Framed: 24 fps vs 48 fps

What should a film look like, and what does that even mean?

In a business awash with technical jargon (and please note, I come at this as a mere interested bystander and not an industry insider, so may appear naive, but sweetly so), the case for packing more frames into a second is a hot topic. Indeed, the film magazine Empire brought this issue to the fore in their recent “Future of the Film” series, as Ian Nathan writes that, “by a trick of the brain… 24 frames per seconds (fps) whirring past our eyes at sufficient speed creates a convincing facsimile of the real world”. Movies are, in essence, a montage of still photos sewn together to give the impression — illusion even — of a moving image. So, why would a filmmaker want to tinker with this template?

Peter Jackson, the Kiwi director best known for the wonderfully wrought Lord of the Rings trilogy, but — dare I say it — bombastic and overlong The Hobbit adaptation, gives us the case for speeding up to 48 fps: mainly, finer detail and clearer images. For such an innovative wizard, adopting this technology is a no-brainer. You just need to watch one of his huge-scale epics to understand that they are as much a parade of Middle-earth fashions as they are intricate narrative threads. He wants you to take notice of every seam, dangling hair, bead of sweat, and trickle — or gush — of blood, as if you were really there in this beautifully realized parallel world. Equally, Mr. Jackson revels in marvelous action sequences, which, he appeals, will be less blurry at 48 fps. James Cameron, responsible for Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), wants to go beyond this for the latter’s sequels, to 60 fps, whatever that will look like. Can an image go beyond truth?

And, more importantly, do viewers really want this? Is there a demand for such realism, ironically, in such unreal worlds fleshed out by these two high-profile filmmakers? For grand, sweeping movies — from Mad Max remakes to science fiction sagas — it will likely make good, and commercial, sense to adopt 48fps. But for independent, human-centred cinema — such as the recent Still Alice (2014) by Richard Glatzer or even Woody Allen comedies — perhaps not. There is a radiant warmth that emanates from 24fps. If you don’t believe me, YouTube it, there are plenty of examples comparing varying frame speeds. Or better still, ask yourself: is my viewing experience in any way diminished by not seeing every drop of The Dude’s White Russian splashed all over his unkempt beard in the Cohen Brother’s endearing and enduring Los Angeles noir, The Big Lebowski?

No, I didn’t think so.