Douglas Trumbull - Temporal Continuity

thefilmbook by Benjamin B

I had the great privilege of spending a couple of hours speaking with the legendary Douglas Trumbull in Amsterdam during IBC. This is the first of several posts about our discussion.

Douglas Trumbull -thefilmbook- photo by Benjamin B

Cinema technology pioneer Douglas Trumbull -photo Benjamin B


Douglas Trumbull

Douglas Trumbull's illustrious career started at the age of nineteen with a cold call to Stanley Kubrick, to convince the director to let him work on special effects for 2001, A Space Odyssey. Trumbull ended up developing the slit-scan technique used for the memorable visionary trip in the third act.

Trumbull has established himself as a special effects maven with his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and, most recently, the flowing galactic imagery of The Tree of Life. Trumbull also directed two features: Silent Running and Brainstorm.

In the late 1970s, Trumbull spearheaded Showscan, a revolutionary film process involving shooting and projecting 70mm film at 60 fps, that presaged the current movement for high frame rate championed by Peter Jackson and James Cameron. Although Showscan garnered many positive reviews, it was beaten in the high-end marketplace by its competitor, Imax. Trumbull went on to establish his own R&D workshop and studio in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, working on a variety of futuristic technology, including immersive amusement park rides.

This year Trumbull has been presenting a short film he directed, Ufotog, shot in a novel 60 fps 3D process he has developed called MAGI. He showed the film at the Toronto Film Festival on a single projector, and at IBC using Christie's brand-new dual projection 6P system. (6P stands for the 6 laser Primary color light sources). The quality of the imagery was, as Trumbull accurately describes, "uncannily real".


temporal continuity

Trumbull has spent his life pioneering cinema technology in many different ways, but a recurring theme in his work is his manipulation of the shutter. He points out that the early introduction of the double-bladed shutter, to reduce flicker in projection, created what he calls a temporal discontinuity: for every single flash of the camera, there are two flashes of the projector, because each frame is projected twice. This practice has continued with digital projectors, for the same goal of flicker reduction.

2-bladed projector shutter-

The 2-bladed shutter eliminated 24fps flicker but introduced temporal discontinuity by flashing each frame twice

Forty years ago, Trumbull re-established temporal continuity in film with his Showscan process, by modifying the pull-down mechanism to obtain one projector flash for every camera flash. His current MAGI system seeks to re-establish temporal continuity in digital 3D, by shooting images for the left and right eye in the same temporal sequence as they are projected.



In the video below, Trumbull argues convincingly that temporal continuity is one of the keys to a more natural perception of time in cinema, and explains his use of two Canon C500s to create sequential images to the left and right eye in the MAGI 60fps 3D 4K system.

watch on YouTube


projection cadence

By offering a different sense of the reality of the image on the screen, Trumbull's imagery makes a powerful case for the importance of temporal continuity between the camera and the projector. Trumbull also helped me understand that the stuttering twin images, that we have always associated with cinema time, are another convention, like the frame shape, that we can now choose to change, or not, in the digital era. Like brilliant people often do, Trumbull made me reconsider the obvious.

We should carefully distinguish between stereo and temporal continuity here. I would love to get more information about the temporal continuity of 48 fps films, like The Hobbit. It may be that it avoided double flashes, but still violated temporal continuity by shooting both eyes at the same moment.

Of course Trumbull's plea for matching camera and projection time also applies to 2D, as it did for Showscan. I for one am eager to see more projections of 2D images that only flash once, so that I can more carefully explore how this viewing cadence defines my sense of cinema time.

However, I also have great respect for the traditions of cinematic artifacts and conventions, and it may be that the twin projection images are an essential part of the mysterious magic of cinema, or perhaps more precisely, of a certain kind of cinema.

I am eager to see.

Our next post continues this investigation of shooting and viewing cadences with Douglas Trumbull.



Wikipedia: Douglas Trumbull

Douglas Trumbull web site

YouTube: UFOTOG MAGI demo video

YouTube: Trumbull Cinerama/70mm video playlist

YouTube: Douglas Trumbull TIFF 2012 Master Class

YouTube: 1936 short about Persistence of Vision


thefilmbook: Douglas Trumbull 1 - Temporal Continuity

thefilmbook: Douglas Trumbull 2 - Future Movie Theaters

thefilmbook: Douglas Tumbull 3 - Future Filmmaking



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