This past weekend I was finally able to see The Hobbit. I know, I know… I’m late to the party. With its release, the main selling point, aside from the pedigree of the material and the team behind the film, was advancement in the film’s frame rate. 48 frames per second; a high frame rate; fancy terms for what I can only describe as the most expensive ugly film in history.
Standard films up until now have been filmed and shown at a level of 24 frames per second. Another way of thinking about this is for every second within any given film, there are 24 moments being seen by your eyes and interpreted by your brain. Peter Jackson, by no means shy of technological advancement in film, has pushed this to 48 frames per second, or rather 48 moments per second, in his new Hobbit film. One would think that by allowing your eyes to see twice the amount of visual information in any given second would make for a more immersive and therefore better film. 20 minutes in to the film I couldn’t help but feel I was watching a technological mistake.
So what was I feeling? Watching The Hobbit in 48 fps, all I could think about was how fake it all looked. A cave looked like it was made out of polystyrene. The Shire looked like the home of the Teletubbies. The movement of the characters seemed overly theatrical, like watching a play. Why, in my opinion, did it look so awful? I loved the three Lord of the Rings films. Sitting in the theatre watching each film, I regarded in awe at the aesthetic beauty and painterly quality of every backdrop and set, every piece of metal and stone. But those films were shot in 24 frames rather than 48. The inclusion of those extra 24 frames were completely ruining the film-going experience for me. But why?
I am not alone in feeling this way. A lot has been written on how our brains are interpreting these added 24 frames per second. The blog Movieline sat down with James Kerwin who gave a lecture at the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies, and using the analysis of Dr. Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose’s quantum theory of consciousness, explained that there is scientific reason behind why The Hobbit looks so bad to most people. Kerwin argues that although the human eye is capable of seeing up to 66 frames per second, neuroscience argues that the human brain is only consciously aware of 40 frames per second. Anything over 40 frames per second is then interpreted by our brain as looking real. In film this leads to an ‘Uncanny valley’ effect. The uncanny valley in psychology is when you are seeing something artificial that starts to approach looking real, you begin to inherently psychologically reject it. The viewer can’t help but focus on those objects that do not look real: the lighting, stage design, and the movement of the actors themselves. When there is no uncanny valley effect, we accept that what we are watching is not real, and can therefore distance ourselves from the “artificial conventions of the acting and the lighting and the props”.
Not everyone believes Dr. Hameroff’s analysis, however. Articles posted at both Vulture and Collider sourced experts who contend that the brain is more than capable of absorbing 48 frames per second, and that those who claim the opposite are being silly. Rob Allison of York University and a specialist in human perceptual responses called out Kerwin and Hameroff, stating: “I’ve seen silly things on the Internet about how we think at 40 frames per second. But there is no perception limit.” Tim Smith of Birkbeck University and an expert in visual cognition argued that the connection from the eye to the brain operates in a continuous stream except when interrupted by blinking, “not a discrete series of frames as in film so no increase in frame rate will ever exceed the presentation rate of reality.” The problem then rests with us and our expectations regarding the look of movies in general. According to these experts the issue is not one of whether our brains can handle it, but more are we willing to change our opinion of what a movie should look like.
In the end, whether it is because our brains cannot handle the uncanny nature of hyper-realism, or whether we are simply used to a certain concept of how films should look, either way my brain seemed to reject what it was watching. Talking with Vulture, Marty Banks, a professor of Optometry and Vision Science at Berkeley, explained that it could take up to 4 or 5 viewings of high frame rate movies to break our expectation and accept the new visuals as normal. Yet with this normalization comes another risk. In a great article at Badass Digest, author Devin Faraci expresses fear that 48 fps will create a wall between high frame rate and low frame rate films and the normalizing of the later will make it near impossible for some to watch their lower frame rate counterparts. In a Facebook post, Peter Jackson expressed how after being consumed by 48 fps media he finds lower frame rates “distracting” and “juddery”. Faraci poses: “Imagine a future where it isn’t just the aesthetics that alienate, but the very presentation format. It seems to me that such a future is one with a very clear dividing line… on one side are the movies people see, and on the other side is 100-plus years of cinema history.”
Currently, I contend that the jump to 48 frames has a negative impact on film, but I have always been a Luddite when it comes to a lot of technological jumps in film-making. I think 3-D is a gimmick and Yoda should have remained a muppet. But progress marches on. James Cameron has already stated how he wishes to film the next Avatar movie in a higher frame rate and I am sure others will follow. And when they do, I will be the grumpy old man in the back of the theatre talking about how in my day, you went to a movie to escape reality, not to have it thrown in your face.
Let me know your thoughts. I am curious as to whether I am over-reacting or part of the general consensus. Also, what do you think about the possibility of 48 fps making old films unwatchable due to their lower frame rate?
Here is a list of great blog articles on the topic of high frame rates and human perception.