Watching a film in a darkened theater is an illusion. The film runs through the projector intermittently, getting exposed to a thousand watt lamp as the image printed on celluloid is rocketed through a lens, and thrown hundreds of feet on to a giant screen. Alternately, this same process happens digitally, as the image from the processor is given life by a similar lamp and lens. What unifies the old ways of 35mm film and the new digital DCP packages, is that they are both being displayed at 24 frames per second. Despite all these wonderful pieces of machinery and silicon, the illusion is actually created by our minds. The human eye and brain can process more than 24 frames per second, but we are so used to the 24fps film format that our minds fill in the gaps between the frames, creating what we know as “Cinema”, or just simply “The movies”.
So, why has film been projected at 24 frames per second for almost a century? The answer is sound. Silent films were shot in a variety of speeds, mostly in the teens, but when “talkies” became all the rage, a frame rate that was fast and continuous enough had to be adopted. 24fps was a compromise, it was the lowest frames per second that could sync properly with sound, and therefore didn’t break the bank with exorbitant print costs, film has never been cheap. There were arguments made at the time, particularly by Thomas Edison, who believed that 46fps was the sweet spot to reduce flicker and eye strain. This is the argument filmmakers such as James Cameron and Peter Jackson have been making- they got it wrong in 1926, and now we have the ability to correct it. Except, as I mentioned above, they don’t seem to take into account the fact that a very powerful, and wonderful illusion has been created for almost 100 years, and no one has been complaining. No one, except them, the studios and many theater owners, and their various reasons are highly suspect.
So what does 48fps offer? Well, besides twice the frames? A clearer, sharper picture, and smoother motion. Those things sound nice (“You’re getting DOUBLE the frames!!”), but they don’t shine through in practice. Let me explain what I mean in less technical terms- have you ever watched a News broadcast, a Soap Opera, or a home video? What about the TVs on display at your local electronics store that advertise gimmicks like “TruMotion” or some other useless buzz word? If you’ve experienced any of those things then you know what 48fps HFR looks like, just projected on a giant screen. They are not exactly the same thing, but the look is similar enough for a quick comparison. The nightly News is traditionally shot at 60fps (or 60 interlaced frames shown in alternating fields at 30fps ), so are Soap Operas, and the video camera you use to capture the moment your son whacks his uncle in the nuts with a baseball bat. These things make sense to our minds, because they are not Cinema, they are everyday life, and that’s how we are used to seeing them. Except Soap Operas, they’ve been shot on the cheap and on video from the get go since they are a daily broadcast, but would you want Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead to look like a Soap? And those new TVs with the extra motion bells and whistles? They are just adding frames where there are none, and displaying everything in a hyper-real motion that takes the hard work of film crews and post-production professionals, and reduces their work to looking like, well, a Soap. These new motion setting work great for gaming, but if you are looking for a true cinematic experience, grab the remote, quick!
Cameron and Jackson would balk at my comparison above, but given the ways we all watch film and video, I believe it is appropriate. But the proof is in the pudding, I wrote everything above prior to seeing The Hobbit in 48fps HFR, using my technical knowledge and experience in filmmaking and videography. Last night I took the plunge, and here’s how I honestly feel after the experience:
It’s a joke.
I know that’s not the deepest of thoughts, but the entire film felt like a giant farce. It’s as if someone glued a beard to my uncle and put silly putty on my cousin’s nose. Everything I mentioned above is here in spades, and then some. Sets look like sets, many special effects look like the graphics they really are, and feel separate from the live action, and the lighting looks completely unnatural. Much of the action looks downright silly, particularly the scenes of Radagast sledding through the forest. It honestly looks like the level of green screen compositing you’d see in a skit on SNL. For a movie trying to sell me on a giant fantasy world it did everything in its power to make me not believe. Is the image hyper clear? Absolutely. Is the effects work technically gorgeous? Definitely, the textures and animation on the whole are fantastic, but that’s all they are- technical beauty, not a part of a world I escaped to. Proponents of 48fps HFR keep claiming that it puts you into the world right with the actors, but I don’t want to be there, because the look tells me they’re actors, I want what I know to be cinema, and escape to Middle Earth with my imagination. The most damning thing I saw is also a very ironic one- Star Trek: Into Darkness. The 9 minute tease was presented before my screening of the film, running in 24fps, and it literally obliterated anything I saw in The Hobbit in terms of cinematic glory and pure escapism.
The smoking gun in all this is 3D. Studios and Theaters have been pushing 3D hard for years because it’s a new gimmick to sell the audience, it adds an up-charge to ticket prices, and is generally un-pirate-able. 48fps HFR cures many of the problems with the current crop of 3D films. Complaints of eye strain, motion strobing, or “judder”, and muddy pictures all go away in 48fps. The eye is relaxed and the motion is smooth. That’s all well and good, but there are two problems with this- first, anything gained in the 3D experience is far outweighed by the look of the 48fps, for all the reasons discussed above. Second- who the hell would want to sacrifice our cinematic escape for something that is, with a few exceptions, just a gimmick? 3D is not the future of film, not for the artists anyway. Maybe the studios should pony up, and actually hire talented screenwriters for their giant blockbusters instead of making us wear plastic glasses. Good storytelling will always be the future.
Let me end by speaking as a professional. I have been working in Film and Video production for over 15 years. In that space virtually everything is shot on some form of video, and as videographers we have been striving to attain the look and feel of the 24fps cinematic experience since any of us picked up a camera. We’ve dealt with footage shot at 60 interlaced fps, and found ways to trick the camera into shooting footage that looks more like film. The advent of HD brought the ability to shoot in progressive scan (the “P” in 720p and 1080p), essentially giving us 30 still frames per second, much like the way film operates. In the last few years we’ve really broken through- High end digital cameras and DSLRs now shoot in “24p”, and the highest end of camera makers broke through and gave us digital film cameras (such as the RED) that, in the right hands, give us our coveted cinematic illusion, but digitally, instead of on film. Now, people like Cameron and Jackson (both of whom I have immense respect for) are zipping by us, but going in the opposite direction. Guys, we’ve already been there, and we didn’t like it. 48fps HFR isn’t the future, it’s the past. We don’t want our film watching experiences to be “real”, we want them to be an illusion, an escape, one that requires us to sit in a darkened theater and use the most powerful tool in all of filmmaking- imagination.
Joel Rickenbach is a curator of cult cinema at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA, and can be heard every week talking film, TV and other geekery on the You’ve got GEEK podcast. Follow him on Twitter and hilarity will no doubt ensue.