If you are at Collider, you probably watch a lot of movies. Based on our demographics, most of you have seen The Hobbit. A significant portion of you will see The Hobbit in 48 frames per second. Virtually all of you who do will think the higher frame rate looks strange, at least at first. And yet, Hobbit director Peter Jackson proclaims 48fps is the future of filmmaking. Critics are far from convinced, calling the new look “a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction” and “washed out and flat, yet unforgiving in its hyper-realism.”
Jackson’s push for 48fps (also known as High Frame Rate or HFR) has sparked a surprisingly heated debate over what seems like a relatively simple technological innovation. Although my first viewing of The Hobbit was a peculiar experience, I am a believer in 48fps. So after the jump, I examine the arguments for and against 48fps, the neuroscience behind the negative response, and what it will take for HFR to find widespread acceptance.
The Most Outrageous Thing
Before we start, I recommend you listen to this excerpt from the “Musical Language” episode of Radiolab that examines the arc of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring from “being the most outrageous thing that literally maddens people, to a triumph, to kids music.”
A brief recap: Stravinsky premiered The Rite of Spring as a ballet in Paris in May 1913. Stravinsky’s composition sounded different than the traditionally beautiful music of Wagner that this audience was used to. In particular, Stravinsky relied on one dissonant chord, pounding it over and over throughout the entire piece. The audience hated it. They grew restless, started shouting and fighting each other, and this eventually escalated into a full-fledged riot. Rioting cannot be a mere expression of disapproval for this crowd. Something else must be going on here.
Science writer Jonah Lehrer explains, “There are groups of neurons whose sole job it is to turn that dissonant note, dissect it, take it apart, and try to understand it.” Radiolab proposes that on that night, in the face of the repetitive dissonance of The Rite of Spring, those neurons failed to make sense of what they heard. This failure to recognize the pattern changed the brain chemistry (specifically dopamine levels) in such a way that the audience temporarily went a bit crazy.
However, by the second run of shows in April 1914, audiences came out in droves—partly to see what this music was that caused a riot no doubt—and loved it. They gave it a standing ovation. The Rite of Spring became a part of the classic cannon, and just two decades later was palatable enough to feature in the Disney kids movie Fantasia. Lehrer calls this “the perfect evidence of the brain’s astonishing plasticity.”
Our brains were presented with new information. It was jarring at first. We hated it. Then, with context, we accepted the new information and learned to value it. I believe 48fps can follow the same path, from controversy to natural innovation. But we do have a say in this.
Why Increase the Frame Rate?
Film simulates fluid motion by capturing and projecting individual still frames of that motion. Early silent films were projected at about 16-24fps until the frame rate was standardized at 24fps with the advent of sound film. Filmmakers argued for higher frame rates to better capture motion and achieve decent sound quality. Buyers pushed for lower frame rates, because a higher frame rate means more film, and film stock was expensive. The result was a compromise at 24fps, which has been sufficient for the last century, but not necessarily optimal. Heck, motion picture pioneer Thomas Edison himself reportedly recommended 46 frames per second because “anything less will strain the eye.”
Douglas Trumbull started developing Showscan, which uses 60fps, in the late 1970s. The technology is in use at theme parks (Star Tours at Disneyland and the new King Kong attraction at Universal Studios use 60fps), but never caught on in cinemas. James Cameron started touting the benefits of a higher frame rate as early as 2008:
“For three-fourths of a century of 2-D cinema, we have grown accustomed to the strobing effect produced by the 24 frame per second display rate. When we see the same thing in 3-D, it stands out more, not because it is intrinsically worse, but because all other things have gotten better. Suddenly the image looks so real it’s like you’re standing there in the room with the characters, but when the camera pans, there is this strange motion artifact. It’s like you never saw it before, when in fact it’s been hiding in plain sight the whole time. Some people call it judder, others strobing. I call it annoying. It’s also easily fixed, because the stereo renaissance is enabled by digital cinema, and digital cinema supplies the answer to the strobing problem.”
Cameron was especially frustrated because, even pre-Avatar, we had the technological capability to make a relatively easy switch to 48fps:
“Increasing the data-handling capacity of the projectors and servers is not a big deal, if there is demand. I’ve run tests on 48 frame per second stereo and it is stunning. The cameras can do it, the projectors can (with a small modification) do it. So why aren’t we doing it, as an industry?”
Cameron has already stated his intention to shoot the Avatar sequels at 48fps. In the meantime Peter Jackson—one of the few tech-minded filmmakers with nearly as much power in the industry as Cameron—took the lead on the battle for 48fps. Here is how Jackson pitched the higher frame rate in a Facebook post he wrote while shooting The Hobbit in April 2011:
“The result looks like normal speed, but the image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness. Looking at 24 frames every second may seem ok—and we’ve all seen thousands of films like this over the last 90 years—but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or ‘strobe.’
Shooting and projecting at 48fps does a lot to get rid of these issues. It looks much more lifelike, and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D. We’ve been watching HOBBIT tests and dailies at 48fps now for several months, and we often sit through two hours worth of footage without getting any eye strain from the 3-D.”
Sounds like a pretty basic and natural technological advancement. So what’s the problem?
What the Critics Say
Here are excerpts from a few of the critical reviews.
Todd McCarthy, THR:
“The print shown at Warner Bros. in what is being called ‘high frame rate 3D,’ while striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film an oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins’ home. For its part, the 24fps 3D version had a softer, noticeably more textured image quality.”
Kenneth Turan, LA Times:
“Despite its drawbacks, The Hobbit, as noted, does have real virtues, and the best way to appreciate them is to see the movie, whether in 2-D or 3-D, in the traditional 24 frames per second format. Though Jackson and other zealots for high frame rate would have you believe that the new system is more immersive, the truth is just the opposite. Whatever its virtues may be from a technical point of view, audiences looking for a rich, textured, cinematic experience will be put off and disconcerted by an image that looks more like an advanced version of high definition television than a traditional movie.”
A.O. Scott, New York Times:
“Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction.”
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:
“Couple that with 3D and the movie looks so hyper-real that you see everything that’s fake about it, from painted sets to prosthetic noses. The unpleasant effect is similar to watching a movie on a new HD home-theater monitor, shadows obliterated by blinding light like—yikes!—reality TV.”
Peter Debruge, Variety:
“More disconcerting is the introduction of the film’s 48-frames-per-second digital cinematography, which solves the inherent stuttering effect of celluloid that occurs whenever a camera pans or horizontal movement crosses the frame—but at too great a cost. Consequently, everything takes on an overblown, artificial quality in which the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious, while well-lit areas bleed into their surroundings, like watching a high-end home movie.”
Richard Corliss, Time:
“Doubling the rate keeps the image from blurring when the camera moves, which is ideal for Jackson’s action sequences but disorienting in the more static interior scenes, where the scenery upstages the characters. The clarity of the image is sometimes magical, occasionally migraine-inducing… At first, in the Smaug battle, I thought I was watching a video game: pellucid pictures of indistinct creatures. After a while my eyes adjusted, as to a new pair of glasses, but it was still like watching a very expensively mounted live TV show on the world’s largest home TV screen.”
Dana Stevens, Slate:
“The best way I can think to describe the quality of the 48fps image in The Hobbit is this: It looks like an ’80s-era home video shot by someone who happened to be standing around on set while The Hobbit was being filmed. (Other visual analogues scribbled down in my screening notes include Teletubbies and daytime soap operas.) The effect is curiously washed out and flat, yet unforgiving in its hyper-realism: Any imperfection or note of artifice in the costumes or sets stands out as if illuminated with a bank of fluorescent bulbs. This wildly expensive visual technology paradoxically conspires to make everything else in the film look cheap.”
Drew McWeeny, Hitfix:
“I’m half-convinced that there was a projection problem when I saw the film, because I have trouble believing that what I saw reflected the desires of Peter Jackson and his team. Throughout the entire film, there was a strange Benny Hill quality to sequences, with things that appeared to be sped up. It happened in both dialogue and action sequences, and the overall effect was like watching the most beautifully mastered Blu-ray ever played at 1.5x speed. It doesn’t make any sense to me that this process, which is supposedly all about clarity and resolution, would create that hyper-speedy quality unless they were doing something wrong in the projection of it. Peter Jackson would see this immediately. The voices are off-pitch, and the pacing of scenes goes to hell when it’s played this way.”
Matt Goldberg, Collider:
“Billed as a technology to sharpen 3D and reduce the headaches it can cause, HFR 3D has crippled Peter Jackson‘s return to Middle-earth. Without the atrocious visuals, Jackson’s film is still slightly repetitive and bloated, but the magic mostly remains intact. But under HFR 3D, the journey looks like a cheap soap opera on fast forward with crappy digital effects.”
I think that’s enough for now, but you can read other HFR-centric review roundups at Vulture and Badass Digest. We can broadly separate the criticisms into two categories: “It looks like cheap video” and “It looks too realistic.”
Head to page 2 for more on the “soap opera effect,” how fantasy can use HFR, and why we can and should get used to 48fps.