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Thursday, March 14, 2013

48 frames/second- A welcome change of pace.

Will faster frame-rates for big budget movies become the norm in cinemas?
                The Hobbit (the original novel was written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937), directed by Peter Jackson came out in December 2012. If you haven't seen it yet, you are definitely missing out. This film has introduced a new debate from filmmakers and audiences alike because it was shot and screened at 48 frames per second (fps) - something us film-goers are not used to. We have been watching films at 24fps for almost 90 years and our eyes are accustomed to that particular visual 'feel'. At 48fps, we are subjected to twice as many frames in the same amount of time, making the display smoother and more fluid, much like something shot skillfully in high quality video.

              Originally, the 24fps frame-rate was selected based on the technical requirements of the early 'sound era' (-1927) of film. The minimum speed required to get decent audio fidelity out of the first optical sound tracks was 24fps. The reason filmmakers settled on the minimum speed at the time was the high cost of film stock (35mm negative), per foot, to shoot, develop and print. Even today it represents a significant percentage of a film's budget. We have been watching movies at 24fps for nearly a century, not because it is the best film speed (it is not by any standard), but rather because it was the cheapest way to achieve acceptable results, back when it was introduced.

              The introduction of 48fps means that we shoot twice as many frames per second than usual. A fair question would be: How is this practical? It is using twice the footage to shoot the same scenes that will then need to be projected at a faster speed to achieve the desired result. Well, the best thing living in the digital age is the ease with which one can transition from an older technology to the newer. Most new digital projectors are already capable of projecting faster frame-rates, with only the digital servers requiring some firmware upgrades. Surprisingly, 48 fps and 60fps look remarkably similar. The difference between these speeds is almost negligible, but the increase in quality over 24fps is immediately apparent in both. If you are into gaming, you will recognize this as the lag you experience when you try to run high-end graphics on a weak graphics card (if you turn on benchmarks, you can compare what 24fps and 48fps look like with the same content).

              Despite the technological accomplishment, 48fps did not sit well with everyone. Some critics call it "terrible execution" while supporters insist this will change the industry for the better. Well, yes and no to both. Yes, the execution was not flawless as far as The Hobbit was concerned, but that was expected of the maiden journey of this format. At the same time it is far from terrible as you hardly notice when some things go wrong and you'd have to be extremely pedantic to do so. Peter Jackson, who was popularized this technology overnight, has shared a very detailed description on his Facebook wall, on what 48fps brings to film making.

              "We are indeed shooting at the higher frame rate. The key thing to understand is that this process requires both shooting and projecting at 48fps, rather than the usual 24fps. So the result looks like normal speed, but the image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness. Looking at 24 frames every second may seem ok - and we've all seen thousands of films like this over the last 90 years - but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or 'strobe'."

               Shooting and projecting at 48fps goes a long way in addressing the above mentioned issues. In this format, Subjects look much more lifelike, and the film becomes much easier to watch, especially in 3D. The first thing it reduces is the dreaded eye-strain that comes from watching movies in 3D. After viewing a film in this format a few times, older films start looking ancient.

                Despite the apparent revolution, this line of thought is not new. A man named Doug Trumbull developed and promoted a process called 'Showscan', boasting up to 60 fps some 30 years ago. Unfortunately it was never adopted for use in feature-length dramatic narratives; its main usage was as the visual medium in some theme park rides and some documentaries due to its more 'real' appearance. Also, the sheer cost of burning through more than three times the feet of film per second than normal had its own impact.

                 Peter Jackson foresaw the backlash from purists and had this to say on the matter: "Film purists will criticize the lack of blur and strobing artifacts, but all of our crew - many of whom are film purists - is now converts. You get used to this new look very quickly and it becomes a much more lifelike and comfortable viewing experience. It's similar to the moment when vinyl records were supplanted by digital CDs. There's no doubt in my mind that we're heading towards movies being shot and projected at higher frame rates."

                  To this day, it was the presentation that defined movies, from the script to the execution, because nobody considered the 24fps format a hindrance to filmmaking. But with 48fps now out there, it will definitely redefine the very process through which films are made. Actors will have far less room for error as 48fps is much detailed than before. Action choreography will improve significantly and look a lot better, with its movement having been smoothed out immensely. We as movie fans have a win-win on our hands, as the perfection of this format improves our 3D, and even 20, viewing experience!


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