Genius behind delivery of high speed “Hobbit” in SLO
December 6, 2012
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.”
“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.