poster for the movie Brainstorm, starring hristopher Walken and Natalie WoodMost of us—in fact, most moviegoers in general—have no idea how close we came to experiencing a quantum improvement in our regular movie experience, back in 1981, and how badly that improvement was dashed by such unfortunate circumstances.  That quantum improvement was to be presented to us in the movie Brainstorm.  Douglas Trumbull, the special effects genius behind movies like 2001, Close Encounters and Blade Runner, attempted to present movies in a novel new way: His Showscan process increased film frames per second 60fps versus the existing 24 fps, and at an increased size, 70mm film instead of 35mm.  A great article about the movie is on the Popular Mechanics site.

The article discusses Trumbull’s Brainstorm, a film about scientists who discover a way to record a person’s thoughts and memories and play them back to anyone else, with unexpectedly dangerous consequences.  It was originally supposed to showcase Trumbull’s Showscan process, but things didn’t work out that way.  And as fascinating as the story was, it one of those movies that, due to unfortunate circumstances, was seen by few people, and has since faded into obscurity.  But I saw the movie, and remember it fondly.  I still have a VHS version of the movie, and hope to someday score a DVD of it for my collection.

Chuck E CheeseBut I’ve also seen another early example of Trumbull’s Showscan process, an even rarer production that itself barely saw the light of day.  A friend of mine and I heard about the new process being presented, and were enthusiastic about seeing it when it came out.  But we were surprised to discover that this landmark Showscan film was being played exclusively in a very unusual venue: Certain locations of Chuck E. Cheese restaurants.

It seemed weird for us, two adults with no kids between us, going to Chuck E. Cheese to see a movie.  But hey, we were sci-fi nerds… we were already experienced with doing weird things.  So we went, we paid for our tickets, and we went into a small theater with maybe 80 seats, only about 5 of which were occupied.

The movie was cleverly set up.  It started with what seemed to be scratched, sound-scraped old footage of an aerial circus or somesuch, leaving us to wonder what the gag was.  But within seconds, the film seemed to burn and break, leaving us with nothing to watch.  The lights went black, then came back up a moment later, at which point a man walked onto the stage and explained to the audience that they were having technical difficulties with the film.

I don’t know how long this guy spoke to us, before we started to realize that… there was no one there.  We were actually watching more film, and this man was part of it!  But he looked so real!  And as we started to realize this, the man poked around along the screen’s wall until he found and opened a door that we knew wasn’t really there!  He walked through the door, and the point of view changed to follow him into the room.

And the incredible clarity of what we were seeing blew us away!  We were brought into a magician’s storeroom filled with incredible props and paraphernalia, and it honestly felt as if were were in the room with the projectionist as he wandered about.  And when the projectionist, just fooling around, got himself caught in what looked like a guillotine that just may have been real, we were seriously afraid for the guy’s life as the blade threatened to behead him!  It was a magician’s prop, of course, and he wasn’t hurt when the blade inevitably fell; but I swear my heart was racing like it never had before, because the moment felt more real than any movie I’d ever experienced!

This was the proof-of-concept Showscan breakthrough Trumbull wanted to bring to mainstream theaters in 1981.  (I wish I could find even one image from that film, but I can’t even find proof it existed!)  But the studios wouldn’t finance the process, the theaters wouldn’t pay for new equipment, and of course, the movie was far overshadowed by the unexpected death of star Natalie Wood during production, further turning the studios against even releasing the film.  Trumbull eventually persevered and the movie saw the light of day, but the experience so turned him against movie-making that he left Hollywood and never looked back.

A Showscan theater's extra-wide screen
Picture by Thomas Hauerslev, in Copyright 1992

It wasn’t much longer before Trumbull created IMAX theaters featuring the Showscan process, notably in the new Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and later at other locations.  At the same time, new amusement park rides featured Showscan, combined with seating that synchronized and moved with the film, convincing the audience that they were piloting X-wing fighters or flying with Doc Brown in his DeLorean.  But I’ll never forget my experience, before IMAX and amusement parks, of Douglas Trumbull’s revolutionary Showscan process that the studios wouldn’t finance for Brainstorm.

To date, movies are still being filmed at 24fps, and only occasionally in 70mm, for general viewing.  But if you’ve even been to an IMAX film, and wondered why don’t all films look as good as that… don’t forget the man who tried to give that to you.