward, Lee decided to film Billy Lynn in 120 fps, which he said allowed him to foster “emotion and intensity” in unique ways.
Shooting movies at higher frame rates can be complicated because it generates huge amounts of image data, which is best stored on high-capacity solid-state drives and necessitates additional computing power when rendering visual effects with computer-generated imagery (CGI). However, Trumbull says those expenses would probably add up to less than 1 percent of a typical movie’s total cost.
The greater challenge is getting theaters to exhibit these movies the way the directors want. Many theaters upgraded their projectors to show the Hobbit movies, but only about half of theaters globally can play 3-D movies at 120 fps, which is the speed Trumbull has specified for Magi movies. What’s more, those theaters would have to exhibit Magi films at a lower resolution than Trumbull intended, in part because studios impose limitations on cinematic projectors for what they describe as quality control reasons and have yet to release a standard for this movie format.
Trumbull’s solution is to build his own theaters. He has spent the past year crafting an oval-shaped, prefabricated mini-theater called a “Magi Pod,” big enough for 60 people, that could be shipped to multiplex cinemas and other facilities and assembled by a handful of people in a week.
Every aspect of the Magi Pod is meant to amplify the immersive nature of the Magi experience. The theater is deliberately small (1,300 square feet), to reduce audience eyestrain. Rows are laid out to ensure that each seat faces the center of the 36-foot-wide, 17-foot-tall screen, which offers a field of view twice that afforded by a regular movie screen. Because the screen is curved, to act as a lens focusing the light emitted by the projector, images appear three times brighter than the industry standard. Trumbull also included a 32-channel surround-sound system for more realistic audio effects and put special insulation inside the walls to eliminate reverberation.
The pod might solve several problems for the movie industry by helping to ensure that the theater experience far exceeds what’s possible at home. But if theater owners, who say they have already spent more than $3 billion on new technology in recent years, pass on the idea, Trumbull will market it to other venues, including theme parks, zoos, aquariums, planetariums, national parks, and historic landmarks. And if Trumbull fails to reinvent the cinema, he’s got other plans for the technology. One idea is to make Magi movies whose stories and characters can also play out in virtual- and augmented-reality headsets. He recently joined the advisory board of Magic Leap and has been mulling how to create content that would begin in Magi Pods and then live on in the startup’s “mixed reality” device.
But Trumbull doesn’t relish a future hawking Magi products. His goal is to find investors who share his passion for movies and will help commercialize the technology. What he ultimately wants is to return to making feature-length films, this time using the Magi process. He has already selected his next project: a space epic about “man’s place in the universe” that will “pick up where 2001 left off,” in terms of image and exhibition quality.
In fact, Trumbull says, his desire to advance cinema technology largely stems from his experience watching Stanley Kubrick use extreme wide-angle lenses and huge screens to compose scenes that made the audience experience the feeling of going into space and encountering the unknown. “Part of my quest has been trying to get back to something that’s as good as 2001,” he says. “I think it represented an apex in movie quality that hasn’t been achieved since.”
More than 50 years after Trumbull started working in movies, the idea of transporting people to alternate worlds continues to drive him. It’s why he’s expanding the studio on his property to include a new green-screen stage and a miniature props photography room at a time when he could be excused for retiring. The additions will enable him to produce his space epic in his backyard, using virtual sets.