Frame Rate as Artistic Choice or What Can We Learn from Silent Films
In my previous article I argued that high frame rates are good for 3D. This was based on both philosophical grounds and on reasons connected to ease of perception when watching 3D. But there is another side to the debate, and I have unintentionally alluded to it with arguing that 3D is as a step towards realism. So lets have a go at the idea of shooting at a specific frame rate as an artistic choice.
To better illustrate this we need to go back in time. Since the arrival of sound cinema frame rate has been fixed to 24 fps. As such, the choice of frame rate was not an option for filmmakers. There were tries to introduce higher frame rates but these never really took off, mostly because higher rates require more film stock. And this obviously means the price of filmmaking would go up. With digital movie making this is less of a concern – storage is cheap.
But we should actually go further back in time. Before talkies. It is a common misconception that silent films were shot at 16 fps. Cameramen claimed that they had hand-cranked at this speed; some cameras even had indicators for 16 fps to help hand-cranking. This myth was busted by Kevin Brownlow in an article from 1980. During his work on restoration and conversion to tape of silent films he found that 16 fps was not the norm. Cranking speed varied widely between 12 and 26 fps. And higher (than 16 fps) speeds were common. There was also a tendency towards high frame rates mostly based on the habit of theater managers to have their projectionists cranking at higher speeds in order to squeeze more shows in the busy evening schedule. This would inject a slapstick feel even into the most serious drama. To counter that, directors and cameramen would increase speeds to ctach up, hoping that projection would look about right.
It is popular knowledge that the frame rate of talkies (24 fps) was selected as the minimum rate that can yield a decent optical track. This is not exactly so. When Western Electric had to select the frame rate for their process they conducted a survey in a bunch of movie theaters. 24 fps turned out to be about the average projection speed in these theaters. So they selected it. In fact, rival sound processes had the frame rate as low as 21 fps. The point is, there was not anything really scientific or special about the choice of 24 fps. It was largely arbitrary. So it is to a large degree coincidental that the established look of cinema has the dream-like qualities it happens to have. This was not intentional. But all this by no means diminishes these qualities. One way or another, they are here, and we’ve come to love them.But let’s go back to silents. There is something peculiar about silent films. Because there was no standard and no strict requirement to shoot at a fixed frame rate, it appears that some directors did shoot at specific frame rates to further their artistic vision. D. W. Griffith in particular would quite consistently shoot at slow frame rates, even as low as 12 fps for parts of The Birth of a Nation. But not only this. Griffith actually shot at least one movie (Home Sweet Home) at different speeds for each reel. The movie contains four separate stories, which makes this choice even more intriguing. Reels were shipped to theaters with notes for projectionists specifying the right speed for each reel. Incidentally, this way he could also achieve slow motion simply through means of slower projection: for that same film, projectionists were instructed to crank the last reel at a very low speed.
Now, how conscious were the directors of the silent era of the artistic side of frame rate is debatable. Maybe they had external reasons for specific choices. For example, low fps means less film stock used. Which leads to a lower price and extended scenes in a reel. Maybe the variations were unintentional. Nevertheless, this provokes additional thought.
So back to the topic at hand. Democratizing frame rate choice can be a good thing. While too many available frame rates may lead to chaos, having available 24 fps plus a higher rate (48 or 60 fps) is something that deserves consideration. Frame rate can be used as a mean to further an artistic vision. The obvious example is with films striving for perceived realism, or films going for a documentary feel. No doubt some of them can benefit from more fluid and crisp action. This could help make the viewer a part of the scene. To make them experience it in a more visceral way. Other (most?) films are better suited for the traditional cinematic illusion. And I believe that existing movies should be left alone and not upconverted to high fps. But having the option to go for a higher frame rate with a film increases the creative possibilities. The same way a filmmaker can choose film or digital, a specific film stock, lighting style, framing, etc. they would be able to choose a frame rate that promotes their vision in the best way possible. It is also good to mention that speeds lower than 24 fps are being used in 24 fps movies for artistic effects. This is achieved by either undercranking the camera, or shooting 24 fps and then dropping frames. In editing, frames are duplicated as many times as needed to achieve correct speed when projected at 24 fps.
But then again, having too many variables can confuse people and may also lead to wrong or arbitrary choices. Still, the latter is not really a good argument. The lack of restraint or of understanding of a specific variable of filmmaking is not an excuse. Confusion amongst the audience on the other hand is something that should be considered. The audience of the silent film wasn’t conditioned to a specific frame rate in the way that we are with 24 fps. Getting used to high frame rates may lead to 24 fps movies being rendered unwatchable for some viewers. But perhaps this is a risk worth taking.
Then there is the option of variable acquisition frame rate. Even the critics of Jackson and his 48 fps endeavor admit that his aerial, scenery and establishing shots look spectacular. Think of Discovery or National Geographic. Variable frame rates can give us the best of both worlds: motion blur and strobing for dramatic impact, and crisp, fluid images for landscapes and panoramas. This is easy to achieve technically once theaters start supporting high frame rates. For example, a 48 fps master can simply double frames for the 24 fps sequences. This will fully preserve low frame rate aesthetics where necessary.