48 fps: A Bridge Too Near?

Filmmaker Peter Jackson has recently performed a very public experiment in releasing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 48 frames per second (also known as “HFR” for High Frame Rate). Some movie lovers, members of the press, and even other filmmakers have unfortunately deemed it a reluctantly qualified failure; Vincent LaForte wrote a particularly insightful piece on the reasons why. In the wake of this, it is worth taking a moment to consider the reasons for and against using higher frames.

Back when they were first developing moving pictures, a lot of experiments took place to determine the best frame rate or rates to use. Many early films  were shot at 16 fps, but this rate was found to be too slow to properly capture motion (filming a fistfight seems to have been one of the common litmus tests). Rates up to 48 fps were tried; as we all now know, a frame rate of 24 fps – with a mechanism to display the frames at 48 fps, to reduce the visual effects of flicker from changing the image behind a closed shutter – was decided upon as the best compromise to provide satisfactory motion and not use up excessive amounts of film. More than a century later, 24 fps is still considered by many filmmakers to be a magical number.

“Edison discovered 48 fps was a second magic number: Below this frame rate, images are dream-like; at this rate and above, images appear real.”

Another lesser-known result of these tests which I learned from fellow content creator Kevin Dole was that Edison supposedly discovered 48 fps was a second magic number: Below this frame rate, the brain perceived the images as being dream-like (or at the very least, not real); at this rate and above, the brain perceived the motion to be a representation of reality. If true, one can understand that the lower frame rate of 24 fps could help provide a mental mood conducive to storytelling; 48 fps and higher are better for news, sports, and other happening-now depictions of reality. It helped account for why soap operas, which used to be recorded on interlaced video, had a very different look that prime time television, which used to be recorded on film and transferred to video. You can also test this yourself with most video cameras: Record the same scene – cars driving past, people in motion, birds feeding, etc. – at 25, 29.97, or 30 fps progressive scan, versus the same scenes interlaced (interlacing effectively doubles the motion frame rate to 50 or 59.94 fps) or versus 50, 59.94, or 60 fps progressive.

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