In my March blog, I touched on the topic of digital conversions, and how this changeover in the industry is the biggest technology overhaul since the advent of talkies In the late twenties. Studios have announced the eventual phase-out of new films being released on film stock in favor of its digital counterpart. This means the conversion of projection equipment for every theatre across the country, and the probable death of many independent theatres that cannot afford the cost to upgrade. There is, however, another big change coming that may be just as drastic to the industry as the digital leap… It is the change to 48fps. Already it has drawn fire from both sides, and the first theatrical film to embrace the technology is still months away from a release.
Motion pictures as we know them have been projected at 24fps (frames per second) ever since the dawn of sound in the late 1920s when a standard was required for synchronization. Prior to that, the frame rate varied, anywhere from 18fps to 24fps. This rate is what gives film it’s particular look, including the tendency of fast motion to appear as a blur. Over the years, there has been some experimentation with differing rates, but due to the standardized equipment, 24fps has always remained the norm. All that has changed with the changeover to digital projection, which is not exclusive to speed rates in the way that conventional film projectors were.
Peter Jackson is challenging the system with his new production of The Hobbit, which is not only being filmed in 3-D but at 48fps. The first public exposure to this came at CinemaCon, with a ten-minute preview of segments shown at 48fps. The reaction was immediate and divisive, as audiences were confronted with an experience that was sharper and more dynamic than they ever had seen before—but also unlike what all their expectations of film should look like. It is already clear that not everyone will like this new technology because it is so different. Criticisms have been that it looks “uncinematic,” akin to watching high-def live sports footage. Somehow, it reminds me of the remark made by Harry Warner as sound films were first being contemplated. His remark, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” clearly showed someone not open to the advances of the medium.
As for myself, let me say that I have seen the future and it is 48fps—and I saw its potential 25 years ago.
A founding father for this technology is Douglas Trumbull, who has pushed the technological envelope ever since his beginning effects work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and whose subsequent work includes Bladerunner, Brainstorm, Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the Back to the Future park ride. His experimentations with differing rates included the measurement of physiological responses to the experiences, before finally settling on 60fps for his Showscan presentations in the eighties. I saw a Showscan movie in Dallas at the time (New Magic, 1983), and the experience was amazing. The image was sharp, clear, and so rich that it could pass itself off as real life. This illusion was worked into the narrative of the movie, fooling the audience into thinking that the film had stopped and an actual person was standing behind the screen, pushing outward on the surface. Never before or since have I seen the line between illusion and reality drawn so thin.
Showscan was a technology well ahead of—and limited by—its time, but the digital age has changed all that. Switching to higher frame rates is not the insurmountable behemoth that it once was, which makes Trumbull’s efforts now accessible on a massive scale. He is still active, having just finished the effects for Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life in 2010. His current experiments with optimum film technologies includes film run at 120s, twice the rate of his Showscan movies.
By comparison to Trumbull’s advances in the medium, 48fps seems hardly a major jump forward, but for the mass audience used to a century of 24fps movies, the difference is striking enough to already be drawing the battle lines. It will be a big leap for many to make, who are comfortable with their movie fare delivered exactly as it has been in the past. It should be noted that 3-D, which has reached new levels in the last decade, has its own fair share of detractors who just don’t like it. It already appears that when The Hobbit opens, it may be presented in both 24fps and 48fps, as well as the expected options of 3-D and the standard 2-D.
True, 48fps does look different from a standard-rate movie. That’s the whole point. As touched on in the March blog, the motion picture is as much a technological art form as a narrative one. Unlike other arts that are pure forms, the very nature of film has been one based on invention, beginning with the motion picture camera itself. As a creative medium, a whole language was developed to tell a story—editing, close-ups, fades, trick photography, and so forth. But this was likewise carried on the shoulders of the technology itself, from silent to sound and infinite improvements thereafter, black and white to color, flat to widescreen, etc., etc., etc. Revving up the film rate is only the latest advance, and will no doubt serve as the groundwork for something else further down the road. Yes, there will be even more changes ahead, some small and some crazy big—one can only wonder what the state of the art will be in another century.
Like James Cameron, who is planning on 60fps for his upcoming Avatar 2 endeavor, Jackson is an advocate of the moviegoing experience being all that it can be. He proved this with Lord of the Rings, and is ready to take his audience into realms that can now be easily be manifested with digital technology. 48fps is his offering for all those who are ready for the ride. It’s going to be one unlike anything you have seen before.
I’m so already there.