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.

Low frame rate in action

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.

Bilbo’s house… I think.

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.

James Cameron: bigger, stronger, faster

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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13 Responses to “High Frames Drifter”
  1. Bill Hayes says:

    Maybe they ought to have an academy for Exec Producers who control who makes what. Crap in gets you crap out.

    I was looking forward to the Hobbit this Christmas till I found out it was to be a 2 years experience. If Krubrik can do the entire history man’s place in the cosmos in 110 minutes, surely Peter Jackson can do a 250 page book in 3 hours.

    I am quite happy with 24 frames and cinema ticket prices that don’t require a mortgage.

    Interesting over-view of the frame rate story – thanks. Happy New Year.

  2. Eric Rodriguez says:

    To add to the confusion of frame rate, most if not all, modern film projectors have a ” butterfly” shutter, which means that even though the film is running at 24 fps, the flicker rate is 48 ps or higher. The main reason film changed from 16 fps to 24 fps was the advent of the soundtrack printed onto the edge of the film, and the sound fidelity was better at the faster speed. That frame rate increase with the advent of “talkies” is why today we see the silent films of Charlie Chaplin etc. at the comical frenetic pace because they were shot at 16 fps and are now shown at 24 fps. They were not intended to be seen in fast motion.

  3. Matthew Gough says:

    Astute and spot on as always. I recently saw some Dolby 60fps 4k test material, and thought it looked like very shiny telly. As you say, people don’t want a ‘window on a world’ experience when watching a film, they want to escape into that world.

    Your suggestion that Cameron et al should invest some of their money in improving the quality of writing for other films will of course fall on deaf ears, as the audience they are appealing to has such a limited attention span that any scene with lines of more than three or four words and scenes of more than a few minutes sees them turning to their phones to check facebook or tweet about how bored they are, or leave the cinema to get another barrel of coke and trunk of popcorn, so better writing is utterly wasted on them.

    I was talking about this only this morning: the Hobbit is a prime example of the widening gap between ‘summer blockbusters’ and everything else in the film industry. Sad but true.

    • guyducker says:

      Thank you, Matthew, for your kind words. I’m more optimistic about audiences however. While the public will take what they’re given – what choice do they have? – I do believe that they will respond to quality, if offered to them. In some ways “Avengers Assemble” was as big and dumb as any film in the “Transformers” franchise, but the dialogue had panache and there was wit to the script throughout.

      Of course attention spans and expectations can be eroded, but they can be restored too: compare the quality of writing in American telly of the 80s to that post the HBO boom of the late 90s. I truly believe that people respond to quality, if they’re given the chance to.

      • Matthew Gough says:

        I’ve been doing some further research, and interestingly (amongst my friends and acquaintances at least) there’s a general divide: ‘film’ people are disgusted and horrified by the HFR stuff first, and disappointed at the film in general second; whilst ‘non-film’ friends (but who DID see it in HFR) are disappointed at the film first, and only mention the HFR when asked about it specifically. I have more friends who’ve enjoyed the film having seen it in 24fps 2D than in 48fps 3D.

        So my very scientific research shows that ‘joe public’ is turned away by these ‘improvements’ in technology, regardless of how good or bad the writing is.

        As an aside, the article you link to below is fascinating: the human mind can forgive a certain degree of artifice – it’s ‘the magic of cinema’ – but the more ‘real’ the experience, the less forgiving we are. Film making techniques will improve to cope with the increasing technology, however it’s an un-winnable race unless the technology keeps still for the techniques to catch up.

        As a further aside, I’m assuming you saw the film with a Dolby Atmos sound track – any thoughts on that?

        • It’s the old ‘uncanny valley’ problem I guess, in some ways. It’s interesting that we can more easily let ourselves get transported by a stage production where sets are obviously not real, and performances are ‘to the back of the house’ than we can on a multi-million dollar production with amazing sets and makeup, which is still not quite convincing. Stupid subconscious, getting in the way of my cinematic enjoyment 😛

  4. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think most of the ‘TV’ qualities of The Hobbit’s presentation were actually due to over-lighting the scenes. A lot of them looked fake or stagey because the lighting looked artificial, and the characters were over-saturated. There were a few scenes that actually looked quite ‘cinematic’, but they were all around dusk, where skin tones were more muted – eg, the ‘white council’ meeting in Rivendell and a couple of the speeches at the end. I suspect the reason is over-compensation for both the faster frame rate and light lost thanks to the 3D glasses. With more practice, I think cinematographers and colour graders will find a happier medium and get HFR footage closer to what we have come to expect.

    As to the length of the Hobbit, well, I do wonder how long it will take for a ‘Compact Edition’ of the film to get released after the final film (official or otherwise), which trims it back to the book, and nothing but the book. I’d give it a gander. 🙂

    • guyducker says:

      David I’m with you on hoping for an abridged version of ‘The Hobbit’ when it’s done. It’s got to be the first film where the director’s cut has been released first!

      As for the lighting issues, Vincent Laforet has watched all three release versions and has interesting things to say about the comparison: http://blog.vincentlaforet.com/2012/12/19/the-hobbit-an-unexpected-masterclass-in-why-hfr-fails-and-a-reaffirmation-of-what-makes-cinema-magical/

      • Interesting article. 24fps is definitely a different medium, and I’m looking forward to watching the film again in 2D. I did relate to a lot of what he said, particularly about engaging with the story. He did also note that he felt that the 3D/48fps version seemed to improve as the movie progressed, which I would agree with, and I don’t think it was just me ‘getting used to it’. I think they learned things along the way, both in production and in post, and were improving as they went. Completing a film of this scope 6 months after wrapping the shoot is somewhat miraculous as it is, so I don’t think there was a lot of time left to go back and polish scenes that had been completed earlier.

        Anyway, we will see. There will be at least two more films released in this format between now and July 2014. It will be interesting to see if parts 2 and 3 feel like an improvement.

  5. How fascinating that the early pioneers may have stumbled upon the perfect balance of technology and seduction with 24fps. I’ve long believed that any aspect of filmmaking that exposes ‘the strings’ that are being pulled will only ever lessen the impact and power of cinema. 3D and now HFR seem to be guilty of this, but I don’t think such technologies should be abandoned.

    Perhaps new genres of cinema will emerge, that deal solely in thrill and spectacle. Where story takes a more obvious second place to spectacle, where spectacle is embraced much like it was during the early IMAX films, and the old ‘Cinema 180’ attractions at theme parks.

  6. Ivan Noel says:

    If Art needed more ‘reality’, we’d have given up black and white photography a long time ago, yet still plenty of photo Art, poster adverts use monochrome. It concentrates de ‘Art’ part of it, taking away the ‘common’ part – which is what an audience likes.

    The hollywood argument that they make rubbish films because ‘it is what the audience asks’ is utter, almost criminal, bolony. Audiences take what their given, and adapt, as they always have. Artists are the ones and only who hace the responsibility to progress and improve technique, stories, acting etc.
    The rest (high frame rate etc) are all just gimmicks for a producer to try and stand out of the crowd, kidding the audience they are making something ‘new’, and hoping it shows in their bank account later.

    Just as an add-on, though it hasn’t caught on yet in cinema, the ‘new’ technology that I think is more than interesting is HDR (high dynamic range) – which is an improvement to the image without it being ‘real’ (despite what they say, it don’t look real), is visually stunning if done well, and lends itself to much greater post-production creation.

  7. Joe Tunmer says:

    Just saw it in the HFR. Agree with all your points – it looked awful (except for the lack of vertical deinterlacing, which made pans a joy to behold)… But one additional effect that I wasn’t expecting, and can’t work out why is happening, is that a lot of the actor’s movement, despite remaining in sync, felt sped up. Is this just another editor’s trick now being exposed by the HFR, or is something else happening? Keep up the good work…

    • guyducker says:

      Thank you, Joe.

      I think that sped-up look might because of the necessarily short exposure time needed to expose 48 frames a second. Movement becomes slightly sharply as a result.

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