The Future Of Film: All Big Blockbusters Will Be Shot At 48 FPS

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Jean Luc-Godard, Gallic auteur, smoker, erstwhile Marxist and KerPlunk champion (unsubstantiated), famously pronounced, "Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second." The dialectical challenge of this statement notwithstanding, he wanted us to recognise that there was an illusion at the heart of all cinema — that by a trick of the brain, 24 frames whirring past our eyes at sufficient speed would create a convincing facsimile of the real world. Cinema, in basic terms, is a series of still images that, shown in succession, combine to give the semblance of movement. It is important to acknowledge that a movie is shot at 24fps as well as being projected at that speed.

JAMES CAMERON IS THINKING OF SHOOTING HIS AVATAR SEQUELS IN 60FPS, SHARPER THAN THE HUMAN EYE CAN SEE.Peter Jackson, Kiwi auteur, tea-drinker, King Kong nut and Mario Kart wizard (unsubstantiated), caused something of a major brouhaha when he decided Middle-earth, being a fanciful kind of place, would greatly benefit from being seen not at 24 but 48fps. Camera technology having reached a level to facilitate his desires, he filmed his Hobbit trilogy at the faster rate — and in 3D — while the world awaited the results, intrigued as to what they might witness.

The argument Jackson gives is that vastly reduced motion blur greatly enhance the action, much improving clarity of image (especially in problematically cloudy 3D) and providing lots of luscious detail. And it was not about throwing out the old. "The big thing to realise is that it's not an attempt to change the film industry," he says. "It's another choice. The projectors that can run at 48 frames can run at 24 frames — it doesn't have to be one thing or another. You can shoot a movie at 24 frames and have sequences at 48 frames within the body of the film." Films, he insisted, would still be made the same way. It was just another creative choice.

Furthermore, this was not the first time a filmmaker has accelerated the frame rate for effect. At cinema's birth, pioneers experimented with 40fps and as low as 16fps, although this was as much to do with hand cranking the cameras as clarity of image. Both Oklahoma! (1955) and Around The World In Eighty Days (1956), big brash 70mm numbers, were shot and projected at 30 fps. More recently, there has been some IMAX and theme park work in 48fps.

Peter Jackson and James Cameron at Comic Con
Frame rate pioneers: James Cameron and Peter Jackson attend 'The Visionarie' panel at Comic-Con 2009.

Reactions to An Unexpected Journey in 48fps were mixed. Critics and exhibitors, shown early footage at CinemaCon in 2012, were unnerved by the clarity — it had the sharpness of live sports coverage, or as one wiseacre commented, a Mexican soap opera. Did audiences really need to detect the seam down the back of Gandalf's hat? For some it was not like looking into Middle-earth, but into the set itself. The film was losing some of its mystery and warmth. This was just too much truth.

REACTIONS TO AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY IN 48FPS WERE MIXED. CRITICS AND EXHIBITORS WERE UNNERVED BY THE CLARITY.That said, there were advocates, who thrilled to the remarkable level of detail, the sense of reality it gave the fantasy world. It was as if you were gazing through a window. You could pick up on things — the embroidery on Bilbo's shirt, the filigree carving on Sting, a troll's rotten canines — impossible to see in 24fps. It could have been that combined with 3D here was simply too much visual information for us to take in one go (the film didn't go easy on action). Indeed, while never released this way, insiders claimed watching the film in 48fps without 3D was quite an experience. Still, with audiences unconvinced, the 48fps was toned down for the release of The Desolation Of Smaug, and will be again for the forthcoming The Battle Of The Five Armies.

Perhaps, Jackson is a man ahead of his time. Undoubtedly, 48fps will find its place, with filmmakers making cunning, artistic use of such dizzying lucidity — on a more science-fiction footing it may thrive. Kubrick, with his mathematician's eye, surely would have been delighted to discover what it could offer. James Cameron has already dismissed it as yesterday's news, he's thinking of shooting his Avatar sequels in 60fps, sharper than the human eye can see. In other words, he wants to go way beyond truth.