I have seen the future, and it plays at 48 frames per second. It may not currently be without notable flaws, but technological revolutions seldom begin as such.
This week I saw a Digital IMAX projection of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in HFR. HFR (High Frame Rate) is a marketing term for digital video projected at 48 fps (frames per second), exactly twice the current film frame rate standard of 24 fps.
As some have accurately criticized, to the unaccustomed eye this has the tendency of making the film look like a 70’s BBC TV drama or an old soap opera (that’s because rather than using film, pre-HDTV era soap operas were acquired using economically efficient video cameras which captured at a rate of 60 interlaced fields per second, or the equivalent of 30 frames per second).
During scenes populated mostly by CGI characters I often felt I was watching a cutscene from a fantasy videogame. The high frame rate also appears to reveal more potential imperfections, particularly in scenes involving actors. At times Ian Holm’s (older Bilbo Baggins) face looked so waxy and dull I thought his makeup was applied by morticians. Makeup artists are going to have to be more stringent than ever in the HFR world. In fact, I’d say the majority of criticism attributed to the “eerie” look of this new process is an indication that all filmmaking disciplines will need to reinvent themselves to meet the challenge of the medium.
As HDTV lifted a veil of disbelief and opened a window to reality on television, so does HFR create an ultimately more immersive experience on screen. It takes about 30 minutes to become accustomed to what might seem like a disorienting sensation, and then the veil lifts and the “eerieness” disappears — a similar transitional curve as listening to the Elizabethan prose of Shakespeare for the first time.
I believe HFR digital projection should be the technical standard moving forward. The reason 24 fps still exists in digital exhibition has more to do with skeuomorphism than any other reason.
Skeuomorphism is defined as “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material.” Examples of skeuomorphic design include wood-painted trim on steel car doors, the SLR shutter-click sound on your cellphone’s camera app, and Instagram filters that simulate old Polaroids. Wikipedia says “Skeuomorphs are deliberately employed to make the new look comfortably old and familiar, or are simply habits too deeply ingrained to wash away.” That definition absolutely applies in the case of 24 fps digital exhibition as well– the comfort of the old applied to the new technology.
The 24 fps frame rate became a standard in the late 1920s because it was fast enough to maintain believability of lifelike action, yet not so fast as to be too prohibitively expensive to process the physical celluloid film — a decision ultimately determined by commerce.
In the era of digital exhibition, there is no longer any functional need for frame rate limitations. 48 fps was chosen because it’s closer to the limits the human eye can perceive and it’s precisely divisible by 24, allowing for full backward compatibility with physical film standards.
HFR certainly isn’t the first revolutionary technology in cinema, but it does represent a change to its longest held standard, so I can certainly sympathize with naysayers who feel HFR doesn’t represent the “look of film.” There has been opposition to nearly every new technological advancement in cinema — talking pictures, color, widescreen, 3D, digital projection — they all had their detractors, proclaiming these changes would kill cinema forever. They haven’t.
Most importantly, my 8-year-old daughter would likely not take notice of the difference between projected 24 fps and 48 fps, and even if so, would become acclimated to it — and comfortable with it — quicker. HFR will be the new “comfort zone,” the new “look of film” for future generations.
Of course, since there are no physical frame rate limitations in digital projection, directors can choose for artistic reasons to hang onto the comfort of 24 fps, but only until commerce (that’s the business part of show biz) outweighs art. How many directors still regularly shoot in black & white or the pre-widescreen aspect ratio standard of 1.33:1?
Just as Bilbo Baggins had to be coaxed from the comfort of The Shire to become a well-rounded person, so must we as filmgoers take the first steps out of our 24 fps comfort zone to enjoy a richer, more immersive cinema experience.