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

     January 1, 2013


[1] Tangent: There are plenty of examples where our unconscious makes decisions and we try to rationalize our choice later.  (Film Crit Hulk addressed this idea in the field of film criticism with his great essay on “tangible details.”) I suspect that is part of what is happening here.  HFR is noticeably different.  Our subconscious knows it doesn’t like this difference, but we don’t immediately consciously understand why.  When it comes time to explain why we don’t like HFR, we latch on to familiar experiences (soap operas, behind-the-scenes documentaries) to justify our position.

[2] To be clear, the Hobbit crew was very conscious of 48fps for all elements of the production design.  FX Guide has a great in-depth behind-the-scenes feature that highlights how Weta handled all the changes from Lord of the Rings.  Visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon notes, “We really went over the top and scanned every single set that it was shot on, which was absolutely beneficial.  We had 3D scans of everything—we knew the placement of everything when we got it back in the 3D world.  Because everything’s in stereo and at 48fps we needed a lot more detail.”

[3] Jackson himself states, “Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55fps.” I have no idea how he came to this conclusion.  My best guess says he is basing that on the critical flicker fusion.  The graphs below from Camera Technica suggest that the CFF tops out around 45-60hz based on the brightness, area, and distance of the image, respectively.  But this estimate would not hold for all viewing experiences.  And regardless, the issue of frame rate perception is more complicated than just looking at CFF, explained well in this detailed guide.

cff graph luminance

cff graph distance

cff graph area

[4] Okay, that’s a bit dramatic.  James Cameron, the most powerful director in the business, is intent on shooting the sequels to Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time, in 48fps.  Even if the Hobbit HFR experiment is deemed a failure, Cameron is the best backup plan a technology can have.  But without the financial incentive of a surcharge, studios will not push 48fps on the industry if there is no demand for it.


[Edit: A previous version of this article mistakenly credited Jonah Lehrer as a neuroscientist.]

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