Although he’s presumably up to his eyeballs as an ace director to finally get the sequel to Avatar set to hit a theater near you this Christmas, James Cameron is also finding time to create new 4K and HDR versions of the original Avatar and his second highest-grossing film, Titanic.
Cameron being Cameron, however, “simply” delivering the movies in 4K and high dynamic range for the first time just isn’t a big enough challenge. It was also revealed that his company Lightstorm Entertainment will be teaming up with video software company Pixelworks, Inc to provide high frame rate home entertainment masters of both films for the first time ever.
Films are usually shot or at least mastered at a fairly low frame rate of 24 frames per second. Cameron, however, will remaster Titanic and Avatar using Pixelworks’ acclaimed TrueCut Motion platform, which remarkably allows a filmmaker to remaster shot-shot movies at nearly any frame rate they choose. Even potentially using different frame rates for different parts of the movie.
Cameron would like to point out that the application of the HFR to the Titanic and Avatar 4K HDR releases will not be on any arbitrary basis, “just because we can”: “We will present both films in 4K with high dynamic range visuals and worked with Pixelworks’ TrueCut Motion platform to remaster movies at a high frame rate,” he says in a Pixelworks press release before adding, crucially, “while retaining the cinematic look of the original.”
The usual cinema and home delivery of 24 frames per second movies is a throwback to the speed at which celluloid images passed through projector doors when cinema began to become an established form of entertainment. It’s certainly fair to say, then, that the move to higher frame rates is long overdue given how far filmmaking has come in other technical areas.
The only problem is that Cameron’s remasters of his two most popular movies won’t be the first movies released — in theaters or on home video — to try HFR. And previous attempts have met with a very mixed response, to say the least.
The most publicized HFR release to date was that of Peter Jackson The Hobbit trilogy, where all three films were made available in compatible theaters with high frame rate options for their 3D performance. Although I personally liked the extra clarity The Hobbit‘s HFR brought to the 3D experience, however, especially with the second and third movies where Jackson refined his HFR approach slightly, I was the only person in a group of four who went to see each of the movies together that had actually something positive to say about the HFR experience. The other three hated it, finding it made the special effects more contrived and cheapened the whole vibe of the film, making it look more like a provincial TV show than an epic Hollywood blockbuster.
The potential downsides of making high frame rate movies were even more starkly exposed by director Ang Lee’s two ill-fated HFR efforts. First there was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walkwhere a combination of a) the substantial shooting limitations created by the amount of light required to film in HFR 3D often led to stilted and clunky staging, b) the way HFR left all actors except the best ones, horribly wooden, and c) the “too perfect” feel to how everything looked ended up making the movie really hard to watch at times.
The same issues reoccurred, albeit to a lesser extent, with Lee’s second high framerate effort, Gemini Man. The action scenes of this Will Smith vehicle sometimes look quite extraordinary in all their more fluid glory, but even these “made for HFR” sequences can easily tip into contrivance. And the non-actioned parts of the film often feel clunky again and, ironically, more “staged” than they are in 24 frames per second.
If you haven’t experienced HFR in movies yet, Lee actually released both of his HFR movies in 60fps on 4K Blu-ray. It must be said that from an objective point of view, the raw image quality of these two 4K BD versions is truly spectacular, the additional images making it easier to appreciate all the capabilities of HDR and, in particular, of 4K. But 60Hz footage also makes the apparent difficulties associated with higher frame rate film sometimes making it all too apparent.
As stated earlier, I for one am not adamantly opposed to high frame rates. Far from there. HFR has huge potential for certain TV content, especially sports, and I think it could really turn the tide with movies too, as directors better understand how to shoot for that. I also suspect that the more we are exposed to HFR movies, the more we might start to get used to their different “feel”.
As things stand, however, there may well be more moviegoers hoping for the high frame rates on Avatar and TitanicUpcoming 4K releases of can be turned off/avoided, as there will be fans jumping for joy at what the HFR remasters might look like. I also suspect that even more Cameron fans will be sitting there wishing their favorite director spent less time messing with him. Avatar and Titanicthe frame rates of and more time to finally set up a long (long) overdue remaster of the abyss In place.
I couldn’t end this article, however, without pointing out that if anyone has a history of getting audiences interested in new filmmaking technology – even one that they might inherently feel hostile to – it’s James. Cameron.
Hate “The Hobbit” with high frame rates? Maybe you just need to see it again
This is what a $190,000 TV looks like