48 Frames Per Second: Movie Magic or Hollywood Hype?

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Theater attendance has been on a long, not-so-gradual decline since the early 90s, and studios are constantly looking for ways to get people back to the movies. For the better part of a decade, Hollywood has been betting on 3D to shore up sagging profits.

Even though overall revenues have edged up somewhat in the past few years, attendance is still falling. 3D provided a temporary boost in 2010 (due to the release of Avatar) but according to the MPAA, 3D box office was down by $400 million in 2011. Clearly the bet hasn’t paid off, especially for exhibitors who had to foot the bill for projector upgrades and who rely on strong attendance (and the related concession sales) to stay in business.

Despite all this, the studios aren’t backing away – as evidenced by the fact that nearly every blockbuster this summer (Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises being the notable exception) is being offered in 3D. But now they’re hedging their bets with another technology – 48 frames per second (fps).

Since the 1920s, the standard frame rate for shooting and projecting movies has been 24 fps – essentially 24 still images flashing up on the screen in rapid succession, while a phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘persistence of vision’ blends them all together. The 24 fps frame rate gives movies a soft quality that is responsible for the signature look of film for the past century. 24 fps is also responsible for some qualities that might be considered less than desirable, like motion blur and and strobing.

Higher frame rates help eliminate those artifacts and deliver a much sharper picture. And in fact the technology isn’t really that new. In the late 1970s, Douglas Trumbull developed a process called ShowScan that was based on 60 fps. It became popular at museums and theme parks but was never adopted by Hollywood.

So if higher frame rates are so much better, why aren’t all films shot that way?  Until recently the main reason was money. A huge chunk of movie budgets goes toward film stock, processing, and making prints. When you double the frame rate you essentially double those costs. But with digital filmmaking and projection becoming standard, those costs soon won’t apply anymore.

Recently, several well-known filmmakers have  taken up the cause, most notably Peter Jackson who is shooting his adaptation of The Hobbit on RED Epic digital cameras at 48 fps. From Jackson’s Facebook post:

Shooting and projecting at 48 fps does a lot to get rid of these issues (strobe and judder).  It looks much more lifelike, and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D. We’ve been watching HOBBIT tests and dailies at 48 fps now for several months, and we often sit through two hours worth of footage without getting any eye strain from the 3-D.  It looks great, and we’ve actually become used to it now, to the point that other film experiences look a little primitive. I saw a new movie in the cinema on Sunday and I kept getting distracted by the juddery panning and blurring. We’re getting spoilt!

This past April, Jackson screened some preview clips from The Hobbit at 48 fps for an audience at the CinemaCon tradeshow, and interestingly most of the attendees were underwhelmed. In fact, the general consensus was that the footage looked more like a 1970s soap opera than the next big thing in movies. A quote from the convention: “In a word, 48 fps 3D looks like high-def video. It doesn’t look “cinematic“…” (Jeff Wells, HollywoodElsewhere)

Jackson responded to the criticisms by noting that the convention center screening provided a less than ideal environment to showcase the technology – but he also acknowledged that 48 fps takes getting used to. “Film purists will criticize the lack of blur and strobing artifacts, but all of our crew – many of whom are film purists – are now converts.  You get used to this new look very quickly and it becomes a much more lifelike and comfortable viewing experience. It’s similar to the moment when vinyl records were supplanted by digital CDs.  There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re heading towards movies being shot and projected at higher frame rates.

By using the vinyl vs. CD analogy, I think Jackson may have unwittingly undermined his own argument. Ever since the debut of CDs, audiophiles have bemoaned their lack of warmth and texture. Today, vinyl is experiencing a resurgence – sales of vinyl albums have jumped more than 50% since 2008.

And it’s that same warmth and texture that speaks to my love of movies – they allow us to take a step back from reality and experience something in a detached, dreamlike way. Back in the early 90s I had the opportunity to watch a short nature film that had been shot at 60 fps. The experience was jarring. It really was like stepping into a moving photograph. I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t imagine sitting through two hours of it. My analogy is this: a great painting is not the one that’s the most photorealistic, it’s the one that tells the best story.  If the goal is the ultimate simulacra, I’m not buying. As a commenter put it recently in an online movie forum, “If I really want an immersive bit of entertainment, I’ll sit at the bus station for a few hours.”

Having said that, I’m willing to concede that I haven’t experienced 48 fps first hand on a big screen, and I’m open to the possibility that it may very well be awesome, particularly when it’s paired up with 3D. But in the same way that 3D isn’t the best format for every film, I hope that filmmakers see 48 fps as another tool in their arsenal and continue to use whatever is best suited to tell their stories.

Below is a music video shot on a RED Scarlet at 48fps. I doubt it’s possible to experience anything close to the full effect of the higher frame rate in an internet video, but I have to say it does look pretty nice…

Aurora – Easily Broken (red scarlet music video) from Daniel Peters on Vimeo.

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About Dave_P

Dave_P studied fine arts and film history and is a graphic and web designer, and a diehard movie fan. David has been involved with a variety film festivals including the Cinephile Film Festival, the PRIDE Film festival, and the Manhattan Short Film festival, and is currently the director of the Dark Carnival Film Fest in Bloomington, Indiana. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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