‘UFOTOG’ might make you a believer

Staff writerMay 9, 2014 

“UFOTOG” just might change the way we look at movies. The short film, by special effects master Douglas Trumbull, will premiere Sunday as part of the Seattle Cinerama Sci-Fi Film Festival,

The film follows a man trying to photograph UFOs. But its main purpose is to showcase a coming together of film technologies that creates an immersive, realistic experience.

When Trumbull embarked on the “UFOTOG” project, he first addressed frame rate. Conventional movies are shot at 24 frames per second (each frame is projected twice on the screen). It’s been that way since 1927 when it was increased to prevent flickering — that’s how movies got the nickname “flicks.”

Though the technology has long existed to shoot at a higher frame rate, it has been kept low to cut down on film costs.

Low frame rate combined with a dim, two dimensional projection creates the artificial, theatrical quality of cinema. As much as one might fall under a movie’s spell, no one forgets they’re sitting in a theater looking at a screen.

Now that movies are no longer shot on or projected with film, a higher frame rate can be used. Trumbull set out to find out why that wasn’t happening.

“What I saw was an industry applying all of the old habits of 24 frame … to digital,” he said.

Though 3-D technology has been enthusiastically embraced by the movie industry, it requires a higher frame rate to convincingly capture motion, Trumbull said. He discovered that the digital projectors now in theaters can run at 144 frames per second.

“Can we put a new image on each of those 144 frames?” Trumbull asked technicians. In theory yes, they responded, “but nobody does.”

Trumbull did. “UFOTOG” uses 120 frames per second and high definition. The result is smooth, fluid and natural imagery. “It got rid of all the old problems of movies: jitter, flicker, strobing, blurring. The images look completely real.”

Then Trumbull applied 3-D to it. The result, he said, blew him away. “It was like my personal holy grail. I finally achieved an image on the screen that was almost indistinguishable from reality.”

He knew at that moment he was ready to direct again. “This is what I’ve been looking for all my life – ever since ‘2001.’”

“UFOTOG” has a bit of an autobiographical angle to it. Trumbull has been trying to capture a UFO with a camera for several years. He has a Humvee equipped with telescopes and had technicians build object-tracking cameras for him.

Has any of it worked?

“I’ve never seen a UFO but I’ve sure made a lot of money making movies about UFOs. Maybe there’s something to it. I really hope, in our lifetimes, we’ll find out that we’re not alone. That we’re not the center of life.”

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