There are only 4 essential movies about VR: Brainstorm, Videodrome, Strange Days and The Matrix. After those, everything that there is to say has been said.

Another thing about Brainstorm that I don't see mentioned often is how real the corporate environment felt. As someone who spent the late 80s in and around university-adjacent tech startups, I really felt that part of the movie where the engineers think it's their project, until the suits yank on the DARPA-branded choker-chain and explain that, no, it's not, and it never was.

Anyway, about frame rates and aspect ratios:

"We were seeing stuff we had never seen before, because there was no blurring," Trumbull says. "The frames were sharp as a tack, because the shutter closure was so narrow. The movie became incredibly vivid and powerful."

They settled on 60 fps on 70mm film and named the technology Showscan, incorporating a company called Future General. "The reason I choose 60 was because that's the same frame rate that television has been forever, because television is very narcotically stimulating," Trumbull says. "We did this test in a laboratory at the university [California State Polytechnic] down in Pomona, California. We found these laboratory guys that were really interested in measuring human physiological stimulation -- to gauge people's reaction. We ran tests that could show all these films shot at different frame rates and do what they call a double blind study -- mixing them and never tell anyone what the order of events are. We hooked individuals up to an electrocardiogram, and an electroencephalograph [which records electrical activity in the brain], and we measured galvanic skin response [similar to a polygraph] -- all to measure the physiological stimulation at the different frame rates. It created this hyperbolic curve that got better and better the higher frame rate you went to. It was empirical. This was like a really epic discovery about how to make movies better. That was our mission." [...]

The increased film speed and aspect ratio shocked Rubin. "I've ridden on roller coasters in real life, and I rode the roller coaster in Showscan," he says. "The memory locked in by the viewing of Showscan was stronger than the memory of actually going on a roller coaster. It registers in a very deep, impactful way." [...]

That effect was going to play right into Trumbull's vision for Brainstorm. During the parts of the story when no character was wearing the magic headset, the film would run as usual -- 24 fps, 35mm. But when a character put the headset on and entered another character's consciousness, the aspect ratio would widen to 70mm and the frame rate would jack up to 60: Everything would seem bigger, crisper, hyperreal. Viewers would feel like they were wearing that headset themselves -- a meta effect pushing the science-fiction plot into something approaching reality.

Is there a digital version of this movie that comes close to capturing that experience or that level of detail? I guess that would take 8K at 60FPS? Which would be useless to those of us who max out at 1080p.

How do you watch a movie that switches between 2.35:1 @ 60 and 1.66:1 @ 24 on a 1.78:1 device?

I'd love to see this again on a real screen.

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33 Responses:

  1. How many movie places would have the equipment to show it? I dunno if the digital projectors common now were designed to have this change.

    • Biff says:

      When the Hateful Eight was released, it traveled around to certain theaters with a 70mm projector since most had converted to digital. Maybe limited runs? Don't know how many Brainstorm would draw, but the theater I went to see it in was full, on Christmas Eve in a mall no less.

  2. Mark Crane says:

    My dad took me to see this in the theater. I was probably sixteen, but in my memory I was ten, because the movie freaked me out so much.

  3. Doug Orleans says:

    Huh, eXistenZ doesn't make the list?

  4. Tim says:

    Dark City?

    • jwz says:

      How does that have anything even remotely to do with VR? Also, that movie completely sucked. The narration in the first scene explains the entire movie to you. I was 5 minutes in and said, "Welp, I guess we're done here."

      • owo says:

        The theatrical cut of Dark City suffers from OG Blade Runner syndrome, the so-called director's cut doesn't add much but at least it doesn't spoil the PKDish ride.

        On the other hand Proyas felt that keeping the garbage anime ending was a good idea....

  5. Chris says:

    And no Total Recall..? ;)

    • jwz says:

      Look, if you people are just going to go down the "In Popular Culture" list on some Wikipedia article like the dimwits on Twitter did, I'll just turn off comments.

  6. Rich says:

    I'm pretty sure my HD TV would spend a good 10 seconds "Searching for signal" every time the resolution / framerate changed on the HDMI cable.

  7. Injector says:

    24 doesn't go into 60 without a remainder. But both 24 and 60 go into 120. So for digital display technologies, you'll need something that can do 120 Hz. There are displays that can do that now, but HDMI 2.0 only has enough bandwidth for 1080p@120 Hz. Going up to 4k limits the refresh rate to 60 Hz. HDMI 2.1 increases the resolutions that support 120 Hz up to 10k.

    As for switching from ratios, on TVs this is usually handled by keeping the image at a constant width, and masking the top and bottom for wider pictures. This would have to opposite effect of what you're looking for, as the more expansive view would result in a smaller over-all picture area. Some people with projectors at home have created constant-height setups. Where 2.35:1 pictures use the full width of their screen, and smaller ratios leave the sides black. This looks odd on a 1.78:1 TV, as it leaves a border around the whole picture. (See this vlogger messing with an anamorphic lens for his phone: ) Actual movie theaters almost always have 2.35:1 screens and do constant height, so wouldn't be an issue there.

    So basically you'd need something that can do 120 Hz, constant-high projection on a 2.35:1 screen. And a source with the 24 Hz footage encoded with 5 duplicated frames, and the 60 Hz with 2 duplicated frames.

    • Owen W. says:

      24 goes into 60 in a 3:2 cadence, which is not perfect but is fine and is how movies have always been endcoded to NTSC. For a long time getting a TV set up to do 24p (really 23.976p but who's counting), was a pain in the ass. I wonder if modern hdmi stick devices even bother? (Hey, at least we don't live in Europe, where all the movies just play faster)

      • Injector says:

        Both the Chromecast and Shield TV (the two streaming boxes I have access to), along with PS3, PS4, and Xbox One X, have no problem ouputting 1080p24, or 4k@24Hz, when given such a source.

        Also all current TVs will do 2:3 pull down, when given 60 Hz video with a 3:2 cadence (at least when set to a non-interpolation mode). But the number of frames required before the cadence detection can make the switch varies from TV to TV.

        Before when displaying 3:2 frames as-is was the norm. I would always notice judder in any smooth movements from the uneven frame pacing. So I'm glad those days are gone.

      • Russ says:

        Not exactly how it works due to a trick that can be done with interlacing.

        • Owen W says:

          It looked "better" interlaced, but it still looks ok at 60p.

          @Injector makes a good point, TVs that do pulldown detection may introduce some flickery weirdness if the source flips between 60p native and pulled-down. That's not unusual though, older TV shows were often shot on film and then cut on video without regard for the cadence, so the 3:2 goes out of sync with every cut. (I once had to convert stock footage of a Budweiser commercial from 30i to 24p and had to un-pull-down every single shot by hand. Good times.)

          Long story short -- showing a film that switches apparent framerates on a modern TV should be no problem.

          • Aidan Gauland says:

            Everything in this thread and more is why I fucking hate video. I keep having to remind myself that at least it's better than the analogue video days.

    • MattyJ says:

      The bluray suffers from this weirdness. The real-word scenes are sorta letterboxed on the top and bottom as well as the sides. Feels like you're watching the movie while looking through a paper towel tube or something. It's a little jarring, but not the same type of jarring Trumbull intended. Shame that someone like Criterion hasn't got hold of an original print and tried to make a serviceable disc/stream. Though I'm not sure how most TV's would react. I have what I consider a pretty decent TV that can do all the bells and UHD whistles, but there's a noticeable flicker when it has to flip between refresh rates (like, say, when a 3D movie starts.) I'm not sure if there's a sane way to digitally encode this kind of film so that it doesn't look goofy in one way or another.

      For those of you not up on your movie history, it's worth looking up the story on how this film was released, or more accurately how it was almost not released, and the lengths Trumbull had to go to for it to see the light of day at all.

      • jwz says:

        Shame that someone like Criterion hasn't got hold of an original print and tried to make a serviceable disc/stream. [...] I'm not sure if there's a sane way to digitally encode this kind of film so that it doesn't look goofy in one way or another.

        Yeah, that's what I was saying -- what would that need to look like, to do it justice? It's not obvious.

        In the original theatre presentation, the real world scenes were also effectively both letterboxed and pillarboxed, compared to the size of the wall on which it was being projected, but since it was a huge, normal-looking theatre screen, presumably that wasn't noticeable or jarring and felt like an expansion rather than a reduction.

        For those of you not up on your movie history, it's worth looking up the story

        Coincidentally there is a link at the top of this page that will tell you that.

        • Lloyd says:

          Is the link at the top of the page the text in the slightly different green colour from the other text in the green colour that goes another slightly different shade of green when it is clicked on?

          Necessary attributions should be a bit more obvious, really.

          Oooh, this text is in green, too!

  8. Lestighaniker says:

    (Not trying to feed the "Popular Culture list, but)

    Instead of Matrix, there is the lesser known "World on a Wire", that also feeds from Simualcron-3.

    While Matrix has the better "cinematic experience" - and bullet time! - "World on a Wire" has the better storytelling around the simulation in the story. This goes especially for the social impact within and outside of the Simulation. We also are able to see both sides of the experiment, while the outside world in Matrix isn't that much part of the story.

    Okay, you have to sit through more than 3 hours of what many might call "German Art Film", but in my NSH point of view "World on a Wire" easily beats Matrix.

  9. nightbirdSF says:

    Can OS X handle an ultrawide monitor?

  10. You are, of course, correct about Brainstorm. I don't think anything comes close, not even Strange Days, which feels more like an homage to Brainstorm than a new thing with new things to say. And yes, as a lowly intern in the late 1980s, the corporate environment (and that one guy with the recumbent bicycle) was very familiar.

  11. Eerok says:

    I find it amusing that every VR wave trots out a rollercoaster sim as its holy grail. Then VR fails to catch on and things kinda peter out until the next tech wave/updated rollercoaster sim.

    The Vectrex 3D imager really blew our minds with "3D Crazy Coaster".

  12. Carlos says:

    On multiple aspect ratios in digital content...

    They do this for some "IMAX" versions of movies on BluRay; the different sections in different aspect ratios are matted differently inside the same container video resolution (which is normally the 1920x1080 or 3840x2160 etc full resolution), so one section will be letterboxed, then the next might be full-frame or even pillarboxed, etc.

    So Brainstorm (great movie, agreed!) could be given a proper release on BluRay (or in a streaming format using the same technique) at least aspect-ratio wise. The change in frame rate is a little trickier, though the BluRay standard probably supports it somehow.


  13. bq Mackintosh says:

    This would be an excellent candidate for Cinerama in Seattle. They routinely do 70mm films.

  14. thielges says:

    ”They settled on 60 fps on 70mm film and named the technology Showscan”

    I’m under the impression that half of marketing terms for proprietary technology are actually just parameter settings of legacy technology.

    As for Brainstorm, I was impressed with the Hollywood rendering of the brainstream tape as being a wide holographic optical media that looked like it could provide the bandwidth needed. But that was dashed later in the movie when they sent that data stream through an acoustic modem from a pay phone near the end of the movie. Really? You couldn’t even send an mp3 real-time through that narrow channel.

  15. Andrew Klossner says:

    The reason I choose 60 was because that's the same frame rate that television has been forever ...

    NTSC television's frame rate was 30, not 60. (Its field rate was 60; each field contained half a frame.)

  16. plums says:

    I've never seen this movie, and now I want to.

    The article suggests that it's really all 24 fps though, just different aspect ratios? I mean that's hard enough to get right in a home release, but still...

    He took the idea over to MGM, which agreed to take on Brainstorm—sort of. They revised the plot, and reached a compromise on the filming: It would all be 24 fps, but the headset’s effect would be shot on 70mm film, and displayed with stereo sound, versus 35mm and mono sound for the real-world sequences.

  17. margaret says:

    This article raises a lot of questions, including 'When did "Popular Mechanics" start carrying articles like this?' I subscribed to them on-and-off in the 80s and 90s but only remember stories about how to change the oil in your Roadmaster and how to keep your planer blade from rusting. Good on them.

  18. its vanity says:

    So there was this one time when I was briefly but actually in the actual building with the fucked hexagons motif that appears briefly in the movie, back when I was getting money from a drug company and the drug company was paying other people to sit in the fucked hexagons building and the building was called the Burroughs-Wellcome building even though by then it was no longer owned by Burroughs Wellcome which no longer existed and is now called the Elion-Hitchings building which has apparently been mostly abandoned for years now. Then I looked the building up on the internet because it looked like fucked hexagons which I think is when I found out that it was famous because of this movie, which I then watched, no doubt illegally, on the internet. I was a big fan of The Matrix back then, and also of getting fucked, which is really starting to get old. Since then I have learned that movies are pretty much empty voids of nothingness and nothing, but I think watching Brainstorm was the first time I really saw it. It is still the acme of nothing. I could say freezing cold scientific corporo-academic lots of nines pure sealed empty nothing, but it's just nothing. It's so nothing I can't even hate it. I can't even react to it. I got nothing. I could probably forget about it if I would just get off the damn internet already. The internet. Like a great void. A great sucking vacuum of nothing.

    The building, at least, is an actual thing. Technically. Sort of. For the moment. Did I mention that it's a hollow shell of a hollow shell now? At least that's what I read on the internet, which coincidentally also happens to be a gratuitously surreal manufactured monstrosity full of people I don't know and have never met and never will who are also mostly getting paid to do obscure things related to various kinds of gratuitously elaborate alternatives to reality, much like that stupid university where taxpayers paid me to take out some loans to learn that computers and also libraries are basically cheap and legal psychotropic drugs at the same time as the drug company was paying me to make the screen do pretty colors at random but mostly to browse the internet. And by internet I mean world wide web. With a web browser. I blame, in chronological order, Sir Tim, jwz, and myself. Also Alan Turing, and... you know, no. Never mind.

    In conclusion: Small world's a stage, now with big bright high tech rail mounted motorized automatic electric spotlight, very carefully pointed at nothing.

  19. NT says:

    Just coming back to say that the best book about virtual reality is Infinite Jest, and it's interesting that, just like in the best movie, the payload is delivered by videotape.
    There was also a Bruce Sterling quote way back when, to the effect that virtual reality was like freebasing television.
    Thinking about it more, the other best book about virtual reality is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I'd better stop now.

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