Genius behind delivery of high speed “Hobbit” in SLO

December 6, 2012

By LISA RIZZO

The worldwide movie premier of “The Hobbit” next week will unveil the fastest imaging in cinema history during a journey through ‘Middle-earth,’ thanks in part to technology designed and manufactured by USL, Inc. in San Luis Obispo. And, it will only be available at theaters in select major cities around the world, with at least one exception: SLO town, USA.

The Peter Jackson 3D blockbuster, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” was shot at 48 frames per second (FPS), twice the speed of traditional movies, where every second of footage normally seen is made up of just 24 pictures, producing movement artifacts like strobing, flicker and motion blur with fast camera movements and high action scenes.

This High Frame Rate (HFR) technology is the largest advancement in shooting speed in about 80 years, according to industry leaders, and has never before been seen on the big screen.

“Now, in the digital age, there’s no reason whatsoever to stick to 24 FPS. We didn’t get it perfect in 1927,” says director, Jackson, on his Facebook page. “Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55 FPS. Therefore, shooting at 48 FPS gives you much more of an illusion of real life.”

Besides reducing movement artifacts, the high speed images are also intended to make the 3D experience more gentle by reducing eye strain.

This new generation of cinema technology has the potential to change how movies are shot, projected and viewed in the future, according to industry leaders.

Before any such cinema evolution can happen, movie theaters must first convert to a newly developed playback system to read and project the massive amount of data HFR requires––something less than one percent of cinemas have completed.

Consequently, the release of the HFR 3D version of the J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation is very limited; just over 430 theaters in a few dozen cities out of the estimated 150,000 cinemas around the globe will be first to screen the picture for the worldwide release on December 14.

At the historic Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo, fans will get that state-of-the-art view of goblins, dwarves and wizardry in the fantasy epic set 60 years before the “Lord of the Rings.”

“While making that possible was shy of sorcery, “strings” were certainly pulled,” admits James (Jack) Cashin, USL president.

“We are now in the digital domain when these experiences are affordable,” says Cashin. “The Hobbit is one of these milestones and we are lucky to have it here in San Luis Obispo.”

Some of the ingenuity behind the future of cinema technology is located on Bonetti Drive in San Luis Obispo, at Cashin’s USL, where HFR playback systems are designed and manufactured by the company’s 49 employees.

The San Luis Obispo company is one of only four in the world currently producing the new players.

Cashin is a two-time Academy Award winner and has a long and noteworthy history in the movie industry along with his wife, Vice President Felicia Cashin who spearheads the customer service side of the operation.

The Cashins are celebrating their 30th year since USL’s humble beginning, as Ultra-Stereo, offering low cost options for studio surround encoding and cinema sound equipment––an endeavor which began in their garage in Malibu, Calif. and then moved to Tarzana, Calif. before settling in San Luis Obispo.

Before beginning USL, Cashin had already made a name for himself in the 1970s working for director Robert Altman, designing the “now famous location eight-track recording system, which revolutionized the technique of sound recording,” and was showcased with the release of Altman’s renowned film, “Nashville.”

Subsequently, Cashin founded Advanced Cinema Systems and went on to develop cinema surround sound processors and studio and production recording equipment.

During the Cashins’ time in Tarzana they completed soundtracks for nearly 2,000 films, mostly “B” movies, as a way to address the need for affordable technology in the middle market movie industry––films including the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Mystic Pizza,” and “Friday the 13th” films.

“Dolby focused on the big blockbusters and we focused on the rest,” Cashin said

“We were the B queens,” Felicia added.

Their success has not gone un-acknowledged. In 1984, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Cashin a Technical Achievement Award for engineering and developing “a 4-channel, stereophonic, decoding system for optical motion picture sound track reproduction.”

Then in 1991 and 1995, the company was honored with two Teddy Awards, also known as Manufacturer of the Year by the International Theatre Equipment Association (ITEA).

The Cashin couple said they felt it was time to leave Tarzana in 1996, after several tragedies began to negatively influence their community including earthquakes, fires and the killing of rap artist Tupac Shakur, whose energy seemed to lurk in the nearby studio and gym he frequented.

Felicia put out a company-wide vote, naming several possible new locations to move their business. Since they had a vacation home on the Central Coast she added San Luis Obispo as a fluke chance. To her surprise, more than half the company voted to uproot the company and move it several hours north to San Luis Obispo.

The ‘slow’ town image has not hampered USL’s efforts to stay on top and produce cutting edge technology for the motion picture industry.

Just one year after the big move, Cashin won his second Academy Award in technical achievement for his Projection Screen Analyzer, a device that measures screen brightness and allows for adjustments to create optimum projection performance.

And USL has since received three more Teddy Awards, something the Cashins are particularly proud of, as displayed by the many awards that line the foyer walls of their building.

USL was first on the market in their industry with closed captioning devices for the hearing impaired and other theater ADA compliance technology, and the company now ships thousands of imaging boards around the globe.

It has been seven years since the cinema manufacturers shifted focus from sound to pictures––a direction prompted by a window of opportunity, Cashin said. It was a window that emerged in the form of passion and plight from “Avatar” director James Cameron at a CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, where he described his high frame rate vision for the future, Cashin said.

At first, the idea was welcomed by critics with excitement but the HFR technology has since faced some scrutiny, after an early screening of unfinished “Hobbit” work sparked mixed reviews.

Some critics complained that the higher frame rate looked like high definition television. Others remarked that it seemed so real that it looked fake, taking away the fantasy of cinema.

It remains to be seen whether the negative fallout stemmed from premature judgement of an incomplete production, a human trait of resistance to change or sincerely genuine criticism.

Regardless, Cashin, who is a member of the Academy, says resistance to increase frames is nothing new, besides it’s the producers and directors who will be the ones to lead the change.

“Even in the 80s when there was a push to do 60 frames, the studios virtually passed out when they saw the cost,” Cashin said.

That was when movies were shot on film so any increase in shooting speed would double or even triple the costs––an expense studios were not ready to endure to alter the status quo, Cashin said. Now a film arrives at theaters by FedEx in a single relatively small case, and the contents look much like a computer hard drive.

“We are at the beginning now that we are in the digital domain,” Cashin says. “We created an alternate reality in digital. The next generation is high resolution and high frame rate projectors.”

The future of cinema means image rendering time will go up and post production costs will be higher by a few million dollars, so the technology may only be capitalized by big budget production companies, Cashin said. Theaters will also need to invest in the advancement, which will run about $15,000 a piece for HFR players alone, according to USL.

For now, “The Hobbit” is “a taste of the future which is going to be in imaging,” Cashin says. “This is where cinema is going.”

On the cusp of the worldwide premier of “The Hobbit,” the pressure is on for Cashin, who says he is nervous and excited being tasked with delivering Jackson’s masterpiece to the big screen.

“Every piece is being pushed to the limit,” he said. “It’s a cutting-edge player that pushes some 10 billion bits of data into a projector.”

At the same time he is calm and humble. And, when “The Hobbit” takes San Luis Obispo to ‘Middle-earth’ come December 14 at Fremont Theatre, Cashin says he will be there, right in the control booth.

Trailer:


8 Comments

  1. Cindy says:

    Can we purchase tickets ahead of time someplace? I’ll certainly be going to see it before I decide if I like the idea of high speed or not. I hear that the rain is incredible and that people will see it like they’ve never seen the rain before.

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  2. R.Hodin says:

    Excellent article.

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  3. MaryMalone says:

    I have my doubts about the wisdom of using this technology for this particular film.

    The Hobbit is a fantasy tale that takes place in a fantasy place. Hobbits are a peaceful, dreamy-eyed fantasy species. Elves are also a peaceful, fantasy species, who live in mystical forests. Bilbo Baggins lives in a very quiet, bucolic setting.

    The “new” technology Jackson applied to the film, by many reports, gives it an “edgy” look, and is more suitable for the Dark Knight franchise than Tolkein’s Hobbit. The story has NOTHING “edgy” about it. The “artifacts like strobing, flicker and motion blur with fast camera movements and high action scenes” really have no place in the Hobbit story, but is more suited for action-based films, especially with the grungy, industrial feel.

    In short, there is NOTHING about hobbits that is “edgy.” There is nothing “edgy” about a species that prefers having “elevensies” and sitting before the fire and smoking a pipe, to having an adventure.

    Indeed, a lot of the appeal of The Hobbit story is Bilbo Baggins’ “every-man” nature.” He is not a superhero, with futuristic technology and gadgets to help him get the job done. There is no dark, edgy Bruce Wayne lurking underneath Bilbo’s comfy tweed vest. Bilbo is able to slay a dragon IN SPITE OF his physical and emotional makeup, not BECAUSE OF his physical and emotional makeup, and it is this “everyman” quality that makes The Hobbit story so compelling.

    The reviews of the technology for this film have not been very good, and Jackson now finds himself having to try to sell the technology to potential viewers.

    The reality is, however, that the folks who are the devoted fans of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth stories most likely will not be pleased with the grungification of “The Hobbit.”

    The Hobbit is a story of other-world magic and battles, not an edgy action movie.

    In attempting to make “The Hobbit” something it isn’t, and Bilbo Baggins someone he is not, Jackson has lost the very heart and soul of Tolkein’s quiet, dreamy, fantasy Middle Earth, and with it he has lost the fans of Tolkein’s “The Hobbit,” as well.

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    • bobfromsanluis says:

      Mary: I have read many of your comments here over the couple of years CCN has been online and many times I agree with what you write, either in its entirety or maybe just part of what you have stated. On this particular comment however, I am going to have to part company with you for the most part. What I have read about this new technology does not really align with your suggestion that the “edgy” look isn’t suitable for a fantasy story; the few reports I have seen suggest that the “clearer” imaging of the higher frame rate enables one to “see” the movie set for what it is, a movie set, and in some spots, the CGI special effects look to be just that, special effects. Although history may not be kind to this film in the regards of how clearly the sets can be spotted and the special effects are noticeable, this is the future of film making and all of the other components of film making will be dragged along, possibly kicking and screaming, but my prediction is that special effects will only get better so they won’t be as noticeable and movie sets will be produced to a much higher standard so they don’t also show up on the new, clearer frame rate.
      Any predictions about the reaction of Tolkin fans about the content of the story, about the adaptation by Peter Jackson and about the overall acceptance by movie fans in general are all pure speculation at this point, the one factor Mr. Jackson has going in his favor is the success of the LOTR trilogy that did so well; Peter Jackson apparently knows what he is doing in the fantasy realm, so let’s all take a look at the actual film before we pass judgement on his work. It could possibly be his biggest flop ever, or it might just be the direction all films will be going very soon.

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      • MaryMalone says:

        Bob, I respect your opinion, but I disagree with it.

        Using new technology on a beloved, aged, classic fantasy work, like “The Hobbit” IS edgy. It is also stupid and short-sighted.

        I agree, the ultimate test is to see the movie. However, there are already plenty of reviews from people who have had a preview of “The Hobbit” using its new technology from which we can glean the impact of the 48 fps filming.

        Here’s one article: tinyurl.com/bjcoe67

        Here’s a quote from that article from Peter Jackson: ” ‘ The movement feels more real,’ Jackson said. ‘It’s much more gentle on the eyes.‘ ”

        I don’t think Jackson “gets” “The Hobbit.” It isn’t supposed to be “real.” The viewer must suspend belief to even get a foot in the door when it comes to enjoying “The Hobbit”–book or movie. So how does using technology that makes the movie look “more real” in any way help the conversion of “The Hobbit” book to “The Hobbit” movie?

        Here’s a quote from an audience member who saw the preview: ” ‘It reminds me of when I first saw Blu-Ray, in that it takes away that warm feeling of film,’ one film projector told the industrry newspaper Variety.” “The Hobbit” wasn’t written as a cold apocalyptic film. If that’s what Jackson wanted to film, he should have done a remake of “The Road.”

        I don’t have a clue what Jackson means by “gentle on the eyes,” but others in the audience didn’t seem to agree with Jackson’s assessment. Quoting from the article:

        ” ‘In this reporter’s opinion, it looks like live television or hi-def video. And it didn’t look particularly good. Yes, this is shocking, but I was actually let down by the Hobbit footage, as were a number of the other journalists that I spoke with afterward….Frankly, it was jarring to see Gandalf, Bilbo or the dwarves in action against CG-created characters or even to move quickly down a rocky passage. The whipping of a camera pan or the blur of movement was unsettling.‘ ”

        That doesn’t sound “gentle on the eyes” to me.

        What I think is worrisome for Jackson and the film investors is the fact that even those whose self-interests are to be on the defensive against criticism of the movie, Jackson and the 48-fps gambit, can’t come up with a good reason to jump on the 48-fps bandwagon:

        An unofficial J R R Tolkein fansite TheOneRing.net have gone on the defensive on Twitter, suggesting that people just had to get used to the effects.

        How can it be “gentle on the eyes,” as Jackson claims, if, for viewers to be able to tolerate the new film technique, they have to spend the time, effort and resources to “get used to the effects”?

        So, for fans to enjoy “The Hobbit,” at the level reasonable for a beloved book made into a high-$$$bucks movie, we have to first sit through the movie multiple times so we can “get used to it”? That’s kind of an expensive burden to put on the viewers, isn’t it?

        Finally, the last paragraph of this article echos what I have seen as a short-sighted gizmo-ship approach by Jackson to a truly loved masterpiece of fantasy fiction, “The Hobbit”:

        Producers and theatre-owners will be wary of the technology; this preview seems not to have hailed the new era of filmmaking that it might have hoped to. ” If Jackson’s short-sighted vision turns into a big fail, it will taint any attempt in the future to make another high-budget version of “The Hobbit.”

        And Jackson just HAD to marry his vanity gizmo-ship filming to, of all projects, the making of “The Hobbit”?

        If Jackson was going to experiment with film technology on a wide release of a movie, why in the fracking world did he have to choose “The Hobbit” to do it? Why did he have to screw around with such a wide- and uber-loyal fan-based project as “The Hobbit”?

        Using the 48 fps is pure ego on Jackson’s part, and certainly sounds like it is a response to James Cameron’s comments that he may use the 48 fps for Avatar 1 and 2.

        If Jackson simply HAD to show off to the rest of his Hollywood pals, couldn’t he have picked something more appropriate, like “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”? I’m serious. That book (which I loved) would have worked out well for a new edgy approach to filming.

        At least that way, if it turned into a big FAIL, Jackson wouldn’t have disappointed legions and generations of “Hobbit” fans, and the door will still be open for a director who has a clue (and can check his vanity at the door) to take on the job of adapting ot movie such a generations-proved fan-popular book as “The Hobbit.”

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    • R.Hodin says:

      The negative spin you’re trying to amplify regarding this potential work of cinematic art is little less than the historical echoing of skepticism which invariably accompanies the advent of technical progress and great works of art which prove to change the course of their respective disciplines.

      Sorry, but it’s such a common expression that it really doesn’t deserve a detailed response. Fortunately, society is accepting of luddites and reactionaries so you have plenty of esteemed company.

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