Thursday, September 13, 2012

Everything Old Is New Again or Frame Rate in Hollywood

Once upon a time, movies were projected at 16 FPS (frames per second) and each frame was flashed three times, for a total of 48 flickers per second. At 48 or better FPS you get so-called "flicker fusion", and the viewer does not perceive the light going on and off. It looks continuous to him/her.

Then, as time passed, we moved to 24 FPS (double flashed). This had a variety of advantages and this is the reason that when you see old movies they appear to be running around like mad, they were designed to be projected at 16 FPS, not 24.

But although movies seemed to stay at 24 FPS (and then video at 30 frames, or 60 fields per second), in fact there was an arm of the entertainment industry that always played with the frame rate. This is the world of "special venue" which includes theme parks and world fairs. The special venue people experimented with everything from 30 FPS to as fast as they could get film through a projector. Showscan is famously a company that Doug Trumbull and partners started after doing experiments which they believed told them that 60 FPS was the optimal rate for human perception.

So now that Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson want to play with a faster frame rate, everyone and their brother is running around with their heads cut off wondering what they are going to do. Well, I am here to tell you what was learned from Special Venue and suggest you talk to some of the players in more detail.

The major results were this (or this is how it seemed to me, from my very limited view point, obviously not having access to the inner thoughts of major players, but nevertheless...):

1. Yes, a faster frame rate can help, especially with fast action, exactly like you imagine.

2. But not all scenes or topics benefit equally from this technique. In some scenes, slow moving mood pieces, for example, it may even be counterproductive, because more information is not always better.

3. The other thing to realize is that when you change the frame rate you change many, many things with it. You change how you light things, how makeup works, what kind of actors and actresses you cast. The reasons for this will be obvious after you shoot your first tests, and what you do about it is to be determined. But do not think that you merely increase the frame rate and now action scenes just look better. That isnt how this works.

4. Some people find the increased frame rate annoying. I know that my own response to it was that it was amusing for a few minutes but I wasn't sure how I was going to like watching 90 minutes of something like this.

Here is an image of Dr. Emilio Lizardo watching a high frame rate test in Buckaroo Banzai.

5. You will hear people say that an increased frame rate makes things look like video. It certainly does for me.

I want to encourage anyone involved in this matter to pick up the phone and call some people you know in the world of special venue. There is a weird overlap between special venue and motion pictures, some people go back and forth between the worlds, some people stay in their own world. But I would certainly begin by talking to Douglas Trumbull, his partner Richard Yuricich (you can reach both of them throught the ASC) and probably someone involved with the work at Imagineering. (I do not know who that would be, but I am as certain as I can be that there is someone there who has done a lot of work with this).

A separate topic is whether the digital projectors really have the bandwidth to do this. My feeling is that the answer depends on which projectors we are talking about.

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