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Will Film Go By Faster? A Look Into the 48-Frame-per-Second Future

A couple of weeks ago, Disney sent me Tron: Legacy in a five-disc package comprised of Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copies of the film; a Blu-Ray of the original Tron; and — what is clearly the pièce de résistance of this particular package — a 3-D Blu-ray of the film, which you may watch if, as the packaging notes, you have a 3-D-capable Blu-ray player and a 3-D-capable high-definition television set (and — not noted on the packaging but relevant all the same — you haven’t yet lost or sat on the 3-D glasses that come with the 3-D TV).

The irony of this package is that when 3-D was first used, in the fifties, and when its later iterations were trotted out, in the eighties and today, one of the arguments for it was that it gave people something they couldn’t get on their TVs at home; it raised the spectacle level of going to the cinema to a whole new dimension (pun intended). Film buffs can argue whether 3-D ultimately lives up to its billing, but by and large there’s no doubting the rationale — or wasn’t, until now. Not all that many people have the total 3-D setup at home yet, but the capability for anyone to have it is there. The limiting factor at the moment is the expense, and that’s likely to go down as time goes on, just as the cost of HDTVs went from ridiculous to (mostly) affordable over time. So the question then becomes this: what’s going to be cinema’s next technological trick to bring moviegoers in? The answer to this may have been given last week, when James Cameron (you may have heard of him) announced at CinemaCon, in Las Vegas, that he “fully intends” to make the next two Avatar films at higher frame rates.

For those of you showing me your “What?” face at the moment, a little background: nearly all motion-picture films are recorded at 24 frames per second (i.e., 24 still pictures that when shown in sequence over the space of one second fool your brain into perceiving motion). Why 24 frames per second? Because it’s close to the minimum needed to give the illusion of fluid movement and because that’s what filmmakers have been using for decades. Why mess with a good thing? Twenty-four frames a second is what makes film look like film, rather than videotape recordings, which typically have 30 frames a second, giving them a slightly more fluid look.

What Cameron is proposing to do is record films using twice as many (or 2.5 times as many) frames per second, which will have the effect of making your brain register the movement as even more lifelike than before. Basically, the more you pump up the frame rate, the more like real life it will seem. “When you author and project a movie at 48 or 60, it becomes a different movie,” Cameron told the CinemaCon crowd. “The higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window. In fact, it is just reality. It is really stunning.”

It’s an interesting argument and one that some have been making for a while: film critic Roger Ebert, for example, has long been a champion of a 48-frames-per-second film system called Maxivision 48. But I can see a couple of arguments against it.

The first is stylistic: simply put, the 24-frames-per-second look for film is culturally ingrained as a cinematic touchstone, while the higher frame rate of video, typically used on TV, is perceived as looking inferior to it. This sort of visual cultural marker is so ingrained that, ironically, a higher frame rate might feel cheaper and less cinematic. Or, as Cameron himself noted when he showed a fight scene recorded at 48 frames per second, “This almost feels like two stunt guys mock fighting.”

The second argument is more practical: it’s already expensive enough to author special effects at 24 frames per second. How much more expensive will it be with twice as many (or more) frames? I expect that, at least initially, it will cost a lot more — which is why, at least initially, it will have to be someone like Cameron who takes this sort of technological leap. He’s one of the very few filmmakers working whose box-office record incorporating innovative technology is so successful that studios would be dumb not to let him experiment some more.

So I look forward to seeing whether Cameron and other filmmakers can pull off moving film into a post-24-frames-per-second era and thus offer us another chance to be wowed by the visual experience of cinema. The final irony here, mind you, is that we’re already ready for the home-video versions: most newer televisions can refresh their onscreen images at least 60 times a second, with some clocking in with 120 or 240 refreshes a second. I guess that means it’s time for filmmakers to cook up something new on the tech front.

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