Free Film School #78: What the @#$% is 48fps?

Professor Witney Seibold explains what this whole new 48 frames-per-second discussion is all about. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is currently playing in theaters (and has, indeed, had something of an impressive opening weekend despite middling reviews), it is time, dear students, to have a lecture about the widely-hailed new technological process that the film has been packaged with in certain theaters. I like to, more often than not, discuss film history, and some of the older technological and aesthetic innovations that shaped the way film has evolved over the years, but I would be remiss if I did not occasionally analyze the new tools in the cinematic toolbox that seem to be utilized by recent filmmakers who aim to push new aesthetic and technological boundaries. I once, for instance, took a look at the recent trend of motion capture. This week's lecture will be all about a new cinematic technique that many critics have already admitted may be the way all films will be presented in the future.

As I am fond of reiterating in the pages of the Free Film School, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said that cinema was truth at 24 frames per second. Thanks to The Hobbit, we may have to amend that famous saying. In case you missed any of the reviews of the movie, director Peter Jackson famously elected to film The Hobbit using a new kind of digital camera that films action at 48 frames per second, which is twice the speed of the usual 35mm film strip, and indeed all digital cinema projectors to date. This new, faster frame rate is being met with mixed response from critics and audiences. Most people cite the frame rate's visual fluidity as looking cheap, as if the film was not a film, but a BBC soap opera shot on Betamax cassettes. Others have said the the increased framerate does indeed enhance the 3D gimmick, and blends the film's many, many digital effects with its actual live-action elements all the better, but makes for a new kind of ultra-sharp, visual busyness that is grating to look at.

The critic in the L.A. Weekly had the most salient thing to say, I feel: Scott Foundas felt that digital cameras have been, ever since their inception, trying to recapture the heft and color and gravity of actual physical film, and have, in recent years, been getting ever closer to what film had. However, with this bright new increased frame rate, Jackson has pushed the aesthetic of filmmaking boldly in the opposite direction, intentionally making a film that doesn't look like the cinema we're used to, and making one that looks extra digital. Even more crisp and fluid. The idea is that the human eye processes information at a much quicker rate than a mere 24fps, and that an increased framerate will approximate human vision all the more accurately. I suppose I can jibe with that philosophy, but I am one of the many critics who isn't quite behind the aesthetic of this new frame rate. Anyone with an HD TV, or who has seen a news broadcast, has likely seen a higher-than-24fps framerate already at work, and the aesthetic is linked in our minds with making-of documentaries, game shows, and reality TV, which are all famously filmed on devices that run quicker than film cameras.

Let me give a bit of history: At the birth of film (back in the silent days), the first projectionists at the first movie theaters actually had to manually crank film through a projector themselves; the projector was not yet automated. As such, a film's speed would be determined on site by the strength of the projectionists arm. Indeed, early film cameras were also hand-cranked, so the speed of the action in a movie was also determined by how quickly the cameraman could wind their arm. If you've seen any silent films, you may notice that the film moves pretty quickly. This means the cameraman was likely not cranking the film quite fast enough, making for more action captures on less film (likely done for economic reasons). To achieve slow-motion, the cameraman would have to crank the film at double speed. More film for less action. The projectionist would then hand-crank the film, and adjust it to his whim. There was no standard for framerate. It was all determined by the eye, and spitballed as it went along. Add to this a live pianist who would improvise music as you went along, and you'll get a sense as to how immediate and theatrical early movies really were.

Having a standard frame rate in movies, though, wasn't an issue until the inception of sound. A strip of celluloid film typically has a separate sound strip attacked to the right side of the image, and it became vitally important to filmmakers and to projectionists that the sound and the image synched up perfectly, and played at an even frame rate. As such, automated projectors were developed, and the makers of film strips elected to have the standard frame rate be 24 frames per second. I have heard that 24 was selected because it is the absolute minimum the human eye requires to create the illusion of movement. 48 could have been chosen at that very moment, but I imagine 24 was chosen for budget reasons. Since the inception of sound, all the way up until The Hobbit, all films shown in theaters ran at 24fps.

Other, cheaper technologies were developed along the way, of course, mostly for TV consumption. Most TV shows were, for decades, shot on film and broadcast at 24fps. It wasn't until much later that videotape technology became more of a standard, and was soon considered a cheaper and easier way to make TV. Tapes could be stored more easily, they could be reused, and they ran at a higher framerate. Betamax, the high-quality consumer-grade videocassette, runs at 30 frames per second.

Some other experimentation has occurred over the years. At the dawn of the digital boom, back in the late-1990s, filmmakers like George Lucas (who had just made Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace with a then-unprecedented amount of digital effects) began touting digital filmmaking as the next new thing. Many critics at the time cited how inferior digital looked to celluloid, and declared that Lucas' push for digital technologies would not stick. I guess George Lucas was right, as 35mm film has been tragically rushed into a coffin by many film exhibitors. Digital technology is pretty much the standard, much to the chagrin of old-school film fanatics like myself who prefer the old-fashioned light, heft and timbre of a real film print. Indeed, seeing the scratches and pops of a well-worn print can bring an additional pleasure to the film.

But, back to my point. Right when digital was beginning to take off in earnest, a new process was introduced as a potential rival. MaxiVision 48. MaxiVision was a new process of 35mm film that had fewer sprocket holes, a heftier kind of film stock, and ran through the projector at 48fps. What's more, it ran though the projector on small air jets, ensuring that the film strip itself touched the projector even less, ensuring that the film would not degrade nearly as quickly. It had special computerized sensors that could detect any odd changes in the film (like slips or snags), and were programmed to correct such problems. The new projectors would have been compatible with older ones, but with newer widgets that allowed for easier lens adjustment and light correction. It was, in essence, the perfect film projector. Only a select few had the opportunity to see this process, but those who saw it claimed that it was one of the best-looking projections they had ever experienced. Famed critic Roger Ebert was a vocal proponent of the process.

Sadly, “digital” was already too powerful a buzzword to ignore, and MaxiVision 48, which was by all accounts preferable and superior in every way, went the way of Betamax. I guess it wasn't trendy enough. I'm pretty sure it was more expensive than digital was at the time, which may have been the main reason theaters didn't want to invest in it. I wish I could have seen it, and I imagine a world where it caught on. Could you imagine if we lived in a world with MaxiVision projectors instead of digital ones? We would have had this 48fps discussion over a decade ago. Only instead of the new “crisp” digital aesthetic, it would have been achieved through actual celluloid film. Rather than improve on the old technology, most exhibitors elected to go for a new one entirely.

Where will 48fps go from here? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a big hit, and it already has two nearly-completed sequels that also employ the 48fps technique. Are we looking at the future of film? That I even have to ask that implies that it very well may be, despite whatever complaints critics and Luddites like myself have with the process. When sound was introduced to film, many people in the film industry found it extraneous and vulgar. But that continued. Color was never rejected as far as I know, nor were wider screens. Digital was hemmed and hawed over for many years, and many film aesthetes still reject it in favor of celluloid, but it did indeed – for better or for worse – become a new standard. I'm guessing that no matter how audiences and critics react, unless it's a truly outraged rejection, the cost of production and distribution will always win out. If 48fps movies can prove to be profitable, then they will proliferate.

I don't like the new aesthetic, to offer a direct editorial. Most recent entertainments have been digital entertainments, and they have a super-crisp smoothness that looks really cool, but is a little too detailed for the human eye (or at least my human eye). The current aesthetic trend seems to be to make the consumed image as detailed as possible, fulling the screen with all manner of ultra-designed detail. That of a video game with realistic facial animation. Or a Star Wars prequel, with hundreds of creatures, ships, and digital environments cluttering up the screen. The human eye may be able to see all the fluidity and detail of a digitized 48fps, but we're drifting ever further away from, well, anything real. Actual sets, actual actors, actual effects, actual reality are all being transmogrified into a bizarre impressionist version of reality that looks like a combination of humanity and cartoon. I suppose it could be argued, since all films are melodramas, that every film is indeed some sort of impressionist version of reality, but must they look that way too?

I may just have to suck it up. This may be the revolution. It feels like a gimmick, a lot like 3D, but it's touting itself as the next big thing. If it were up to me, it wouldn't be, and we'd install MaxiVision projectors instead. But it's not up to me, and the film world will continue to adopt new tools and new aesthetics all the time, some I will like and others I won't. More than anything, though, I appreciate the experimentation. At the very least, it's nice to see people trying something new, however successful it may be in the end.

Homework for the Week:

Have you seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48fps? How did it look to you? Describe it. Did you like it? Are you indifferent? Do you think young kids who grew up with the ultra-digital aesthetic will mind more or less? Is 48fps the next revolution? Is it a gimmick? Would you use it to make your movie? Do you think the aesthetic is appropriate for a certain kind of movie?

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film Schooland The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold