SLO firm helping to bring ‘The Hobbit’ to life

A special version of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens at midnight Thursday at the Fremont.

San Luis Obispo digital imaging firm USL Inc. is adapting the Fremont’s digital projector to play director Peter Jackson’s 3-D fantasy epic at 48 frames per second, a first-ever upgrade from the conventional 24 frames per second.

“The entire industry’s been buzzing about this as the next level of technology for cinema,” said Jack Cashin, president and founder of USL Inc.

Proponents say the faster frame rate more closely mirrors the way our eyes see, creating a sharper, more life-like image. But viewers who prefer the softer look of film may find the effect jarring.

Special effects guru Douglas Trumbull initially developed high-frame-rate technology in the late 1970s. Then, in 2011, “Avatar” director James Cameron introduced his version to the public at the first-ever CinemaCon, a movie industry trade show held annually in Las Vegas.

“He was very concerned about ‘Avatar’ because the millions and millions that were spent on special effects and imaging didn’t come across (at 24 frames per second),” explained Cashin, who watched Cameron’s video demonstration at the convention. “The movement was so fast that all you saw were blobs and blurs going by.”

In contrast, switching to 48 or even 60 frames per second produced “enhanced sense of detail” and “enhanced clarity,” Cameron told CinemaCon attendees.

Cashin has seen a few sequences of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” at 48 frames per second and said they look “absolutely stunning.”

“All the images are crystal clear,” said Cashin, whose business is working with Jackson’s Park Road post-production company.

A prequel to Jackson’s Academy Award-winning “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit” follows hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of dwarves on their quest to recover a treasure stolen by a dragon.

Only 450 movie theaters in the United States and Canada will screen the high-frame-rate version of the film, most of them in major cities.

In San Luis Obispo, the faster version will play at the Fremont until at least New Year’s Eve, according to Sanborn Theatres Inc., which manages the historic Monterey Street movie palace owned by King Ventures and Rossi Enterprises. Then the high-frame-rate “Hobbit” will move to Downtown Centre Cinemas on Marsh Street, also managed by the Newport Beach-based company.

According to Cashin, the technological test run is part of an ongoing campaign to win back audiences.

“The goal in the industry is to raise the bar so the experience in theaters is head-and-shoulders above what you can get at home or watch on your phone,” he said.

Still, he cautioned that it’s too early to tell whether 48 frames per second will become the industry standard.

“The attitude of everybody in Hollywood is to wait and see how the public is going to respond to this,” he said.

Founded in 1982 as Ultra-Stereo Labs, USL Inc. moved from Los Angeles to the Central Coast in 1997. Today the firm, the recipient of two technical Academy Awards, specializes in the development, manufacture and sale of motion picture audio and visual equipment.