Monday, December 3, 2012

48 FPS: 2x The Suck

First off, thanks to the good folks at Cinematic Attic for allowing me to post here. I'm sure it will be the beginning of a long and fruitful, er... should be fun... well, um... discussions will be had, I'm sure.

I had two movie reviews sitting in my back pocket, which I'll write up in the next few days, but something just came to me which is seemingly much more pressing. Hopefully everyone here has heard that Peter Jackson filmed The Hobbit not only in 3D, but also at 48 Frames Per Second. No doubt, 3D is a plague on our society and should have been eradicated at the start, but 48 FPS is something much worse. It devalues cinema. Never before has someone spent so much money in order to make something look cheap.

If you're asking a lot of questions that begin with "Why" right now, let me run you through the basics of 48 FPS. Since the beginning of time (or at least since the beginning of geared film cameras), movies have been filmed at 24 FPS. The reason this was chosen is because it's the slowest frame rate at which a moving image can be viewed by the human eye without it noticing the actual skips in time as each frame is illuminated by the projector. By finding the slowest possible frame rate, this means that the fewest number of frames are exposed, which helps keep the cost of film down, since it's so damned expensive.

Then, one other phenomenon which greatly plays into this equation is something called "persistence of vision". The easiest way to demonstrate P.O.V.? Look at a light source. Now close your eyes. You should still be able to see a ghost image of the light source. That's persistence of vision, and it's what allows our brains to fill in the blanks between each frame of film while the gate is closed.

Fast forward to today, when this comes out. Peter Jackson (and it looks like his good friends Bryan Singer and James Cameron) are messing with the tried and tested formula, trying to amp up the frame rate in order to create a more realistic experience. Their thought process is that by filling in the gaps between frames with MORE frames, our persistence of vision won't need to take over... the information will already be there for our brains to process. This reduces motion blur, so it must be "real", right? It's not like we see motion blur in our everyday lives, right?

Oh, but we do. Wave your hand in front of your face. Is it smooth or blurry? Mine looks pretty damn blurry, and yes, I did just wave my hand in front of my face one more time to make sure I couldn't be called out. This is the same phenomenon which newer TVs tried to correct by adding "Motion-Flow", a higher refresh rate, which also reduced motion blur. 

I guess this all sounds pretty great. So what's the problem? The problem is that it looks like shit. And apparently it's making people sick. Higher frame rates don't make things look more realistic by making them smoother, it makes them look cheap. In fact, I'd say that it makes video look more than twice as cheap. It makes it look like it was filmed on a freaking etch-a-sketch cheap. The number one complaint from viewers is that it looks like "BBC on Crack" or that it makes "costumes look like costumes". That's the thing. Costumes aren't supposed to look like costumes, they're supposed to look like 10,000 year old Orc clothes or gigantic gorilla suits (oh wait, Peter Jackson, that was CG, huh?), but when the filming techniques become so "real", that it can't cloud the area which lets our imagination take over in the necessary places, the illusion of film is ruined.

First, the invention of HDTV destroyed our taste for film grain, then 3D redefined our perception of movement in space. Now, 48FPS is looking to take away one of the last real bits of true cinema which we have left. What's next? Hyper-saturation? This is one trend which can't possibly catch on. Not only will it ruin the movies themselves, but it will also ruin the way we go to see movies, giving us 6 (six!) different options of screening to go to: 2D 24FPS, 3D 24FPS, 3D IMAX 24FPS, 2D 48 FPS, 3D 48FPS, 3D IMAX 48FPS. It gives me a head ache just trying to write it all down on the page. Imagine reading it in a ticket booth. God forbid if someone chooses to show 2D IMAX movies. The main thing is that it doesn't give you more variety, it gives you fewer opportunities to see a movie the way you want it, because it will have to compete with itself. Not to mention that it's costing theaters thousands of dollars to update their equipment in order to follow the trend, giving smaller independent theaters just another reason to go out of business from competition.

I can't think of an industry which is more desperate for a change that they're screwing up everything that ever made them great. And the American people will probably eat it up.


  1. Hey Paul! Great to see you here on the blog, and let there be many posts indeed! As you say, "discussions will be had" (and it also proves my point that I was telling my students earlier: the passive voice IS used in English!).

    I liked this post, since I didn't really understand the difference between frame rates before. I when I asked you in the hotel lounge in New York if you knew why the TV looked weird, I noticed instinctually knew that something was wrong, but not why it was off. You explained it a bit then, but this makes it a lot clearer.

    A great first post!

  2. And I guess I double clarified my point since the "wave-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face" trick is also persistence of vision, but it goes to show that in real life we do see motion as a blur, UNLESS, we scan our eyes or head to follow the object in motion. You also see this in photography where a photographer will pan his camera with a fast moving object, i.e. a car, and let a slightly longer shutter speed blur the background of the image, while keeping the car crisp. But 48fps takes this away and smooths out that motion. Like I might have explained to you before, the best way to describe 48fps with the hand trick is that with 48fps, you would see a clear outline and image of your hand every step of the way as it moved. I suppose some people might like this, and some people might think it's "realistic", but I think it's just another gimmick to try to "revolutionize" an industry which never needed to be changed.

  3. I guess it's "realistic" if one's a machine.

    By the way, I like the way you explained these things.

  4. I love explain!

    Paul, thank you for joining. I don't feel like I talk to you enough about movies, let alone talk to you enough about the weather. Welcome!

    This post made my blood boil! Paul, why did you have to make me so angry? I've known about this "problem" becuase of Jake, but this is going too far. What can we do about this? It's so idiotic!

  5. Time for a good ol' fashioned sit-in... or something. Hopefully it's just another fad that will pass, but, like with 3D, if James Cameron is getting involved with it for the other two Avatar movies, that might be enough to carry it through for the long (or at least semi-long) haul. What crap.

  6. Hey guys! A couple more thoughts on all this:

    I'm wondering if this whole 48 FPS issue will be one of those things that moves from specialized circles of people who are really into technology or specific aspects of film, to the mainstream. I thought of 3D right away, but the fact that you need to wear specialized glasses to see 3D movies instantly changes the nature of the viewing experience for moviegoers, whereas 48 FPS may be immediately recognizable as different, but not in a way that's as tangible.

    I can't think of a good equivalent of what I'm talking about off the top of my head, but perhaps it'll be like people deciding between the number of megapixels in a photo camera. By that I mean, before digital cameras came out, of course no one cared about megapixels. And now that they are out, people have been forced to learn a bit about megapixels if they want to buy a camera. And when they see that some cameras have more megapixels than others, they assume that more is better, although the reality is more nuanced than that. So coming back to movie cameras, maybe now that 48 FPS is a reality, people will have to make a decision about which version they'll see (or did I misunderstand that?). They will see 48 FPS and realize that more isn't necessarily better, and there could be a general acceptance that the technology moved faster than our human evolution could.

    Or maybe not. It's hard to explain and express what I mean, but I found this review of the 48 FPS Hobbit screenings on Badass Digest:
    Most reviewers seemed negative or on the fence, but none were very positive about it.

    Maybe we can thank Lucas for this. Since he started changing "his" movies, people started to realize that while movies ARE of course largely the result of a film crew's efforts, they don't exist in a vacuum, and ultimately have a relationship with their viewers.

    Who knows.

  7. I get where you're coming from. And if someone wants to watch 48fps, let them. I really don't care. People perceive motion in different ways just like they perceive 3D in different ways, and some people like it and some don't. The thing that I don't like is that, like I said in the post, by setting up so many different ways to see it, the movie is literally competing with itself.
    For example, I wanted to go see Life of Pi the other night, but the only show that was playing was in 3D. I didn't want to see 3D, so it just lost $12 because it couldn't offer an interested customer what they wanted. Especially with movie attendance at an all time low, people are going to stop going to movies completely if they don't think they'll be able to see it the way they want to, especially when they already have to pay "premium" prices for that shit.