The stakes were high for Warner Bros. The studio would be screening 10 minutes of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" to journalists and exhibitors at CinemaCon, the annual Las Vegas trade show for theater owners. The difference? The clip screened not at the standard 24 frames per second (fps) that almost all films are shot and projected at, but at 48 fps.
The feedback from the April screening was decidedly mixed. Journalists said the unusual frame rate made the footage look "non-cinematic" or like an old TV show. Exhibitors also learned that they would need to upgrade their digital projector software before the film's December premiere -- at a cost of $10,000.
Why are filmmakers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron shying away from 24 fps? How did 24 fps become associated with that "cinematic" look in the first place?
A standard is just a standard
For over 80 years, films have been shot and projected at 24 fps. Technically, anyway. 35mm projectors use 48 frames per second to make the flickering between frames less annoying. So, when you are sitting in a theater, half of the time you are actually sitting in darkness. Digital projectors do not have shutters, and instead refresh 144 frames a second.
Studios and theaters didn't establish the 24 fps standard because it was perfect; they just needed film to run at a regular speed for playing back sound. In a must-watch series on frame rates, film technician Mark Schubin put it bluntly: "There is absolutely nothing special about 24 frames per second. There is no particular psychological reason for it; no mathematical reason for it."
The cinematic "look" we are familiar with was just a compromise from the late 1920s, after a sound engineer averaged out how fast theaters were projecting films. (Many theaters played their movies back faster than was intended, to get audiences in and out of their seats faster.)
The advantages of a higher frame rate
On paper, there are major advantages to shooting and projecting at higher frame rates. There tends to be a lot of flicker at 24 fps, which becomes very noticeable the larger and brighter the screen becomes. If a character moves during an IMAX screening, she'll move the equivalent of several feet onscreen. That change can be jarring and tiring for audiences.
Higher frame-rates drastically reduce that flicker effect and make the movie's apparent sharpness much higher. This comes especially handy during 3-D films, where there's currently hardly enough visual information for audiences at the normal 24 fps.
It also gives filmmakers more options. Special effects expert Doug Trumbull predicts that in the near future filmmaker will want to shoot at very high frame rates -- over 100 per second -- and then mix that down to whatever projection they desire: 24, 48, or even 60.
Old habits die hard
While it may be a no-brainer to use higher frame rates, consider the audience reaction to "The Hobbit." The footage looked cheesy and a bit disturbing, like a TV show or a sports broadcast. We may be on the cusp of a new projection standard, but 80-plus years of cultural training have taught us that the "live" look of video is only appropriate for lesser, cheaper productions. It may be difficult to remove that stigma while watching a feature-length film in theaters.
The only way to know if the new technology works for audiences is when "The Hobbit" and James Cameron's "Avatar" sequels hit theaters. In the meantime, Warner Bros. isn't taking any chances, since releasing the first trailer for "The Hobbit" at 24 frames per second.
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