The world of film is slow to change and with less than a decade since the introduction of digital cinema, many in the industry are still far from being convinced about the merits of a celluloid-less future, add to this the fact that 3D is being asked to run before it can walk to the distaste of many. Is it time for another big change to the way films are made?
Talk to anyone in the know and they will tell you that this year just as the hype for 3D has lulled, so up steps 4K. A new pretender to the thrown? Maybe not at four times the resolution of 1080p HD and with many other benefits including variable framerates and colour spaces, this is finally the time for digital to make a stand and surpass film in both quality and flexibility.
But this is me getting off track todays article is not about the rise of 4K but the introduction of higher frame-rates in the acquisition of digital content. Championing this cause are two of the industries heavyweights. Straight off the back of his successful introduction of 3D into the world of cinema with the 2009 film Avatar, James Cameron is now a major proponent of the merits of high frame-rate film-making with his plans to shoot his upcoming Avatar sequels at 60fps. Joining him is Peter Jackson with his release of the long awaited The Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey which has controversially been shot at 48fps.
So why use higher frame-rates? Is there a reason or demand for this change from the traditional 24fps that has been the staple since film and sound were homogenized. According to test audiences there isn’t. In fact many a viewer perceives a film shot at higher frame-rates to look too much like video, too much like a TV show. Acknowledging this is one thing but understanding it is quite another.
To understand why we need higher frame-rates we need to know why we use 24fps at the moment. With the introduction of sound to films it was made clear that a frame-rate standard was necessary, no one wants to watch a film where the sound is out of sync with the visuals on screen. To this end, the film industry had to find a speed that was adequate to present a realistic portrayal of both moving image and sound to the cinema audience. So why 24fps? The answer is simple; money. 24fps equates ninety feet per second of 35mm film which in turn happens to the slowest possible speed that allowed for reasonable audio reproduction. To put it simply the picture and sound were good enough while using the least amount of film stock possible which meant lower costs.
So are is a moving image updated twenty four times a second fast enough? Not really at this speed it doesn’t quite fool the human eye into truly perceiving motion. This is reflected in scenes that feature fast motion as well as fast pans and tilts resulting unforgivable judder. The sad but true nature of the success of 24fps imaging in any context is heavily dependent on motion blur and human persistence of vision to produce a result that’s in any way watchable.
What’s most obvious in the world of cinema is that people like the look of 24fps for drama because they’re conditioned over many years of cinema going and know to accept the slightly unrealistic appearance of imperfect motion rendering and the way it provides a degree of distance that aids the suspension of disbelief. For this reason above all else in the case of the majority of mainstream commercial film-making, it seems likely that 24fps will remain commonplace for the foreseeable future.
Back to high frame-rates and lets just say it this isn’t anything new. Both Jackson and Cameron are following in the footsteps of many a filmmaker who have experimented with a variety of frame-rates, which were arguably optimized in the late 70s with formats such as Showscan.
What makes this so interesting is that it was an attempt to discover the limitations of the human visual system and in turn present the argument that any frame-rate exceeding 60fps would result in the common man not being able to distinguish any difference between moving images and reality. However this is interesting for technical reasons, because during any transition to a high frame-rate future, we would need to be able to produce 24fps material from a high frame-rate original.
This puts forward the argument for 48fps as an interim rate, because 24fps can be derived from it simply by omitting every other frame. However, 48fps, while clearly and obviously faster than 24fps, is not quite enough to satisfy the human optical requirement for 60fps and may not realise all the benefits. Are you still with me?
As much as high frame-rates have been explored in the world of film, it is on the small screen where most of the comparisons will be drawn. And this is part of the problem, the idea that TV is inferior is based on years of low-resolution poor-colour reproduction, which has lead to a psychological link which includes frame-rate as part of this inferior notion never mind the practical benefits.
So we are on the brink of a brave new world in film-making and video acquisition with the first foray into high frame-rates in many a year being The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and only time will tell if Tolkien and Jackson’s little fellas will win the frame-rate race, or whether more work will need to be done to condition the film-going audience to the true benefits of this new form of film presentation.