Smooth movies: Are high-frame rate films a good idea?
Commentary: Hollywood directors like Peter Jackson and Ang Lee think smoother motion makes for better movies. They're wrong.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Every few years Hollywood releases a movie with high-frame rate, or HFR. The most recent, Ang Lee's Gemini Man, was intended by the director to be seen at 120 frames per second, five times the traditional 24fps. Lee is not alone in his love of HFR. Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fame, thinks HFR is the future of cinema as well. They, and other fans of HFR films, laud the realism and clarity compared to traditional 24fps.
Detractors, for their part, claim HFR prevents the suspension of disbelief that's so important in fictional cinema. They say shooting in high-frame rate makes movies look more like camcorder footage, reality TV or a soap opera, never elevating the image above actors on a cheap set.
Recently I had an illuminating conversation on Twitter -- yes, it's possible -- where several HFR fans pleaded their case. I argued that for most people, the traditional 24fps of movie and scripted TV shows displays "fiction," while higher frame rates are typically the realm of "nonfiction," like sports and amateur video. The difference turns out to be a serious issue, but to explain why, let me first discuss the basics.
What is frame rate?
Frame rate is the number of images per second shown to create a moving picture. If you see a high enough number of still images in quick succession, your brain combines them into motion. In the case of nearly all modern movies and scripted TV shows, the standard rate is 24 frames per second (fps). Other TV shows and sports, as well as video games, use higher frame rates of 30, 60 or even 120fps.
Twenty-four fps dates back to the early days of movies with sound nearly a century ago. When you only have 24 frames to work with, any fast motion, including on-screen action or simply the camera panning across a landscape, can blur or seem jerky (that is, not smooth). These are the main reasons many HFR proponents push for higher frame rates. HFR is certainly newer, smooths out pans, and greatly improves resolution with fast motion.
Watch this: Gemini Man: A closer look at de-aged Will Smith
Your TV is a bit different. In the US, most TVs display everything at 60Hz or 120Hz (for this discussion, fps and Hz amount to the same thing). To fit 24 into 60, there's a process called 3:2 pulldown, which is complex but we've it discussed before. In the UK and Australia it's 50Hz, which does the conversion a bit differently. To make it easier I'm just going to talk about the US numbers, so if your country has 50Hz electricity just read 50 and 100 when I say 60 or 120.
High frame rate basically means movies and scripted TV at anything greater than 24fps. Examples include The Hobbit's 48fps and Gemini Man's 120fps. It's not a new concept. In the late '70s, Showscan ran big, expensive 70mm film at 60fps, which I'm sure Kodak would have loved to have become the norm.
Many new TVs are 120Hz, or at least claim to be. It varies how they create 120 "frames" per second when the original content is 24, but one of the most common is to use some clever processing to create new frames based on the adjacent frames. These TV-created frames are placed in between the originals. This can create the so-called soap opera effect, which we'll discuss more in a moment.
If this all seems like abstract numbers, check out the video above. It's a great side-by-side comparison between 24fps and 60. Yes, the 60 portion has been converted using frame interpolation (aka the soap opera effect), but it's a useful demonstration of the pros and cons we're discussing. It's the same scene of Data walking across Ten Forward as the camera pans to follow. Notice how the 60fps version, on the left, is far smoother than the 24fps image on the right. That slight "stuttering" as the camera pans in the right image is called judder, and it's one of the more obvious issues with 24fps, and one that's largely eliminated by HFR.
But also notice how different it feels. When I watch this clip the image on the left reminds me of a cheap soap opera or an amateur video. This becomes especially apparent when he talks with O'Brien and La Forge. Or, as my brain interprets the 60fps portion, the actors Brent Spiner, Colm Meaney and LeVar Burton standing in front of some plastic flowers. That's the problem, and not just mine.
The great frame rate debate
On one side there are fans of HFR, which include some brilliant directors like Peter Jackson and Ang Lee. They say HFR is an improvement of the visual medium of film. A logical progression. On the other side are people like me, who think that HFR is, to put it mildly, a horrific abomination that will destroy cinema as we know it. More or less.
Let's put aside the "it's new" aspect of the HFR debate. For one thing, it's not, but also just because something is new, doesn't mean it's better. Let's skip all that nonsense.
HFR fans claim the image is just clearer and smoother, and I agree. With more frames per second there's less judder and less motion blur. Action scenes are far more detailed, and camera pans are silky smooth.
"...it gives everything a TV feel rather than the texture of cinema." - Gemini Man review, Richard Trenholm, CNET
However, that doesn't mean that in this case, i.e. for movies, this means the image is "better." For me, when I've seen an HFR movie, it was impossible to suspend disbelief. I was entirely conscious of sitting in a room with strangers, staring at a screen, on which people in costumes walked around a set. I have read other people's accounts who had a similar experience. This is a massive issue, and one all too often brushed aside by HFR enthusiasts, who claim it's more immersive for them. This is the core of the issue because one person's "I enjoyed this more" can't be more valid than someone else's "I was unable to enjoy it at all."
"...it looks terrible, like motion smoothing on a massive screen; with everything in focus in the frame, it's hard to tell what to look at. In a way, it's like the artistry has been ripped out of the visual essence of cinema." - Gemini Man review, Alissa Wilkinson, VOX
Many viewers have a similar reaction to the soap opera effect on TVs, for largely the same reason. SOE, in effect, artificially increases the frame rate of content. It makes all content look like a soap opera. And why is that? Because soap operas were made on the cheap, historically using video cameras (not film, like most TV shows of the era). So they were recorded at higher frame rates (historically, 60i) Some people like the smoother look of SOE. It drives other people, like me, bonkers.
"The smoothness and clarity of the image doesn't make us feel like we're sitting in a room with the characters from Gemini Man, it makes us feel like we're suddenly sitting on the set with the actors from Gemini Man, watching them struggle through their lines." - How high-frame rate technology killed Ang Lee's Gemini Man, Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
I believe, however, that this is all learned. I don't think we are born with an inherent knowledge that 24 equals fiction, 60 equals nonfiction. We've been conditioned that way our entire lives by watching countless hours of movies and TV. Perhaps people who love HFR grew up watching lots of soap operas and other fictional higher-frame rate content, so it's not an issue for them to suspend disbelief with higher frame rates. Perhaps those of us who hate it instead watched more movies in theaters (I sure watched a lot).
If we take a step back, where is this all going? Let's say HFR fans become enough of a majority to want to enact change. What then? My guess: Nothing. Even if you could convince studios to release more HFR movies, there will still be a percentage of people who will actively seek out non-HFR versions. Or we'll just not go at all.
How many of you reading this did that exact thing with 3D? I sure did. Avoided it at all costs -- and I wasn't the only one. So studios, faced with a percentage that won't give them money, or give them less money against the greater cost of production, will likely cause HFR to wither like so many other technological "improvements."
If you're less cynical, there's another aspect: why? When it comes to movies, do we need more realism? Isn't the point to escape reality? Why do we need more reality? If a movie is made well, from the writing to the acting, directing and everything else, you already are transported into that world. That's the whole point, right? Not to watch an image on screen but to be able to suspend your disbelief and be transported for two hours away from cruel reality into a fictional universe. To laugh, to cry, to be amazed. How many of you reading this watched Star Wars for the first time on VHS? Were you not transported to a galaxy far, far away?
This is not to say we shouldn't advance technology. I am a proponent of 8K video recording (though, perhaps ironically, not 8K TVs), greater dynamic range, better special effects and more such advances.
But HFR messes with my ability to suspend disbelief. We are no longer enjoying a movie but looking at images flashed on a screen. That's a deal-breaker. I'm sure this issue is something learned, and if we could start it all over we should start at 60fps and see what happens.
But when it comes down to it, Hollywood is a business, and it's not good business to push for a new product that a portion of your audience hates when the rest are indifferent at worst and mildly enthusiastic at best. Especially when there's no provable benefit, especially for their bottom lines.