What is the 21st Century?: Frame-Rate Follies

After a three year absence, the column returns with a look at _The Hobbit_'s 48 fps technology.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

After a three year absence, the column returns as a bi-weekly look at issues in contemporary film culture and technology.


As implemented in Peter Jackson’s new The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, HFR—the 48-frames-per-second 3D process touted by Jackson and company as producing a crisper, more life-like moving image—occasionally looks stuttery and awkward. Static subjects look indistinguishable from their 24 fps counterparts, while motion tends to look sped-up in comparison; it sometimes gives the on-screen action the flavor of a poorly-buffered streaming video, and has earned the process comparisons to a poor PAL-to-NTSC transfer, a soap opera, a BBC production aired on public television, and an Xbox cutscene.

It’s easy to dismiss these comparisons as reactionary; we do, after all, live in a culture where “24 frames per second” is a synecdoche for cinema and where unusual frame-rates are associated with television and consumer-grade video. Proponents of the technology have chalked up negative reactions to "the shock of the new" (i.e. HFR doesn't "look bad" because it looks bad, but because viewers have been conditioned to watch movies at 24 fps). 

The technology's defenders have a point; HFR isn't a fundamentally bad technology. It is, however, fundamentally different, and thus requires a fundamentally different approach to filmmaking. In The Hobbit, however, its implementation is so careless that, for the most part, all the added frames do is undermine an already wobbly, ungainly film.   

The failure of The Hobbit's HFR / 48 fps, therefore, isn’t so much a failure of design as it is a failure of imagination. Imperfect technology can produce striking results (see: early color processes, the clattery sound design of early talkies, ghostly video), but only in the hands of filmmakers who can appreciate (and stylize) its shortcomings. Every technology has its limits (24 fps is no exception), and film style operates by either smoothing over these flaws (as classical Hollywood did) or exploiting them (as a lot of key avant-garde filmmakers have). 

The Hobbit’s problem is that it does neither. Instead, it attempts to fit 48 fps motion into a 24 fps visual grammar; the result is a visually-dissonant film that serves mostly as a showcase for the technology’s flaws, and which probably plays better at a halved frame-rate—which is how it is being shown in most theaters—than in its intended format. Without 24 fps' motion blur, action and editing rhythm are largely out-of-sync, quick camera movement looks jittery, and make-up looks like, well, make-up—which is a problem for a film where every single character is wearing a false nose, a false beard, or at least false ears. 

Take, for example, the stagier of the film's two (!) prologues, which features the elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) composing his memoirs. On storyboards, the scene probably looked cohesive—shots of Bilbo wandering around Bag End, looking at old mementos, sitting down at a table to write down his youthful adventures. But HFR's stop-start sense of movement breaks up any sense of cohesion; the shots seemed planned and timed according to the fairly even sense of movement of 24 fps, but within the more irregular rhythm of 48 fps motion, their purpose is undermined. 

Of course, movies haven't always run at 24 frames per second. In the first two decades of commercial film distribution, projectionists would take anywhere between 6 and 16 ½ minutes to crank through 1,000 feet of film. Once features came around, distributors started specifying fps rates on cue sheets—hand-outs put together for use by projectionists and musical accompanists. These varied from film to film—and were almost always different from the fps rates at which the films were actually shot. 

In light of Jackson's promise of a more "life-like" sense of movement, it should be noted that, during the early history of cinema, it wasn't widely assumed that film should accurately represent speed and motion; the goal was instead a deliberate stylization of movement. According to Kevin Brownlow's "Silent Films: What Was the Right Speed?" (Sight & Sound, Summer 1980)—a still-invaluable piece of research intended to shatter the then-prevalent myth that most silent movies were meant to be shown at 16 frames per second—the specified fps rates could even vary from reel to reel within a single feature; Brownlow quotes D.W. Griffith as indicating that Home Sweet Home (1914) should be shown at 16.6 fps for the first reel, 19 fps for the second reel, and 19-20.5 fps for the remainder of the movie—in other words, that the film's sense of motion should become more stylized as the plot progressed. 

By the mid-1920s, there were calls for standardization, and 24 frames per second was eventually settled on as both a shooting and a projection standard. Within the grammar of silent film—developed around a heightened sense of movement—24 fps shooting and projection seemed "slow." Style shifted to accommodate.  

The problem of The Hobbit, then, is a lack of accommodation. Quite a few important films from the last decade have played fast and loose with digital video’s sense of on-screen motion: Colossal Youth, which makes deliberate use of MiniDV’s slightly ghostly sense of movement and its wild grain; Public Enemies, where every shot presents a different sense of motion (look no further than the stunning “Little Bohemia” lodge sequence); Inland Empire, which mines the blurry, bleary motion of consumer-grade video for oneiric effects. Not one of these films moves or looks like 24-frames-per-second film is supposed to; The Hobbit looks conservative in comparison—and that's precisely the root of its problem.

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