Much has changed in motion picture technology since the 2009 release of the first Avatar. Today the audio quality is better and movie projectors and TV screens are delivering much bigger and brighter images. Thanks to high dynamic range, the images have more color and contrast. Resolution has improved as well. But as good as these images are they have a downside: they exaggerate visual artifacts such as motion blur and judder. Until recently, the one aspect of filmmaking that hadn’t advanced in nearly a century was the motion itself. Today, though, when the public finally gets its chance to see Avatar: The Way of Water in movie theatres, they are certain to notice its look, because James Cameron’s film is the highest profile feature to date to benefit from Pixelworks TrueCut motion grading technology.
According to Richard Miller, executive vice president of technology at Pixelworks, the story begins about fifteen years ago when the company first began working on the challenge of motion grading. The company’s goal was to make high frame rate filmmaking more cinematic. Work on the TrueCut Motion technology began about five years ago. Millions of dollars were spent on its development.
There were hurdles to overcome along the way, not the least of which was the fact that the creative community in Hollywood was largely unimpressed with the concept of high frame rate filming.
It certainly didn’t help that Peter Jackson’s 2012 film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was largely panned for its HFR look. Ang Lee’s 2016 film Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, also filmed in HDR drew a lot of criticism for many of the same reasons. Many people said they found the HDR images to be harsh and artificial looking. The images were not cinematic, people said.
The issue was definitely on cinematographers’ minds in 2017, when Miller and his team were invited to give a motion grading presentation to the American Cinematographers Society. Prior to the event, Curtis Clark, ASC, and chairman of the ASC Motion Imaging Technology Council cautioned Miller not to use the phrase high frame rate or the acronym HFR. “If you do,” he said, “you’d better bring a raincoat.”
Today, Clark is a TrueCut Motion technology fan.
The people at Pixelworks listened to as many filmmakers as they could and implemented the feedback they received and by 2019 the TrueCut Motion technology had received technical excellence awards from both Lumiere and the Hollywood Professional Association. Looking back, 2019 was a very important year for Pixelworks.
TrueCut Motion technology provides filmmakers with a visual palette of cinematic motion looks that goes beyond anything previously possible. While motion pictures have seen tremendous improvements in picture performance, with higher resolution, higher dynamic range and more colors, the motion look has remained unchanged for close to a hundred years. TrueCut Motion technology allows filmmakers to dial in the motion, with any source frame rate, shot by shot, in post-production. The TrueCut Motion platform then ensures that these creative choices are delivered consistently across every screen, whether in the theatre or the home.
In 2019, the Chinese action film The Bravest was motion graded on Pixelworks’ TrueCut platform. It was the fourth Chinese film to be released using the TrueCut Motion platform, and a look into the cinematic opportunities to come for filmmakers using this video platform. The movie, which premiered in Beijing, grossed box office sales of approximately $85 million in just six days and was released in both high dynamic and standard dynamic range in theatres across China. “Our ecosystem partners in China had been gearing up for the release of The Bravest and we were thrilled to see its success,” said Miller.
Also in 2019, Miller said, Cameron and other people from Lightstorm Entertainment approached Pixelworks. Then came the pandemic and COVID-19 greatly slowed down their efforts together. Finally, though, their collective efforts were rewarded and last July they were ready to make an announcement: "We're bringing Avatar and Titanic back to the big screen, looking better in every way," said Cameron. "We will be presenting both films in 4K with high dynamic range visuals and have been working with Pixelworks' TrueCut Motion platform to remaster the films in high frame rate, while keeping the cinematic look of the original."
"Lightstorm is once again extending the boundaries of the cinematic experience, and we are ecstatic to be a part of that," Miller said at the time. "After experiencing these remastered versions of Avatar and Titanic, we believe more and more filmmakers will be excited to take advantage of motion grading with TrueCut Motion technology."
The motion graded version of the first Avatar was re-released in September. Miller said the original Avatar took less than three weeks to complete the motion grade. The motion graded version of Titanic will be re-released on Valentine’s Day 2023.
Pixelworks has three teams on premise, but they also have a system that can be used anywhere: on set, in a production facility or a post house. Pixelwork can take a title in any format and any frame rate and motion grade it to the filmmaker’s preferences. That content is then delivered in a fixed frame rate version that is compatible with projectors that run at 24 frames per second. To date, the company has motion graded about a dozen films.
“Advancements like 4K and HDR have improved image quality over the years, but motion, intrinsic to the filmic experience, has not kept pace. It’s been an issue for filmmakers and viewers alike,” said Miller. “Filmmakers want to push the boundaries for motion, and camera and production technologies have enabled them to do so. Unfortunately, key elements of motion imaging at the display are stifling creativity in this respect. Today’s state-of-the-art, large screen televisions have achieved incredible advances in resolution, color, dynamic range, and sheer screen size, but at the expense of motion integrity. Judder levels are increasingly distracting viewers from the story. De-blur, which is great for games and sports, changes creative intent for shutter angle, and subtly but importantly, changes the feel of the title. Higher brightness is necessary for the typical home viewing conditions, and we all want bigger screens, but these attributes amplify motion problems even further. This is a difficult problem to solve, and only an end-to-end platform can bring the next level of brilliant motion imaging consistently across every screen.”
TrueCut Motion gives filmmakers the ability to address motion looks shot by shot during post-production, optimizing the in-theatre as well as the at-home viewing experience through powerful software algorithms in order to explore a much larger range of incredible motion looks. And this can all be achieved in lockstep with color grading at the same facility, neither complicating nor adding to post-production workflows.
“Right now, we’re interested in working with filmmakers,” Miller said. He believes that the TrueCut Motion technology can advance even further.
Cinematographer Clark offered his opinion: “As cinematographers we have to manage every aspect of motion imaging amid continuous advances in imaging technologies such as greater resolution, and high dynamic range. But these imaging technologies are affected by the way they are rendered via the camera frame rate combined with movement of the camera [such as panning and, tracking], along with choreographed movement of actors, and all of which impacts the creative look of the images on screen. For example, the latest high resolution, high dynamic range, large screen displays for both next generation cinema and television using higher luminance levels tend to enhance judder and reduce motion blur depending on camera frames per second, lens focal length, panning and/or tracking speed. The TrueCut Motion technology from Pixelworks is a timely and much needed solution to help bring consistency to presentation across different screens, and therefore provides more creative options for using motion to finesse the creative look.”