Filmmakers’ Foolish Fuss Over Frame Rates

The Hobbit poster.
SciFi Magazine concept design for "The Hobbit" movie poster.

So there’s this big debate going on in the world wide interwebs over some recent decisions made acclaimed, multi-award-winning filmmakers Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and James “King of the World” Cameron. Is the fuss over some provocative film they’re creating that is challenging some social injustice? Nah! Oh, maybe the debate is over some decision to exploit workers in a 3rd world country. Nope. Did they kill somebody? Not that either.

The reason over the fuss is…drum roll please…frame rates. Huh? That’s right my good friends. Frame rates. They each want to shoot their next big films (“The Hobbit” and “Avatar 2”, respectively) at 48 and 60 frames per second (fps), and it’s got a lot of filmmakers rather distraught. You got filmmakers on the web ready to go to blows because of frame rates. (Ah, you gotta love the passion of artists. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

Here’s the dealio…

Movies are traditionally shot at 24 frames per second. Traditional NTSC video (popular in America) has been at 29.97 fps, which is really comprised of 60 interlaced frames. (Read this post for a quick “primer” on interlaced vs. progressive). The video look of 60i is what is typically associated with soap operas. 24p (“p” standing for progressive, i.e. not interlaced) has that softer “cinematic” look. So, the concern is that when filmmakers as influential as Messrs. Jackson and Cameron choose a higher, more video-like frame rate, that either a) these two films won’t look as aesthetically pleasing or 2) we’ll be deluged with other filmmakers doing the same, forever killing off the 24p.

Now. I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut in this big bad world of filmmaking, so who really cares what I think? But, just in case one or two of you out there care to indulge me, here are my quick thoughts on the subject matter.

  1. Serving the story. Peter and Jim have proven their abilities beyond any shadow of a doubt. I have full confidence that they are choosing these frame rates because they know it will genuinely serve the story. (As opposed to studios who jump on a bandwagon just because it’s the latest “thing.” I can totally see how 3D served the story in “Avatar.” But come on, did “Jackass 3” really need to be in 3D?)
  2. Frame rate is only one component to a look. Just because you shoot a movie at 24 fps don’t mean it will look cinematic. There’s also lens choice, composition, color grading, special effects, etc. There’s just so much one can do to make their movie look cinematic. (Don’t believe me, just read this. ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) I have absolutely no concern that “The Hobbit” or “Avatar 2” will look like soap operas.
  3. There are technical justifications. Because of how 3D technology works, it actually makes more sense to shoot in 48 or 60 fps vs. 24. (It’ll take too long to explain why. Google it if you really care. It’s related to how many images each of your two eyes see and how those images are presented to the brain. Send a tweet to my buddy Evan Vetter. He’ll tell you. ๐Ÿ˜‰ )
  4. Pushing the envelope. Peter and Jim are pushing the envelope. This is a good thing. These are capable directors with a deep knowledge of the technology and craft. If they are able to accomplish whatever it is they are attempting, it could mean a significant step forward for the art of filmmaking that will benefit other filmmakers. They are trailblazers. Visionaries. It’s not uncommon for true visionaries to look like fools in the beginning. That’s why they’re called “visionaries.” They can see what others cannot.

I guess it all comes down to trust. Can we trust these two to deliver on the goods, and create something that will genuinely benefit the art, not detract. Only time will tell. What say you?

Behind the Scenes on “The Hobbit”

If you haven’t already seen this, and if you consider yourself a Tokien-geek like me, you will want to watch this behind the scenes video blog with Jackson on the set of “The Hobbit.” Includes appearances from from Sir Ian McKellen (aka “Gandolf”) and Andy Serkis (aka “Gollum”). And just so there’s no confusion, I did not make this video.

If you cannot see this video in your RSS reader or email, click here.

8 thoughts on “Filmmakers’ Foolish Fuss Over Frame Rates

  1. Great post Ron! You & I both know event filmmakers who, in a typical elitist attitude, dismiss any event films that are not shot in 24p. God forbid anyone should use 60p!!
    You are so right by saying that there is more to achieving a “film” look then the frame rates that are chosen.

    1. Here, here Mr. Mayor. Thanks for commenting. What I care most about: can you engage me in an interesting story. I’m pretty sure Jim and Pete will keep me engaged and going back for seconds, thirds and fourths.

  2. If frame rate serves the purpose of fluidity, motion blur, and the look of the film, great, but please not for the sake of the 3D. I feel thats a condition written into contracts of the studio (just my hunch, $$ trend) than it is a directors choice.

    I dare you (Ron ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) to read this article from Roger Ebert about a letter sent to him from Walter Murch, I know you know that name:

    The “evolution” part aside, he makes great pointts why 3D is not normal for the human brain. I truly do wish the fad would die, its less cinematic to me and ruined Avatar for me (outside of the story itself, how many times can that story be rehashed?)

    I think Jackson/Cameron are astute and dept story tellers regardless of the tech.

    1. I too am not crazy about 3D either. I hate the glasses, and it seems very fad like. That being said, if anyone can make it work, these two can. However, I will take up your challenge (not just now though). ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I’m sure it was meant as a rhetorical question, but, yes, “Jackass 3” did need to be in 3D. The Jackass franchise needs all the help it can get. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Good post Ron, All I have to say is eck… 3D… Actually I’m fine with 3D as long as I get my 2D. I’m just tired about hearing about it 24/7 from Hollywood. Call me a old man, but I rather not have my eyes bleed and a desaturated image.

    As for the frame rate, as long as the image is beautiful, I don’t care. Yes, 60fps can be disgusting, but like you said Ron, frame rate isn’t everything. It’s about sum of all the parts (composition, color, control dof, etc).

  5. The success of 2D or 3D film-making regardless of the frame rate, comes down to shooting style, story & editing. I love 3D, I have a 3D camera and I make personal 3D movies as often as I can. I have huge respect for Walter and he makes a lot of sense in what he says (including his evolutionary comments,) the only time anyone in my family gets headaches from my 3D films is when they’re badly made, something which applies equally as much to 2D captured in 24P with DSLR.

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