Is high-frame-rate projection the future of filmmaking or an assault on the human brain? Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — shot and projected at 48 frames per second, twice the traditional number — has drawn a lot of irritated muttering and heavy thoughts about the limits of perception and “the way our brains see things.” (Not to mention the way we emotionally experience things — the author of a fascinating piece posted today at Gizmodo cops to having had radically different reactions to the film after seeing it in both 48 and 24 FPS.) Some viewers have described the ultraclear picture as looking like an HD TV version of the film and others have noted that some scenes look like sped-up Benny Hill–esque outtakes.
But why does it all appear so odd, so abnormal? And is it actually? To find out, Vulture asked two experts: Marty Banks, a professor of optometry and vision science at Berkeley, who was sought out by Jackson before The Hobbit’s release to weigh in on a 48 FPS trailer for the film, and Rob Allison, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at York University in Toronto, who specializes in human perceptual responses and stereoscopic vision.
One of the major issues with the new frame-rate projection is how smooth it all looks. That’s because 48 FPS erases much of the blurring that occurs at 24 FPS. To perceive motion on a screen, our brains need a projection rate of at least fourteen frames per second — and the higher the frame rate, the smoother the motion seems. “We see continuously and smoothly, not in frames,” notes Allison. “We don’t perceive at 24 frames per second. We don’t think at 24 frames per second. I’ve seen silly things on the Internet about how we think at 40 frames per second. But there is no perception limit.”
The difference is psychological, not visual — there’s what we are accustomed to, and then there’s the new. We’re used to making certain assumptions about what we see on a screen. “Colors are not as rich on TV sets or desktop monitors,” said Banks. “The motion is not as smooth. Brightness is not as great. We’ve adjusted to that, and we accept it. So when we see a projection that is closer to reality than what we are used to, our brains go, ‘Whoa!’ and we get this ‘hyper-real’ sensation. I think that’s what’s happening to people. Things look unusually sharp [in The Hobbit], and we’re seeing something closer to reality.
“If people are frustrated, it’s because this seems a violation of what has been considered normal,” he continued. “Look at how people reacted when color was first introduced, or Hi-Definition, or Dolby sound. There were negative reactions to all of those at first, too. But now if you don’t have them, you feel deprived.”
“Think about what some of the reaction [to 48 FPS] has been. The characters look too sharp? You’re too aware of the makeup and the wrinkles? Some of the sets look like sets? Of course they do. You’ve created a format where the viewer sees more of what is actually there. Filmmakers will have to learn to make sets better and makeup better. That probably happened when color was introduced, too.”
Both Banks and Allison said that in the real world, we’re presented with far more detail than what we get onscreen so the more we see films projected in 48 FPS, the more natural it will appear. “You become more attuned to things as you look at them,” Allison said. “By your fourth or fifth high-frame-rate film, you’ll be used to it. This isn’t about perception as much as expectation. If you’ve grown up playing video games at 60-frame rates, you’ll already know what to expect.” (Most modern video games use a 30 to 60 frame rate, although some go as high as 125 for action/adventure and racing. To see what frame rate your favorite game has, go here. Additionally, much TV is displayed at 60 FPS.)
One thing that could mitigate some of the negative audience response in the future is if filmmakers use a transitional system of sorts — variable frame rates within single movies: higher for action, back to 24 FPS for close-ups. “During the first scenes in The Hobbit,” he said, “with Bilbo and Frodo at the house in the Shire, there was a shallow depth of field, so it was fairly traditional. You probably didn’t need a high frame rate there. But once you got to the Dwarves at Erebor and the people in Dale, the town nearby, that was a good time to get used to 48, because there was a lot of richness in those scenes to explore. And once you get to the attack of the dragon, the first big action scene, the 48 is useful, because there are lots of effects and it will heighten the experience. Plus, the dragon’s cool. Who doesn’t like a dragon?”
If there is an obvious problem with 48 FPS, Banks said, it’s still a subtle one — an element of depth distortion. Allison agreed. “One of the things 48 FPS can do for you is to allow less motion blur and make the details crisper,” he said. “But some things that were meant to be blurry in the background are sharper, so it’s a matter of adjusting for that. Some things that are fake look fake.”
And what about some viewers’ complaints of headaches or motion sickness while watching The Hobbit? “People do get cinema sickness,” Allison said. “People get flight simulator sickness. You can get sick on theme-park rides. And if you already have a headache, you might attribute it to the movie. But I don’t think the movie will cause headaches. And if you have photo-induced epilepsy, you should actually be less susceptible watching a higher frame rate film because there is less flicker.”
So the bottom line on the brave new world of 48 FPS movies? “It’s an aesthetic question,” Allison said. “But perceptually, I think it’s a win.” Of course, the matter of “will we get used to it” and “will we want to get used to it” are two different things altogether.