High Frames Drifter
Is the truth any truer at 48 frames per second? ☛
Like virtually everyone else in the film blogosphere, I’ve been to see The Hobbit recently in its High Frame Rate (HFR) presentation and, like everyone else, I feel drawn to offer my assessment of the new technology, especially since it raises some important questions about the nature of movies. Before I explain, let me give you a bit of background on the matter of frame rates. Unlike Peter Jackson, I’ll do my best to make it brief.
In their early life, movies were run between 16 and 18 frames per second (fps); that is, each flickering second would be made up of 16 to 18 still images run together to give the impression of movement. With the introduction of sound, the frame rate was set at 24, the figure at which it stands to this day. Televisions later adopted slightly different frame rates – 25fps in Europe, 29.97fps in the US – and developed different ways of presenting material shot on video rather than film, but for a long time frame rates didn’t change.
The first significant voice to question this status quo was not Peter Jackson, but Douglas Trumbull, Stanley Kubrick’s VFX wizard from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the 1970s he did experiments at Pomona College, California with various frame rates, which lead him to conclude that 60fps was actually the ideal for cinema. Removing the flicker apparent in conventional cinema and adding smoothness to movement, he argued, would allow the audience to former a closer emotional association with what they were seeing. He developed a projection system on this principle called Showscan. It failed to attract the level of industry support necessary for a technology to flourish that ate up about 10 times more celluloid per second than standard cinema (not only was the film travelling faster, it was also wider). Proving far too expensive, it withered on the vine.
This brings us pretty much up to date. Peter Jackson realised that digital technology has removed the cost obstacle of film stock that stood in Trumbull’s way. Jackson’s Hobbit runs at 48fps, which he asserts provides a more immersive experience than 24fps. James Cameron looks set to push the format further on Avatar 2 by returning to Trumbull’s 60fps. With these giants of cinematic spectacle behind HFR, its future must be assured.
But there’s a fly in the ointment. I mentioned earlier that TV had worked out its own way of presenting video material – it’s called interlaced frames. Each video frame is made up of two images (fields) shot a split second apart, leading to smoother motion than material shot on film. Unfortunately the effect is very similar to that of HFR. Even more unfortunately, the material most commonly shot with interlaced frames is news footage, quiz shows and daytime soaps. Rather than making The Hobbit more cinematic, Jackson has made it look more like Teletubbies. While the technical reason for the similarity might be lost on the general audience, the fact that The Hobbit in HFR feels somehow cheaper is inescapable.
Describing this coincidence as unfortunate, this may be too charitable. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the similarity between HFR and interlaced video, and Peter Jackson’s eye is certainly well-trained. Whether he decided to see past the similarity and decided that the audience must do so too, or had just gone too far down that road to turn back, is unclear. The fact that expensive TV drama, which could easily be shot with the smooth movement of interlaced video, chooses to adopt a more classically ‘cinematic’ 24fps should have been a clue that this might not be a good idea.
Adopting an optimistic mind-set, you might imagine that, given long enough, audiences will do as Jackson wishes and see past the format’s similarity to cheap TV, but motion is not the only problem with HFR. The Hobbit clearly shows that the technology provides just too much picture information. HFR reveals texture and detail much more than the standard 24fps, and as a result props and sets made for the film are exposed to a much greater level of scrutiny. The same goes for make-up, especially when projected on to a really big screen – any artificiality is instantly revealed. Any flaws in the compositing of digital shots is also exposed by the forensic eye of HFR. All these are problems for films set in a fantasy world populated by quasi-human characters, where by necessity three-quarters of everything in any given frame is in some way artificial.
But these technical problems have been discussed eloquently and at length, and with sufficient money could be overcome; for me, the real hubris of HFR comes in its misunderstanding of the nature of cinema. The belief driving Jackson and Cameron’s HFR arms race is the same belief that saw the Hollywood studios rush into 3D and push on into 4k projection (also known as ultra High Definition). Here’s the thinking: if we can make the cinema screen a window on to a world which the human eye cannot distinguish from reality, audiences will inevitably succumb. This just ain’t so. If removing flicker were the key to stirring the audience to wonder and delight, stage plays would be lot more popular: no flicker or juddery motion there.
What Jackson and Cameron have failed to realise is that since the dawn of cinema with its shaky, silent, black and white images shown at 16-18fps audiences have not just tolerated the stylised reality movies present, they’ve embraced it. Suspending our disbelief is a joy, not a chore. The gauss created by film grain and flicker lends movies a dreamlike texture, which helps us see past their other imperfections and focus on the essential truths that the stories are telling us. Give us too much reality and we become more literal-minded, pedantic even. I’m not suggesting a return to hand-cranked cameras, but there is a happy medium: it’s called 24fps.
By making a film not only in HFR but also in 4k and 3D, Jackson is giving us 16 times more picture information than you’d see in a standard movie and all that extra data costs a small fortune to manage. What’s more, due to its short exposure times, HFR filmmaking requires more light, and therefore a bigger lighting budget. Add to that the additional costs of making props and sets to the highest standard and hiring the most skilled VFX and make-up technicians, and you’ve got to ask: is it worth it? It looks like this technology isn’t set to make movies better, it’s just going to make them more expensive to produce. And it’s not the audiences who benefit, it’s the companies selling the technology.
I’m going to finish with a suggestion. Rather than ploughing their fortunes into bigger and more testosterone-based technologies, Peter Jackson and James Cameron could make movies more immediate, immersive experiences in a way that is almost guaranteed to succeed: they could set up an academy for screenwriters. A school, like the Juilliard for classical musicians, that was dedicated solely to refining the craft of screenwriting, and which trained writers to within an inch of their lives, would add significantly to the audience’s enjoyment of the stories that would result. It could raise the bar for studios and indy’s alike, just as HBO raised the bar for all other TV drama. Let’s see an investment in the ‘it’ of cinema rather than in the kit of cinema. You can obsessively clean the window of the screen to a high shine but if the story that’s happening the other side is dull, then really what’s the point?
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012
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