Saturday, April 28, 2012

Frame rates - framing the debate

The debate about cinematic frame rates has heated up again this week, thanks to the upcoming release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Subtitle Adventure. Peter Jackson's been filming it (in native 3D) at 48 frames per second, and Warner Brothers intend to distribute it in this format too. For those of you who don't know, movies have been screened at 24 frames per second for much of the last century. So when The Hobbit finally hits, it's going to fundamentally re-adjust how our eyes interpret what a 3D film is. It's a change I'll be talking a lot about here at 3Defence in 2012.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, but we've been given a fantastic sneak peek at the future today, by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. He's been branching out into video-based content recently, and today his YouTube series hit a high watermark. Episode IV in the series (ha) sees Knowles interview special-effects guru Douglas Trumbull. This is important for the frame-rate debate, because there's no more of an authoritative source on the matter than Trumbull. In the clip below he discusses his past experiments with frame-rate alterations and where he sees us headed in the not-too-distant future. Of course, 3D comes up a lot too:

It's exciting to hear smart people debating a topic that, essentially, boils down to two questions:
  1. How can we give people a better quality experience in a theatre?
  2. How can we make 3D easier on the eye?
Trumbull, as he has been for decades now, looks further afield than those questions though, asking also "how can we improve brightness to an acceptable level?" and "can we do this without causing too much burden for the new owners of expensive digital projectors?" It would seem motion-blur could conceivably be removed entirely from the 3D cinema-going experience in only a few years' time.

Back in 2012 though, there's been a lot of negativity dished out to Warner Brothers and Peter Jackson this week. They unveiled footage of The Hobbit at 48 frames per second to a room full of people who took to Twitter lambasting its 'made for daytime TV' aesthetic. Their basic argument is that the clips shown were too smooth. We're used to a certain amount of stutter and jutter in action scenes, and I wager they were deeply shocked by its removal. Perhaps because of TV's patchy history with (sometimes) overly smooth movement, it may have given the audience the impression the film looked cheaper than its multi-gazillion dollar budget truly is. Jackson has since had to defend the work publicly, and you can read what he has to say on the matter here. To me at least, the arguments against his views haven't seemed all that well articulated yet. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, bearing in mind he's a Best Director Oscar winner; made about 3 billion dollars with the Lord of the Rings series; helped bring Spielberg onboard to make his first mo-cap'd 3D film; and owns the world's best visual effects studio. Read the article to make up your mind on the matter.

If you're feeling apathetic on the issue (e.g.: "movies have been fine by me for 100 years, people need to focus on telling good stories for me to be happy"), perhaps I can persuade you to view this wonderful comparison tool. It clearly shows the bluriness we tolerate when we view cinema at 24 frames per second, and hints at what we might be in for in December when Jackson and his crew release The Hobbit:

The difference will be even more remarkable if James Cameron does push ahead and releases Avatar 2 at 60 frames per second: 

Kids, we're in for a wild ride in the next few years. Buckle up.


  1. Liking the new blog sir and will be checking in regularly. I too have been following some of the recent comments with regards to THE HOBBIT's 48fps presentation. I'm keen to see it myself, but I had to comment on a couple of points in your article. The CinemaCon was attended by cinema owners and a bunch of cinema writers - not just guys in suits. These were the folk who would have to SHOW these films and are some of the first to suffer; from increased costs to poor performance.

    From what I've read about the 48fps presentation it came down to less missing the "stutter and jutter" and more the video, soap-opera look of the footage. I'd have to disagree that the arguments against 48fps have been entirely emotive; they're just as logical with people writing about what they see.

    I'm certainly not going to needlessly shit on the proposed change. Frankly, I think 24fps is fine, great, fantastic in fact but I am willing and keen to see what 48fps is like. That is, if there will be any cinemas in NZ that can screen it.

    And, for the hell of it, some interesting reading around this I came across recently:

    Again, loving the work and am keen to keep up the discussion here. I'm likely to be coming at an entirely different angle but it should all lead to some intriguing, possibly reasoned, debate.

  2. Awesome reply, thanks for being the first to comment Andy.

    You're right, I shouldn't have made such a jibe at the people who attended CinemaCon. I've consequently revised the post a touch, based on your feedback.

    Having not seen the footage for myself, I'm inclined to believe PJ's response, that 'it just takes time to adjust' and that the attendees didn't get a long enough session to really come to grips with it.

    If that's the case though, someone's going to need to do some real marketing to make sure the public don't get a nasty shock in December!

    Thanks for your article recommendations, I need to sort out the site to get a place where people can submit links and ideas easily. I need more material!

    And thanks for helping stoke the discussion, I'm quite ready to concede points on the broader debate of 3D in cinema, but I'm ready to battle in its defence too. Cheers.