Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Notes on Higher Frame Rates

I hate motion interpolation. Though different companies market it under different names, you'll know it as the technology that allows your television to create a smoother picture by inserting extra frames into your media, extrapolated from the existing footage. Once, at a friend's house, we were watching "Mamma Mia!" and the changes were so distracting, I simply could not enjoy the movie until I had gotten ahold of the remote control and figured out how to fix the settings so that the movie looked like a movie again, instead of manipulated to look like a daytime soap opera. I've regularly found myself in electronics stores, standing in front of the new televisions, fascinated by how alien and unpalatable familiar movies like "Despicable Me" became after being subjected to the conversion. Animated films looked especially wrong, the added motion often undoing much of the careful timing and performance of the animation. In short, I've learned to be suspicious when I hear the argument that more frames per second is a always good thing.

Does this mean I'll have a bad reaction to all films shot in higher frame rates than the traditional 24 frames-per-second (fps)? Films subjected to motion interpolation look so wretched in part because they weren't meant to be watched in higher frame rates. By contrasts, I think sports games, particularly hockey, and other television programming shot in 48 or 60 fps look perfectly fine. But then, they don't look properly cinematic to me. There's something about 24 fps that signals a film experience, something that no amount of logic can quite help me to overcome. And so I'm deeply worried about the plans of Peter Jackson's upcoming "The Hobbit," the first film shot for and expected to be shown widely in 48 fps. Ten minutes of the footage were screened earlier this week at the CinemaCon trade show, to mixed response. Many viewers gave it high marks, but others had familiar complaints, saying that the movie didn't look like a movie and it was difficult to adjust to the visuals. I've seen a few queries as to whether a 24 fps version will be made available for less adventurous viewers.

Now, this could just mean that higher frame rate films are something that viewers will need to get used to gradually. There's plenty to like about higher frame rates in theory. It allows for a better clarity and brightness of picture, removing motion blur and lessening the "weightless" look of CGI images. This reportedly leads to more immersive, more lifelike visuals. And a director like Peter Jackson, who is aware of the audience's trepidation, will certainly take steps to help compensate for the unfamiliar visuals. Still, I expect that the higher frame rates are going to be a tough sell. There hasn't been a technological leap like this, that literally changes the way that audiences will watch films, in several decades. As many cineastes are mourning the impending death of 35 mm physical film, which created the 24 fps standard in the first place, I wonder if I'm going to look back nostalgically on the days when films ran at 24 fps instead of 48 fps, or 60 fps, if directors like Jackson and James Cameron have their way.

I'm no Luddite, and I'm perfectly willing to give the 48 fps "The Hobbit" a chance when it reaches theaters in December. I'm willing to put aside my biases and past experience, grit my teeth through the feelings of cinematic wrongness, and spend a few hours trying to let my brain get rewired by Peter Jackson's best efforts. However, I can already predict that there are some film fans who will have no such patience, who will want nothing to do with the film. As with every big new technological shift, there are the purists who will simply reject the change. And for all we know, higher frame rates could end up being a gimmick, something that never catches on for good. After all, 70 mm film came and went. Multiple projection is a rarity. 3D already went through one boom and bust, and there's no guarantee that it'll be sticking around for good this time around. And let's not talk about hologram technology.

Still, the history of movies has always been a search for the next big things, the next new way to make a better spectacle. This could very well be the next big one, like color and sound and widescreen. I don't think there's been any projection-related technical development in my lifetime that has been quite as exciting and potentially revolutionary as this. I still have my doubts about higher frame rate movies, but I admit I'm also very curious and excited about the possibilities too.

No comments:

Post a Comment