Thursday, April 26, 2012

MY TAKE ON: 48fps

Peter Jackson's two-part movie of The Hobbit was shot in an unusual process.

This December Peter Jackson will be releasing a mainstream movie in a process that has been pushed by James Cameron taking influence from many other technical minds from the world of cinema. As well as the movie being presented in 3D, it will be presented at forty-eight frames per second. That is twice the amount of motion information we are used to seeing in movies. Bringing a higher frame rate to the cinema has always been an interest in the industry. Douglas Trumbull was famous, among other things, for inventing an experimental process called Showscan which displayed 70mm film at sixty frames per second! Trumbull determined that this was reaching the maximum potential of human perception of moving imagery but now he is working on a process that goes up to one-hundred-and-twenty!

So why didn't it take off? One might guess that it was a very expensive endeavor considering that it would have been very heavy on film costs. Now we live in the digital era of movie presentation where the only obstacle is getting theaters to make a few upgrades to their digital projectors to be prepped for high-speed motion.

Here's a new video with Harry Knowles interviewing Trumbull:


While digital cinema may open the door for an easier way to see movies in a high frame-rate, there is another reason why this change hasn't come about before. We are used to seeing movies at twenty-four frames per second. For over the century of cinema's existence, we have been accustomed to a lack of visual information involving motion. We see movement in movies at a fraction of what we are capable of seeing in real life and our mind compensates. It is easy to assume that our brains are engaged in a very specific way when we see movies. This is a game changer and when you change the game, the rules will probably change too.

Some may think the same thing about 3D. To me 3D isn't as bold as it sounds. Every 3D process is one that is straining to the head for the sake of seeing depth that you probably would have understood in a two-dimensional presentation. I think it's neat but it doesn't have the same impact to me as a higher quality 2D presentation. In theory, a higher frame rate should be more relaxing to the senses because the motion seems more natural.

Techniques in cinematography, lighting, editing and so on, are all elements intended to compliment or enhance our visual experience and it is my belief that these techniques and the way they are traditionally utilized are part of an effort to compensate for the lack of realistic motion delivered to us. What I'm trying to say, is that the art of cinema as we know it may collide with realistic-looking motion. 

What's funny is that television until recently was considered a low-end viewing experience. Growing up, it was a low-res way of watching moving imagery outside of the superior movie-theater experience. To this day, if you watch a sports event, the news, a homemade video or anything shot on video, you typically see motion equivalent to thirty frames per second -just slightly higher in motion-quality compared to film. It looks different. When I was younger, I occasionally saw a low-budget made-for-television movie shot on video that tried to behave in a bold cinematic way - well... it just kind of came off as silly looking. I was curious: Was it the inferior contrast, color, and resolution of video or was it the superior frame-rate that made everything seem a little off?

I feel like that question was answered when I first took a look at a rare version of a classic movie. The classic musical Oklahoma was shot in standard 35mm Cinemascope, but for special presentations, they had also shot it in Todd-AO 65mm at thirty-frames per second. This YouTube video is the closest example of what a classic Technicolor film looked like at a slightly higher frame rate: 

If you have an eye for it, it seems a little strange. What I think the higher frame rate does, is it makes me much more aware of the camera techniques being used, the feeling that I am on a moving camera rig instead of floating naturally along with the character. I'm kind of inclined to believe, that the higher the frame-rate, the less the camera should move.

A reporter for recently saw a demonstration at CinemaCon in Las Vegas and reactions were bold and varied.

Do I think it's bad that Jackson is using The Hobbit to test this new process? No. I don't. -Mainly because I am so excited to see what this frame-rate looks like. Do I think it will work well with the materiel? I have my doubts. If it does lend itself to stylized fantasy cinema, it's going to be a real treat seeing it this way. Even if it doesn't, it is also going to be presented in standard motion 2D. The trailer to the movie demonstrates that this high frame-rate down-converts to standard twenty-four frames per second naturally.

I am very exited by this change taking place, but I have my doubts that it has a place in traditional cinema. I really think that if this process is utilized by the right artists, it will bring about a whole new animal as far as our understanding of movies go.

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