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48 frames per second: the future of film or distracting gimmick?

By in Culture


The frame-rate may have doubled, but hobbits are still short.
The frame rate may have doubled, but hobbits are still short.

Film has evolved over the past hundred years to give us the great movies, but Peter Jackson’s new technique of filming in higher speeds isn’t ready to revolutionize the industry just yet.

The first movies were shot in black and white without sound— these films amazed audiences with a spectacle that seemed almost magical.

Filmmakers then began editing shots and using title cards to tell stories in the new medium. This was followed by orchestrated soundtracks and the introduction of colour. Editors would hand-paint each film cell for the first colored films. But techniques such as these concerned with sound and image, have mostly been perfected and standard filmmaking has nearly reached a technical zenith; most of the improvements left are those of cost and portability.

Other unconventional attempts to improve our movie viewing experience have been unsuccessful — except for, arguably, 3D.

Smell-o-vision was once a thing; audience members at the theatre were provided with a scratch card of scents that were meant to help them experience more of what was happening onscreen.

Hypnovista is another failed example. Hypnotists would attend showings to ensure the audience could empathize with the characters onscreen. Electronic buzzers have even been implanted in theatre seats to provide an extrasensory jolt.

The most recent of these experiments is the shooting of The Hobbit in 48 frames per second, twice the rate cinematic film is usually shot at. By having more frames projected at a faster rate, movement should look smoother with a sharper overall image, without regular films motion blur. The human eye processes images at just over 60 fps and by increasing the fps, The Hobbit director Peter Jackson intends the film to appear more realistic to the viewer.

While the increased frame rate provided a vibrant and clear picture in The Hobbit’s many landscapes and wide angle shots, the 48 fps shots were distracting when the focus of the camera was within six metres of the subject. Simple actions performed by the cast appeared strangely rushed and wooden. As the focus shifted at inopportune times, the hypersaturated light gave shots a soap opera quality, and the many changes in brightness and scope throughout the film made it difficult to watch.

This is not the first time directors have experimented with frame rate. Showscan was developed in the 70’s as a method of shooting film at 60 fps, but it has never been used in a feature-length motion picture due to production problems. It was relegated to short films and amusement park rides, predominantly motion simulators.

Jackson is the first director to shoot a feature length movie in the 48 fps style and it is hard to say if any directors will be following in his footsteps.

There are at least two more films in The Hobbit trilogy that will be shown in 48 fps, which will give Jackson ample opportunity to really work with the format.

Filmmakers need more time to find out the pros and cons of increasing frame rate and to change their scene construction to maximize its benefits. We may even see frame rates speed up in the future, but for now, 48 fps is not ready to write its page on the book of film evolution.

Correction 02/02/13: In the print version of this article, we referred to frame rate as “screen-rate”. We regret the error.

Photo: Supplied

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