Doug Trumbull’s “UFOTOG”

by Graham Edwards

Douglas Trumbull's "UFOTOG"How many frames per second is enough? According to film director and visual effects pioneer Doug Trumbull, it’s 120fps. And he’s determined to prove it.

This week, on Thursday 11 September, the Toronto International Film Festival is staging the first public showing of UFOTOG, an experimental sci-fi adventure film written and directed by Trumbull. At the event – which will be moderated by Scott Feinberg – Trumbull will also deliver a keynote speech about the creation of the film.

UFOTOG is designed to showcase MAGI – a new combination of technologies that will, Trumbull believes, take motion pictures to the next level and compete with the various technologies threatening to draw audiences away from conventional theatrical presentations.

“Younger audiences are enjoying the benefits of low cost and convenience via downloading and streaming, causing tidal shifts in the entertainment industry, and particularly in theatrical exhibition. Theaters must offer an experience that is so powerful and overwhelming that people will see the reward of going out to a movie.” – Doug Trumbull

Trumbull is no stranger to stretching the boundaries of cinema. After supervising the groundbreaking visual effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he went on to develop Showscan, a 60fps film process which, had it taken off, would have brought high frame rates to theaters nearly thirty years before Peter Jackson managed it with The Hobbit.

UFOTOG was shot on a combined laboratory/stage/studio, with 120fps 4K 3D live action being staged inside virtual environments, and the results being relayed to a large screen adjacent to the shooting space.

MAGI isn’t just about high frame rates. According to the Trumbull Studios press release, UFOTOG “explores a new cinematic language that invites the audience to experience a powerful sense of immersion”. In collaboration with Christie Digital and Dolby Laboratories, Trumbull aims to transform the theatrical experience by improving screen size, image brightness, atmospheric sound and the effectiveness of 3D, as well as optimising the colour saturation and dynamic range of the projected image.

“We are exploring and discover a new landscape of audience excitement and do it inexpensively and quickly – we are pushing the envelope to condense movie production time, intending to make films at a fraction of current blockbuster costs, yet with a much more powerful result on the screen.” – Doug Trumbull

Watch the teaser trailer for UFOTOG:

6 thoughts on “Doug Trumbull’s “UFOTOG”

  1. I so admire my childhood hero Mr. Douglas Trumbull. He is literally 10 years my senior, but to me watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teen for the umpteenth time was simply flicking the volume knob to eleven on the VFX scale. Then ‘Silent Running’ – bliss on a stick. You mean there is more… ‘Blade Runner’, and so it went.

    What I am about to say is something that is akin to a grumpy old VFX guy, but I feel it must be said, so here goes…

    I’m now old enough (shudder 62), to have witnessed several versions of 3D come and go, from GAF Viewmasters (luv ’em), ‘The House of Wax’ (1953), ‘The Bubble’ (1966). Several attempts at 3D television here in Australia by such people as the late Kerry Packer. To the last major incarnation that we are all familiar with now. But I have to ask… are today’s audiences really really screaming out to see 3D movies? My son is 15, we both dearly love movies (at least something rubbed off!), but he does not give a toss if a feature is in 3D or 2D, he actually complains about the glasses. Dear ol’ dad of course, vies for the 3D option if available, but my son is not fussed. I did a mini survey with all his mates, same answer… “We go for the story (aka action) not if it is 3D. Basic answer from all of them… 3D does not supply the ‘wow’ factor.

    3D TV – not in the running.

    I digress from Mr. Trumbull’s latest venture…

    But more history (sorry), When television raised its ugly 4:3 screen and threatened the feature film circuit, production companies introduced Cinemascope, Todd-AO, Cinema 65, even Imax (and so it goes, you get my drift).

    Mr. Trumbull, always the absolute professional creative genius, yup I said that, gave a select few Showscan, which never made it to Australia, or actually made a lasting impact anywhere, it became a ‘carnival ride’. Peter Jackson and the high-frame-rate ‘Hobbit’ – just how many movie goers went home realising they were watching something unique?

    So now, we are being offered, to quote Mr. Trumbull… “a new combination of technologies that will, take motion pictures to the next level and compete with the various technologies threatening to draw audiences away from conventional theatrical presentations”.

    I so, so wish that was true, but in reality it is another variation on things tried in the past, simply that. Something that will come and go.

    What many fail to realise with today’s (and tomorrow’s) audiences with the huge amount of options viewers have at their disposal – DVD, Blu-ray, movies, television and cable, but what really gets the kids tuned in (the future audience) is the net. Not 60fps, not 3D, not 120fps… the net. And that… is here to stay.

    There is nothing… “threatening to draw audiences away from conventional theatrical presentations” – there is the net though – it has already happened, just ask anyone aged 12 and up.

    My wish is to get movie goers off the flat (damn) white screen, and immerse the viewer in full holographic productions… but hang on, didn’t Samsung just release their virtual reality headset? So whatever happened to Sony’s virtual headset from two years ago? I found one on eBay for $800.00, no software supplied.

    If I had an answer to what folks really want in entertainment I would be listed on the stock exchange. I really think number one – is the story – number two is the sound level (my son agreed with that).

    Creating another – whizz-bang format is just adding to the number of past efforts that have – as I said – come an gone, and in this case … will go.

    Told you, Mr. Grumpy VFX (Please someone shoot me down ) Best Dennis.

    • Thanks, Dennis! I too subscribe to the belief that “content is king”. Format doesn’t really matter. Framerate isn’t really important. If the story is compelling it will draw the crowds. Period. That said, I try to keep an open mind about new processes. I remember being blown away by my first IMAX experience (back in its original film format) for example.

      I believe “UFOTOG” was premiered earlier this year in Seattle. If you’re reading this, and you were there, why not wade in and tell us what you thought? Has Trumbull developed the next big thing? Or is it just more smoke and mirrors?

      • I was indeed at the screening in Seattle. And I have so much to say that it warrants a blog unto itself — and for the most part I have it written all down. My efforts in writing down my thoughts stemmed from Trumbull’s insistence that they not delve into a standard Q&A format, but instead wanted to hear all the audience responses.

        So, here I am, 4 months later, and have yet to send this dissertation to Mr. Trumbull. Why? I think I’m filled with a bit of trepidation. Like Dennis, I’m a huge fan of Douglas Trumbull. He is one reason I am in this field. So, even with all my experience supervising visual effects on both 2D and 3D films — I still have this boyish side of me that says “Who are you to tell this genius where he is going wrong?”

        But, it is on my to-do list for this week, and every day it looks at me in the face saying “Are you going to do this or what?”

        That said: My primary walkaway is that the format succeeded BY FAR, the most when it was meant to feel like part of the theatrical experience — as if something were happening in the theater with you. Once the camera moved from that format into a more traditional storytelling mode — with moth traditional camerwork and traditional editing, it became less and less convincing. So, I think that initially, I would like to see the tech used in legit theater – -as a way to expand the stage back into space. Create a larger cast. Increase the scope of the story. Yes, the audience will have to deal with the glasses. But I think its worth a try — and at $65-$250 per ticket for Broadway shows, maybe the venue it a perfect place for this experimentation.

        And speaking of experimentation — that would be another forum for the technology. Experimental filmmaking where the experience holds more weight than any form of traditional storytelling. Luis Bunuel, Kenneth Anger maybe, Jodorowsky…and plenty of others would be able to utilize the technology much more effectively than the main stream directors.

        So that’s my opinion in a nutshell. I won’t go into all the technical reasons why I thought some things worked and others didn’t. I have to go back an reread what I wrote months ago to see if it still seems coherent.

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Todd. I had a similar reaction when I saw the 48fps HFR IMAX release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”. Conventional scenes with talking heads looked disturbingly like broadcast TV, albeit at ultra-high resolution. But more experiential sequences – sweeping helicopter shots of the New Zealand landscape, a zillion goblins swarming through digital caverns, looked breathtakingly good. Like you, my first thought was not “movie” but “theatre”. The tech is exciting, but seems at odds with traditional cinema. New syntax is needed, perhaps a whole new language. At which point, it ceases to be a movie and becomes something else altogether.

    • Dennis, having seen both MAGI and Samsung’s GearVR (both in prototype, but fully functional, form of course), I’ll take MAGI for now, as it’s a much better visual experience. DLP at 4K per eye is much better than OLED at 1280 per eye, and you get a much better comfort too, as the glasses weigh a lot less and are compatible with prescription eyeglasses. There is, of course, zero latency for head rotation in a theatre, something you don’t have with any VR headset.

      Will VR do better for non-theatrical content? Yeah, of course. Will the resolution improve? If low-latency 8K 5″ OLED screens become available, yes. Is the VR headset easier to set up for home or mobile viewing? Absolutely. Will Christie stop forever at 4K? Probably not. But for the next few years at least, the theatre will provide a better experience, and they have a large headstart.

      Todd, I don’t think Trumbull would argue with you about appropriateness. He says some of his Showscan films didn’t work at all because the content was inappropriate. He cites one film in particular which was a period piece about Leonardo DaVinci. Because no one living has seen Renaissance Italy in person, we can only relate to it through older films or paintings. So having something hyper-real just doesn’t work in that case. Likewise anything that is stylized to look like it came from a camera, like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity wouldn’t work (though you could still step print from 30fps video to 120fps and resize the footage from HD to 4K with a naive filter to maintain the look).

      While I agree with you about theatrical applications, I think the most powerful use will be in documentaries. Nature ones, of course, but also think about the kind that are designed to tell you someone’s story, to take you to their place in the world and show you what their life is like. To see their faces, to see their surroundings, to feel like you are in the same room as them as they tell their stories… It could be a very powerful persuasive medium as it heightens your sense of sympathy.

      One genre I’d love to see in MAGI is the awkward comedy, like, say, Borat. Would you feel more involvement in the situations, and thus a heightened sense of humor, if it felt like you were in the room when he finds out he’s staying in a Jewish couple’s house?

  2. Actually, UFOTOG was the name Douglas Trumbull created for his camera / telescope device to seek for UFOs in the sky which he mounted on a jeep (hence the name (U)FOTO(GRAPHY)). It seems that he rebuilt his holding system to make this new camera system, because I think I saw it in the video (it holds this huge magnifier glass plate or whatever this is).

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