Higher frame rates may be a topic that’s now passé in the press, but there’s still a movie coming out in HFR end of this year, and Warner Bros and exhibitors are busy undergoing the necessary preparations. In addition, certain standards activity in HFR is in the proposal stage – not ground breaking, but worthy of note. Last but not lease, a home may have been found for the creation of HFR test material, which will prove useful in defining long-term standards for HFR.
That Warner and exhibitors are preparing for the December 2013 release of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is of no news. But avoiding news about the HFR version appears to be one of the goals of this year’s release. The HFR 3D version of the movie’s trailer made its first appearance at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam. IBC is not a cinema trade show, but one populated with post production and video technologists who were least likely to complain that the movie “looks like video.” The European cinematographer community, who would have cast critical eyes at the trailer, spent their travel money on the IMAGO conference in Oslo the week before. The HFR 3D trailer reviews? You guessed it: the blogs say it didn’t look like video. Kudos to Warner for getting its first PR event for HFR 3D right this year.
Introducing HFR mastering and distribution standards is an important step in the formalization process. The challenge, of course, is that HFR in cinema is a work in progress. Warner had to dial down the compression bit rate (increasing the amount of compression used) in last year’s release because not all equipment in the field could support the target 500Mb/s rate. However, this year it appears that equipment bugs have been fixed and Warner can release with a bit rate at or near 500Mb/s. Further, Warner hopes that the SMPTE DCP issues it encountered last year, forcing it to release using the Interop DCP distribution format, have also been solved. There can be a fine line between bravery and insanity, and fingers are crossed that Warner’s intent to be the first to widely release a highly valued motion picture in SMPTE DCP will be seen as brave. (Note that only the HFR 3D version will be in SMPTE DCP.)
With confidence high for SMPTE DCP and HFR 3D, a SMPTE standardized version of the format is needed. Ordinarily, this would not be a big deal, but there’s the issue of compression bit rate that remains in the air. Hobbit’s past issues with bit rate are a consideration, but there’s also the fact that cinematographers would like to see higher quality HFR images in the cinema that those possible today. Underscoring the point, there is considerable opinion that the cinema industry is not ready for 60fps HFR 3D. No doubt this is giving Mr. Landau and Mr. Cameron reason to pause in regards to their next movie.
In summary, there is the need to move forward with standards today, the expectation of moving forward with different HFR standards in the future, and the overriding desire to not screw things up in between. Fortunately, the mechanism to accommodate all three wishes is available, in the form of a standardized metadata element called the “Picture Essence Compression Label.” Currently, only one such label is defined for SMPTE DCP, describing content that complies with the ISO/IEC 15444-1:2004/Amd 1:2006 JPEG 2000 Profile for Digital Cinema Applications. In simpler terms, it means the compliant decoder must be capable of playing JPEG 2000 compressed content at a 250Mb/s rate. In the near term, it is expected that SMPTE will add a label for 500Mb/s JPEG 2000 content. The significance is that the media block will be able to determine if the content is intended for 500Mb/s encoding, or 250Mb/s. If the media block doesn’t recognize the label, the content won’t play. This is good, as unpredictable results would occur otherwise. Similarly, a future compression bit rate, set to a significantly higher rate to accommodate HFR or higher resolution images requiring higher quality, can be introduced with yet another Picture Essence Compression Label. Distributors will groan at the number of content versions possible, but that train left the station a long time ago.
While the industry appears in the short term to be settling on the 500Mb/s rate for 48fps HFR 3D content, it’s not at all clear what the bit rate should be set for more demanding content, such as 60fps HFR 3D. Test patterns can be generated to stress encoders and decoders, but the results are more likely to be pathological rather than practical. Practical test material would be that designed by cinematographers and embodied through live capture, as in any motion picture production. To pursue this goal, a special collaboration led by David Stump, ASC, and your author, along with the Screen Industries Research and Training Centre at Sheridan University, has defined a shoot of HFR 3D test material, complete with budget. But the project needs a home to move into its next phase, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is giving thought to taking on the project. For those concerned about the fast pace of technology, this could be good news. AMPAS is not known for speed.