Is 48 frames per second our prrrrrecious?

24 Dec

ImageIs 48 frames per second the future? The Hobbit is the first film to be shown at twice the normal frame rate, meant to reduce the subliminal ‘flicker’ experienced at the normal 24fps. The sequel to Avatar will also be made at either 48 or 60.

I saw The Hobbit at the Ritzy, which isn’t equipped to show it at the faster frame rate, so I can’t tell you whether it enhances the experience or, as some critics say, improves realism so much that it makes costumes and props look tacky. But the fuss does remind me of a trip to LA in the early ‘90s with PR supremo Mark Borkowski to see Showscan in action.

Showscan is a process invented by Douglas Trumbull, the SFX wizard behind Terminator and many more. He discovered, after hooking viewers up to monitors and showing them the same film at different frame rates, that emotional response dramatically increased. He patented the discovery: anything shown at over 60 frames per second would have to pay royalties.

Due to the expense at the time, Showscan was never used on a feature film, only on the motion-simulator rides I tested out in LA which were, indeed, astonishingly hyper-real. But now, with digital, the extra expense is minimal.

Cinema has long been under threat, and had to fight back in new and inventive ways. In the ‘50s the threat came from television, prompting developments such as the super-wide Cinemascope and the first 3D revolution, as well as the cult-film gimmicks of Smell-o-vision, Emergo, Percepto and Illusion-o. In the ‘80s the threat came from VHS and in the ‘90s from DVD, producing a wave of explosion-heavy action flicks ideally starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor simply too big to fit on most televisions. Now it’s from internet streaming, whether legally (Lovefilm, MUBI) or illegally, days or weeks after release.

The rise in 3D, championed by Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, was originally popular with studios for preventing piracy, but audiences have embraced it as well. The technology has improved radically: I now find the experience completely immersive, so that I forget I’m watching 3D until someone hurls a boulder towards me; and film-makers thankfully no longer feel the need to shove it in your face. (The old 3D films were the worst for this, though I still have a soft spot for the hilariously bad taste Andy Warhol-produced Flesh for Frankenstein, where someone is run through with a spear, on the point of which an internal organ dangles, still beating, in front of your eyes.)

So will 48fps become the new standard? Or will it go the way of Smell-o-vision? Anyone who’s seen The Hobbit at the higher frame rate, or has an opinion on 3D, do please leave a Comment.

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