Why 48 Frames Per Second Is the Future of Filmmaking (Probably, If We Let It)

     January 1, 2013

The Soap Opera Effect

“It felt like watching daytime soaps in HD, terrible BBC broadcasts, or Faerie Tale Theater circa 1985, only in amazingly sharp clarity and with hobbits.” -Jen Yamato, Movieline

In addition to the frame rate, we must also consider the flicker rate or refresh rate.  When projecting film, the projector closes the shutter (“flickers”) each time it pulls down a new frame of film.  So a projection of 24fps needs to flicker at least 24 times per second (Hz).  Most modern projectors already project 24fps at 48hz, meaning the shutter opens and closes twice for each new frame.  Some even go up to 72hz (3 flickers per frame) or higher.  This is done to exceed the critical flicker fusion rate (CFF) of the viewer to make sure that the light appears steady.  (Think of a 60hz light bulb.  The bulb does not emit a steady stream of light.  Rather, the bulb flickers at different light levels, but 60hz is fast enough so we only see the light, not the flicker.)

motion interpolation exampleThe refresh rate has become a key selling point for modern televisions.  The base level is 60hz, refreshing 60 times per second, but newer TVs go up to 120hz, 240hz, or even 480hz.  Often video is interlaced, separating each frame into one field of the odd lines and another field of the even.  So a 60hz television displaying interlaced video at 30fps refreshes each field 30 times per second.  This process uses up all 60 refreshes, but the dreaded “soap opera effect” arises with a higher refresh rate.

Televisions with a refresh rate of 120hz or greater are equipped with a “motion interpolation” setting.  (Your TV may call it something like TruMotion or SmoothMotion.) Rather than repeat frames, the television takes two existing frames, averages the brightness and color coordinates of each frame, and generates a new frame to insert in between the two frames.  For those who notice the effect, it looks unnatural to your eye because it is unnatural.  A computer algorithm approximates what the intermediate frame would look like if it were captured in the existing footage, and thus adds information to the image that is not entirely true to life.  This is especially true with quick camera movements, where the difference between two consecutive frames is more pronounced and makes interpolation less accurate.  (Maximum PC created a helpful diagram, pictured right.)

Soap operas are shot on interlaced video at 30fps, and thus represent the epitome cheap video that also strives to look somewhat cinematic.  Motion interpolation artificially increases the frame rate, so we associate the effect with the cheap video look of soap operas.

Shooting at 48fps is something entirely different though.  We will probably associate anything above 30fps with the look of video for some time.  But there is nothing cheap or artificial about 48fps—it doubles the visual information in the presentation by adding frames that were captured in the source footage.  HFR is entirely true to life, and by definition more true to life than 24fps.


Too Realistic

“As it turns out, it’s possible for an image to look so clear that it no longer looks real.  Or so real that it takes you out of the film.  As in: that film set looks like…a film set.” -Mike Ryan, Huffington Post

ian-mckellen-cate-blanchett-the-hobbitThe other chief complaint about 48fps is that it shows too much detail—that it looks almost too real.  HFR adds visual information laterally, between frames, so we should not see any individual frame in greater detail.  But since HFR reduces motion blur, the result is a crisper moving image across the frames.  In fact, HFR produces such a crystal clear representation of what was filmed that some say it transforms the theater screen into a window.  Even some of the harshest critics concede, “I can see this working for animation, sports, and nature films.” But this look is not appropriate for the immersive fantasy experience that The Hobbit aims for, or so the argument goes.

That raises the question of what a fantasy film is supposed to look like, and in general what it means to appear cinematic.  The Hobbit was not the ideal test case for 48fps—not because it is a fantasy film, but because it is set in a very familiar fantastical world.  We know Jackson’s Middle-earth well after spending countless hours with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But Lord of the Rings was shot on 35mm film, in 2D, at 24fps.  The transition to digital, 3D, and 48fps all at once is understandably jarring.  Such a drastic change is hard to accept, and when the general critical consensus says the story is lacking, it is easy to point to the brand-new HFR technology as a key culprit for the perceived decline in quality from Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit. [1]

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-stone-giantI believe the notion that 24fps is intrinsically cinematic is a fallacy.  The look of 24fps is “cinematic” because it was used in feature films for the last century, but we should not assume 24fps was used because it defines the cinematic ideal.  Film is still a relatively young art form, one that was created by technology, and so we are still experimenting to define what film can be.  Sound in the 20s, color in the 30s, widescreen in the 50s, surround sound in the 70s, CGI in the 90s, digital in the Aughts.  Today we are playing with IMAX, 3D, 4K projections, and finally, frame rates.

So right now, we associate HFR with the high-definition clarity of sports and documentaries.  Given the unstoppable transition from film to digital, that association need not be permanent.  Jackson wants to provide the ultimate immersive fantasy experience, but in 2012, 48fps proved to be more barrier than tool in accomplishing this goal.  Maybe filmmakers will be forced to change the way they design sets, props, costumes, and makeup, because there is less blur to hide the illusion.  If so, they will find a way, and Jackson can properly invite you into a fantasy world even without all that motion blur. [2]

Of course, the success of 48fps depends entirely on our ability to adjust to a higher frame rate.


Can We Get Used to It?

Movieline posted an article recently that boldly claimed to be “The Science of High Frame Rates, Or: Why The Hobbit Looks Bad At 48fps.” In the piece, filmmaker James Kerwin proposed a theory based in quantum consciousness:

visual cortex

“Most researchers agree we perceive 40 conscious moments per second.  In other words: our eyes see more than that but we’re only aware of 40.  So if a frame rate hits or exceeds 40fps, it looks to us like reality.  Whereas if it’s significantly below that, like 24fps or even 30fps, there’s a separation, there’s a difference—and we know immediately that what we’re watching is not real… [Some say] you watch it long enough and you won’t associate it with cheap soap operas anymore.  That’s nonsense.  The science does not say that.  It’s not learned behavior.  It’s an inherent part of the way our brains see things.”

I was dubious, as you should be when anyone definitively states the human mind can only perceive X frames per second. [3]  Vulture contacted Rob Allison, a specialist in human perceptual responses at York University, who denied such a limit:

“We don’t perceive at 24 frames per second.  We don’t think at 24 frames per second.  I’ve seen silly things on the Internet about how we think at 40 frames per second.  But there is no perception limit.”

Tim J.  Smith, an expert in visual cognition at Birkbeck University, confirmed to Tested:

“I think it is quite a stretch to go from cortical electrical activity to phenomenological experience of time…  The light reflected from a real-visual scene hits our retinas as a continuous stream (except when we blink or move our eyes), not a discrete series of frames as in film so no increase in frame rate will ever exceed the presentation rate of reality.”

brain movie projectionThe human brain is perfectly capable of processing the infinite “frames” of continuous motion in real life, so there should be no physical issue with adapting to 48fps.  Rather, we have trained ourselves over several decades to expect 24fps (and the associated artifacts) when we go to the theater.  I asked Michael J. Berry II, associate professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, if we can likewise train ourselves to expect 48fps.  Berry responded:

“Yes, I think that we would adapt.  Our visual systems are clearly capable of handling higher frame rates, as all stroboscopically delivered visual stimuli will have less information than real images in the world, which we can clearly process.  So the issue is really one of ‘familiarity’, in the sense of having an expectation of what movies ‘should’ look like.”

This view is supported by Marty Banks, a professor of optometry and vision science at UC Berkeley, who explained to Vulture:

“Colors are not as rich on TV sets or desktop monitors.  The motion is not as smooth.  Brightness is not as great.  We’ve adjusted to that, and we accept it.  So when we see a projection that is closer to reality than what we are used to, our brains go, ‘Whoa!’ and we get this ‘hyper-real’ sensation.  I think that’s what’s happening to people.  Things look unusually sharp [in The Hobbit], and we’re seeing something closer to reality.  If people are frustrated, it’s because this seems a violation of what has been considered normal.  Look at how people reacted when color was first introduced, or Hi-Definition, or Dolby sound.  There were negative reactions to all of those at first, too.  But now if you don’t have them, you feel deprived.”

So the good news is, yes, we can adapt.  Never discount the brain’s astonishing plasticity.  It simply may take time.


Should We Get Used to It?

peter jackson hobbit 3d glassesIn April, Jackson estimated we could adjust to 48fps by watching the first “10 minutes or so” of the movie.  Based on anecdotal evidence, it clearly takes more than ten minutes for many.  Allison is more conservative: “By your fourth or fifth high-frame-rate film, you’ll be used to it.” This is in line with Berry’s supposition that “the process of becoming familiar with 48fps movies will presumably unfold over many viewings of such movies.” Although he warns, “I expect it to be inhibited somewhat by continued viewing of 24fps movies, which strengthen our current sense of what a ‘normal’ movie looks like.”

That is a crucial point for the future of 48fps.  Unlike 3D, there is no surcharge for HFR screenings, so studios and theaters have no direct financial incentive to push 48fps.  Warner Bros. opted for a limited release of The Hobbit in HFR 3D to test out the waters.  Based on how well those HFR screenings sell, Warner Bros. will decide whether to expand to more theaters for the Hobbit sequels, set for release in December 2013 and July 2014, respectively.  Three movies over two years may not be enough exposure to adjust to 48fps, but if the audience—voting with their dollar—still largely rejects the technology, HFR could stall again as it did in the 1970s despite Trumbull’s efforts. [4]

“Riot” was a justifiable reason for art critics and music-lovers to bury The Rite of Spring and return to more familiar melodies.  The turning point for The Rite of Spring was that second run of shows, when a curious audience went to the theater with an open mind, and found the beauty in Stravinsky’s work.  The success of The Rite of Spring allowed other composers to experiment the way Stravinsky had, which opened up a new path in the evolution of classical music.

peter jackson hobbit slate

There will be drawbacks if we convert cinema to 48fps.  Jackson noted in his introductory Facebook post:

“We’ve actually become used to [48fps] 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!”

Devin Faraci of Badass Digest raises a valid point: If familiarization with 48fps renders the 24fps viewing experience unpleasant, this could be yet another barrier between future generations and a century of classic movies.  He argues:

“I’m not stupid—older movies are always a tough sell to new generations.  The films of the 80s and 90s look impossibly dated to kids born after Kurt Cobain’s suicide.  But widespread adoption of HFR is only going to make that divide much more serious, much deeper.  There are older films like The Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia that, even when seen with modern sensibilities, work for modern audiences.  Imagine a future where it isn’t just the aesthetics that alienate, but the very presentation format.  It seems to me that such a future is one with a very clear dividing line, as clear as the division between silents and talkies—on one side are the movies people see, and on the other side is 100-plus years of cinema history.”

the wizard of ozWe are still years away from a complete transformation to 48fps if it comes, so it remains to be seen if 24fps will eventually look strange to all of us.  Even the unlikely worst case scenario, where 24fps strains our eyes every time we see it, does not justify rejection of 48fps.  A movie must always be viewed in the context of its time period, whether it is silent, black and white, marked by an old-fashioned acting style, or filled with crude effects.  Maybe one day a low frame rate will be added to the list of considerations.  It will be worth it to accomplish the next logical evolution of film technology with all the promised benefits of 48fps.  When in doubt, do not resist the new to protect the old.

Critics are fighting for the art they love as they know it, and I respect that.  But this is not an issue we can judge solely based on our own first subjective experience.  Presentation in 24fps has treated us very well over the years, but 48fps offers something even greater.  It is our responsibility as cinephiles to give it a chance.  See The Hobbit in 48fps.  See the sequels in 48fps.  Keep an open mind and try to see what Peter Jackson sees.

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