48fps: how we accidentally invented Impressionist filmmaking

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My first ever camera was a matte gray Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot. It had eight or so megapixels, a dozen scene modes, and a way to style my shots in either sepia or black and white. I remember my first ever photograph: a row of novels lined up on a bookshelf, their orange and green spines lit by overhead fluorescents. I was always something of a wannabe film geek, and — permanent cropping be damned — I'd even set the camera to shoot in 16:9, closer to the widescreen format of the filmic look that I admired.

The shot was miserable. The books were soaked in light, and the crevices around them were an impassable black. I couldn't understand. Not only did my eyes see bright colors and a beautiful horizon line, but the camera's display did as well. It wasn't for another dozen shots that I realized the issue: the flash fired indiscriminately, changing the entire structure of the scene. A photograph has a surprisingly fragile makeup, and even moving a lamp can mean a massive change.

Later, when I shot video, I encountered the very same problem. The resulting movies looking nothing like the films I was so used to, let alone real life. These days I'm choosing DSLRs based on their microphone inputs and how they handle rolling shutter, but there's no doubt that most people aren't aware of the technical choices that go into filmmaking. After about 90 years of the only visual style that we've known, Peter Jackson has decided to film his newest trilogy in a format that looks remarkably different. This won't only be an oddity for the average viewer, it could mean a massive change for the industry. Now, we're at crossroads. We have to decide if holding onto the past makes sense, or if we're better off embracing technology for what it almost always is: an improvement.

THE BEGINNING

Film stock is expensive. There was no standard frame rate during the earlier days of silent film. The Lumière Brothers, who more or less got this whole film medium going, made shorts that were shot at 16 frames per second, and other films didn't stray far from that. Even today, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat plays as a strong demonstration of the medium's most basic accomplishment, creating a moving picture, even if that motion is a bit stuttered. Eventually, 24 frames per second was chosen as the standard because it was fast enough to look good, and it would save the studios money. This is how every film you've ever loved was shot, but there's no reason to hold the number 24 holy. It's an arbitrary number with cost reduction as its primary motive.

Peter Jackson and James Cameron speak of High Frame Rate filming as though it were a new technology that we've developed. This kind of filming has been available for some time, eminently more so over the past decade due to digital cameras for which changing shutter speed is a matter of flipping a switch. There's a reason no one has done it for a major film. We see these higher frame rates all the time in soap operas and reality shows, and generally, they look bad.

If there's a time to switch, now may be it. In a world of gamers fighting over higher framerates, fervent Doctor Who fans, and dark, dizzying 3D, shooting at 48 frames per second may make more sense today than ever before, and we finally have the technology to do it efficiently. We're increasingly used to higher refresh rates and excited by new technologies, and High Frame Rate filmmaking promises to make the medium even better. It doesn't seem that there's any good reason to use 24 frames per second other than propriety.

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AN UNEXPECTED REACTION

The opening shots of An Unexpected Journey are jarring, to say the least. I found myself actively cringing — this is no hyperbole — as Bilbo dipped his quill into the inkwell to begin writing his story. The sensation eased as we saw more static shots of his home, but the following flashback turned into a mixture of video game cut scenes and History Channel reenactments. As Peter Jackson promised, one eventually gets used to the change. By the time the group hit Rivendell, I'd more or less eased into the style.

Jackson filmed The Hobbit at 48 frames per second because of the format's "hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness." In many ways, he's right. We're seeing a more accurate representation of the world. There's no denying that 3D, an immature medium itself, looks drastically better (which is to say, it's largely unproblematic here). Action sequences can attain a greater excitement by being easier to follow through visual sharpness and precision. The incredible world that Jackson has built can quite simply be shown in more detail.

It's incredible what this clarity allows. We see Martin Freeman's pores and stray hairs across Ian McKellen's face. In Gollum's cave the reflection of rocking water warbles against the stone walls. We see it as though we were in the cave ourselves rather than some creamy dream. I'd never before realized that the films I'd seen didn't truly depict reality, but some slightly altered version of it. Watching Journey it became clear just how far apart they are.

That all said, watching Journey, it's equally obvious just how far Journey is from reality and how wrong it is to presume that higher frame rates are better frame rates.

REALITY IN FICTION

To get this out of the way, Yes, we may well only love 24 frames per second because we're so used to it. What we may not have realized, however, is that we're in some Impressionistic phase of film making.

To say that a higher frame rate is better is to say that the more closely we depict reality, the better that that depiction of reality is. By this logic, both film and theatre are better mediums than the novel, for they can depict real humans. One could argue the theatre is better for using actual humans in front of you, but of course there's the stage, the props, the lights, the microphones. Alternatively, maybe films like My Dinner with Andre or Before Sunset, films which depict the events of about an hour and a half in real time, or film's like Andy Warhol's Empire, an 8 hour and 5 minute shot of the Empire State Building, best depict reality for their removal of filmic elements.

Of course, no one would argue this. Each medium has its own strengths at depicting reality and telling a narrative. One might assume that the appropriate way to do this, aside from the cuts and other tricks afforded to the creator by their medium, is to remain as near to reality as possible, but this is hardly the case. My favorite line of dialogue from any piece of fiction comes from Hemingway's well known short story Hills Like White Elephants. It comes when a couple is arguing, and the man has just told the woman that he loves her. She replies, "I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?" It's a dizzying piece of dialogue that one can't easily imagine coming out of someone's mouth over the course of normal conversation, but in context, it's the most perfect and most true statement that the woman can say. The line of dialogue may be twisted and odd, but it does something far more important: it conveys her emotional being with incredible precision.

To argue that more frames better echoes reality is to ignore how best a sense of reality is created. Listen to a recording of someone speaking. They'll spew out "like" and "uh" and "um", and they'll string together every sentence with an "and". You'll never see this in a novel or on the screen. It isn't even a matter of delivering deep emotional content — this simply isn't how we believe that we speak. What we end up hearing is simple and cogent. Verisimilitude isn't achieved through a painstaking detailing of the real world, but rather through a careful and precise display of human emotion.

A NEW MEDIUM

When the film industry moved from silent pictures to sound, as films like The Artist and Singin' in the Rain detail, there were more than a few big actors who couldn't make the transition. One would think that there isn't much to changing one element — they were already mouthing lines after all — but the entirety of acting had to be changed. Broad body language was no longer necessary, while a good voice was. Studios had to figure out how to write differently too. A few sparse lines of plot couldn't cut it. They needed real conversations.

Watching Journey, it's clear that widespread adoption of High Frame Rate filmmaking would cause even greater issues. This isn't simply a matter of relearning how to do wardrobe, how to build a set, and how to light a scene. Acting is an entirely different matter here. Martin Freeman is one heck of a funny actor. We see him bumbling and confused, twisting his head back and forth comedically. We know that he's funny, and we know the joke — somehow, however, the frame rate disrupts his timing. It all takes a bit too long, and the sharp impact is gone.

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Interestingly, the stronger actors like Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving manage to make it through the film appearing largely fine. McKellen, of course, is no stranger to different frame rates. You can see him play King Lear for PBS and the Royal Shakespeare Company in a theatrical style with more realistic camerawork. Perhaps some amalgam of his theatrical work and film work better prepare him for higher frame rates, or perhaps a more accurate camera simply requires a more accurate actor. What's clear though is that modern acting, what usually looks nothing less than real to us, looks less than real here. Motions need to be all together slower and simpler to achieve the same impact. It's an odd result of a change promising realism and accuracy.

Beyond this is a need for changed camerawork. Setting aside the odd feelings from casual motions and close ups, standard film techniques like pans and jump cuts fall apart here. What should be gorgeous sweeping shots of Middle Earth are oddly quick, almost rushed asides. It's neither the amazing landscapes of Lord of the Rings nor the stunning realities of Planet Earth. It's something messy and wasted. Later, when Bilbo is dressing to leave the cave, jump cuts are used to speed up the action. It cuts from him halfway through putting on one article of clothing to the next several times over. Jump cuts may be meant to leave us disoriented in some sense, but not in the way that they're used here. These cuts are confusing and almost unnoticeable. The change is so slight that we're left confused as to whether the film jumped ahead or if we just missed something. There's no doubt that these techniques could be repaired through slower, more deliberate usage and movements, but it's quite a surprise to see just how large an effect an arbitrary frame rate has had on the vast majority of film history.

WHAT THE WORLD LOOKS LIKE

When I reviewed the footage from my point-and-shoot, it didn't look like the world I knew. I didn't know a thing about frame rates, but I now realize that my footage had been captured well above 24 frames per second. It didn't just look cheap because what I saw in it was soap operas, it looked cheap because there is perhaps no true way to recreate exactly what the human eye sees. Of course, more than that, we've come to believe that 24 frames per second is actually what the world looks like. We don't see the strobing, we don't see the blur. It's simply a natural part of vision.

Without realizing it, we've allowed ourselves to exist in an Impressionistic world of filmmaking. It's inaccurate, but the emotional quality of the visual makes us believe that it's real. Accepting what we see as an attempt at truth is the first and absolutely more basic step of watching a film (or for that matter, watching a play, reading a novel, or viewing a painting). We don't need it to perfectly immerse us, we only need to believe that it accurately represents what we know.

If however, Impressionist 24 frames per second filmmaking is only a tool, then certainly there is something to be gained from changing the format. Shooting at 24 frames per second is the low end of our capabilities, which makes a Realist movement, something increasingly precise as cameras become more capable, all the more viable of a possibility. Instead of frame rates being a requirement or a standard, they'd simply be options in a filmmakers' repertoire.

One can't help but wonder what something like Lost in Translation or Shame would gain from the higher accuracy of 48 frames per second. I'd argue nothing. Lost in Translation would lose its dreamy, foreign dreariness. Shame too might lose its methodical, heart wrenching gaze. Transformers though? I don't mean to chock High Frame Rate filmmaking up to a gimmick, but it almost inherently seems to be a tool rooted not in emotional content but in visual accuracy. Like prog rock to a singer-songwriter, the goals are utterly different. One is concerned with building an immense narrative, while the other is focused on something far more personal.

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

What then does The Hobbit gain in more accurately detailing its world? It's easy to see that it hasn't simply doubled the detail of Middle Earth. Rather, in crafting his high fantasy world, Jackson seems to have forgotten that Middle Earth does not in fact exist. A high fantasy setting needs all the verisimilitude that it can get, but added frames only give us time to linger on just how odd everything seems, how the castles seem small, how the actors are only human. Instead, traditional 24 frames would have, even outside of our learned acceptance, allowed Jackson to craft a world both brilliant and immersive. Instead, we see what appears to be a replica of Middle Earth, rather than being brought into Middle Earth as we were in Lord of the Rings.

If High Frame Rate filmmaking catches on, I suspect that we won't be seeing the same names and faces that we're used to. It's a tool that drastically changes the way that the medium works, and as those who have seen Journey as Jackson intended can attest, it's not going to be an easy or obvious transition. It's difficult to imagine what precisely Jackson had hoped Journey's technique would achieve, but perhaps it's this: like Christopher Nolan's gritty Gotham City, Jackson hoped to build a world that was unquestionably real. We wouldn't simply watch a story set in The Shire, we'd have believed that we had visited it, perhaps even could give a stranger directions across town. This is of course a crude approximation, but I can believe that Jackson may have seen a world more physical and present than any that we've seen before. Even if High Frame Rate filmmaking is adopted and The Hobbit's look improves with age, one can't quite believe that Jackson achieved a superior look for the film through this format.

There may well be something here, but I've always found more accuracy and value in works that are emotionally precise and less obviously real than in works that are realistically precise and emotionally thin. High Frame Rate filmmaking only seems to go against that notion. Maybe I'm wrong here, but I'd take Guernica over Washington Crossing the Delaware any day.