Sound was introduced to cinema in the 1920s, issuing in the era of “talkies.” Color arrived a decade later, memorialized when Dorothy stepped into Oz and exclaimed, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And now, film director Peter Jackson is hoping to make high frame rates the next revolution in filmmaking. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012) is the first feature film to be shot entirely in 48 frames per second, doubling the industry standard.
I wanted to like “The Hobbit,” I really did I even read J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel to prepare myself for the adventure. I also wanted to like the high frame rate too. However, my expectations fell just as flat for me as for the many others who made the special pilgrimage to the rare theater that was capable of playing “The Hobbit” at a high frame rate. When “The Hobbit” was released in December, I was home on Long Island and the closest high frame rate showing was at a theater 45 minutes away! I suppose Warner Brothers, the film’s distributor, may also have had reservations about this new format.
The fundamental distinction of 48fps is its ability to reduce motion blur, the natural streaking effect produced when an image changes over the recording of a single frame. An increased frame rate allows all the details of the image to shine through, making action scenes look fantastic, but causing more placid scenes to appear artificial. This is the reason why fast action video games run at 60fps, as there are lots of rapid movements to capture.
When high frame rates are applied to slow scenes, however, the audience can discern very crisp details that normally are slightly blurred. Unfortunately, this glaringly exposes the lack of authenticity of the sets and costumes, undermining the illusion of the movie-going experience. It’s like a cinematic uncanny valley effect the robotics phenomenon in which robots that look and act almost, but not exactly, human lead human observers to be repulsed as they focus in on what makes these imitations creepy and spurious. Likewise high frame rates capture images at a speed so near to reality that an eerie, overblown and phony effect is produced.
All of this culminates in making “The Hobbit” appear as though it was a made-for-TV movie. Television broadcasts at 30fps and many HD TVs use film interpolation techniques to generate intermediate frames between the existing ones, thus doubling the frame rate to 60. If this feature is not turned off when a movie is playing on TV, then it too has that same artificial look as “The Hobbit.” In fact, there is a name for this the soap opera effect named after the synthetic look of TV soap operas. While watching “The Hobbit,” I felt as if I was watching a giant high-definition television instead of a projected film. The high frame rate did not give me the familiar aesthetic immersion I relish when I am at the cinema, that special feeling when the lights go down after the coming attractions and I sink into the fantasy of the movie.
Perhaps I am just the grumpy old man resistant to change. When sound was first introduced, many embittered people inside and outside the film industry could not adapt, fearing it would be the end of sophisticated cinema. And the very same happened with color. Already, two of the most successful modern filmmakers James Cameron and Peter Jackson have embraced the new technology, both promising to release future films in such a format. But I personally get this queasy feeling that high frame rates are just another Hollywood ruse down a roller coaster ride of action. I really hope cinema will not lose 24fps, a defining characteristic that it has held for a century, and in the process morph into a cheap thrill fit for TV.