Recently, I spoke to Kevin Wines, THX’s Director of Image Technology, about the recent push towards higher frame rates in film with the 48FPS shooting of The Hobbit.The frame rate in a film is the number of images in sequence that pass before your eyes within a single second. The default for cinema, currently, is 24FPS. Hence the famous Jean-Luc Godard quote, “cinema is truth at 24 frames a second”. So, in a single second, you see twenty-four different stills that combine to give the impression of a moving image. However, in 2012, The Hobbit will be the first mainstream film for many years to use a higher frame rate. It is due to be released in 48FPS – double the average – which has caused quite the stir with test audiences who have seen it, many of whom claim it looks too realistic and detracts from the cinematic feel of the movie.
One person who’s likely to disagree with them on the basis of a wealth of knowledge and a career spent immersed in the concept frame-rates in cinema is Kevin Wines. Currently Image Technology Director at THX, he is also a member of an organisation devoted to high frame-rates, and is happy to drop knowledge as constantly and as casually as only someone with a mind completely in tune with the topic can do. We speak of current filmmakers such as James Cameron (Terminator 2, Avatar) and Peter Jackson (King Kong, The Hobbit) and their relationship to frame-rates, and it’s clear that he thinks the innovations these directors are exploring will be nothing but progressive.
“Now there’s no more boundaries. And most assuredly, especially [the activities of Cameron and Jackson], those are aimed specifically at making 3D a better experience,” says Wines. “3D, and the way 3D is implemented, caused people who are very discerning, like Cameron, Jackson and others, to recognise the flaw of 3D as it’s presented, not 3D as an entity. The way 3D is presented in cinemas, with the exception of Sony projectors, is the frames are presented sequentially. Yet those frames are captured or created temporally at the exact same point in time.
“So, what happens when there’s high action is that you actually begin to perceive a little bit of lag between your left eye and your right eye. That can become very annoying in high-action [films]. There are a couple of movies in recent times that have great fight scenes, but those fight scenes were much easier to watch in 2D than 3D for this specific reason. So, I think people like James Cameron [are] looking for a solution to a problem.”
It’s arguable that the high-frame rate solution has actually existed for some time. Thomas Edison, when speaking about the ideal frame-rate for silent films in the early 20th century, stated that 46FPS was the ideal rate at which frames should be played back to an audience, explaining that “anything less will strain the eye.” Interestingly, Wines mentions that in fact, television, shown at 50 and 60 hertz, actually translates to frame-rates of 25FPS and 30FPS respectively.
But we may also be used to higher frame-rates in film already, as it wasn’t just Edison who championed higher frame-rates in cinema before screenings of The Hobbit caused such a stir. Wines elaborates on the history of Todd-AO, a post-production company, and Norelco, Phillips’ US brand of cinema projectors, and their use of 30FPS in film in the 1950s. “There were 30FPS film projectors actually out in the market, and a few movies made that way. Interestingly enough, it didn’t last because of economics, which seems to be the real reason high frame-rate never took off in film. There have been countless tests over and over again about the temporal frame-rate and how it makes pictures look better in different ways.”
This is true – in fact, it’s also been taken to extremes by BBC Research, who showed a test audience footage at a formidable 300FPS – over 10 times the normal rate seen in cinemas. While the effect of that extreme example was disorientating to those who saw it, we aren’t unfamiliar to frame rates of up to 30FPS.
But the key factor in the ongoing lack of higher-frame rates – at least, up until Jackson pushed the movement forward again – is the economic one. It simply wasn’t viable for filmmakers to produce high-frame-rate films in the 50s. Thus, the suits who control the budget called time on it, and 24FPS stayed put. So are we simply used to 24FPS because it’s better, or because it has become the norm due to financial constraints?
“24FPS became an artistic tool because people in charge of financing said so. The artists, the cinematographers and the directors learned how to use it in the way that they now do. Yes, it’s got a specific look – and one could argue that that is the artistic look that has become part of film, or one could argue that it is one of a larger toolset.” With regards to those who hold a dogmatic view of 24FPS as the true cinematic approach to filmmaking and see 48FPS as too realistic, Wines’ response is quite illuminating.
“Define ‘too realistic’? If the filmmaker wants us to see incredible detail as part of his storytelling toolset, who’s to say he’s right or wrong? Just like a painter – who’s to say “oh my God, watercolour and acrylic look too realistic compared to oil painting”? Therefore only oil paintings are artistic? It makes no sense. It’s a tool, it’s a way to make us see, understand, feel something.
“It’s just like high resolution. How much is too much resolution if they’re doing a wide landscape? Behind me,” says Wines, as we’re able to see each other via Skype, “you see a red curtain. Well, behind that red curtain is a view of the mountains of the Angeles Forest. If I take a photograph and send it to you, is it too realistic if I use a high enough resolution photograph so you can see the plants on the hillside? Does that remove any artistic value of the way I’ve framed the shot? I don’t think it’s a valid argument.”
It’s impossible to refute the point – the reality is, we now have the technology to implement extremely realistic-looking cinema, and as a result, we should do so. We talk of remastering old films, of Wines’ love for Vincent Price’s House of Wax and how much he’d like to see that movie restored using today’s high-definition technology, and it’s clear that higher frame-rates are simply part of the evolving nature of film. If we can now afford to increase frame rate without putting a film over budget, then why deny the audience extra detail? We can now chuckle about the earlier fear of how actors would look in HD; likewise this is a concern that has, finally, been put to bed by the fact that these frame rates are economically and artistically justified and have existed for some time. Now, it’s time to experience them in the current day and age.