Lately the internet has been abuzz with musings on whether 48 fps is good or bad – mostly on why it’s bad. What I find interesting about this is that, from a technical standpoint, 48 fps is clearly better than the current standard of 24 fps. It’s twice as much information; twice the temporal resolution. In an age of 4k cinema and “retina” displays, you would think that higher motion fidelity would be a good thing. You might also get that impression from hanging out in the TV section of your local department store, where just about every display is set to create fake in-between frames for the purpose of smoothing motion. I’ve overheard many people exclaiming that such pictures look better than movies in the theater.
I’ve personally been looking forward to high-frame-rate cinema since I first heard about Douglas Trumbull’s Showscan 60 fps format, and Roger Ebert’s extolling the virtues of Maxivision (a 48 fps format). It’s long been known that 24 fps was barely adequate, and despite modern arguments for the aesthetic superiority of it, it was an engineering decision that had nothing whatsoever to do with image quality. For a brief overview of the history behind 24 fps, see Phil Rhodes’s Red Shark post on the subject. The American Cinematographer Film Manual lists the “rules” for minimizing the unsightly motion artifacts of shooting at 24 fps; these rules have long been ignored by directors looking for more dynamic shots, from a tense conversation on the move in Argo to the nearly unwatchable action in Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films.
The problem becomes even worse in 3D, where your eyes must converge two juddering images into one. And so I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of The Hobbit, natively shot in 48 fps and in 3D, in spite of the complaints of those who’ve seen glimpses of it at CinemaCon and the like. Now that I’ve seen it, what do I think, and why do I think so many people have reacted poorly to it?
Is 48 fps better? Yes, undoubtedly so. The strobing effect is almost completely eliminated. The huge camera moves favored by Peter Jackson are smooth and clear. The whole picture feels more immediate, and the 3D more seamless. I admit that at first, the experience was quite bizarre, but after a few minutes I settled in and just enjoyed the benefits. So what’s the problem? Most of the complaints derogatorily compare it to a soap opera, which were traditionally shot on video at 60 interlaced fields per second (50i in Europe). These formats capture motion at a higher temporal resolution than 24 fps film, resulting in a similar look to HFR. So I think the reason people rail against HFR is that (1) it’s different from the look of 24 fps, which we’ve been living with as a defining part of the “film look” for decades; (2) the technical inferiority of standard definition, interlaced video has led to the view that it is not suitable for serious work.
In my opinion, these things should not stand in the way of progress. The Hobbit is the first mainstream HFR movie; it’s only natural that the novelty of it would be unsettling to some people. As these films become more prevalent, audiences will embrace the clearer, sharper, smoother image as the new standard.
For those who want to delve a little deeper, check out this PBS/WGBH discussion featuring Douglas Trumbull, Larry Thorpe, and Mark Schubin: