The screening of 48 fps footage from The Hobbit at CinemaCon has certainly divided the opinions in the movie industry and amongst film fans. We have been conditioned for decades to expect and appreciate the jerky and motion blurred look of 24 fps cinema. This new 48 fps fluid and crisp look is uncomfortable and unappealing. It is not cinematic. It reminds of cheap vintage television shows.

But 48 fps actually comes with benefits. Well, for 3D at least.

Cinema and reality

Motion blur and strobing are the main ingredients of what some label the dream effect of cinema. These artifacts of relatively low frame rate and less-than-360 degrees shutter angle separate the cinematic image from reality and their abnormality reinforces the unreal nature of cinema. This is something cinema viewers have come to appreciate. This characteristic of cinema has stayed more or less the same after the arrival of sound, after the introduction of the wide screen and after the advance of CGI.

The Hobbit

The Hobbit breaks new ground with its 48 fps presentation

This dream-like film look is often opposed to TV look and video games look. TV tube cameras with their full time open shutter capture fluid motion without strobing (although the image is interlaced). That’s why some have compared the 48 fps image of The Hobbit to TV shows of the 70’s. Some have even stated that it feels like behind the scenes video and that sets actually look like sets. It is worth noting, that the fluidity of analog TV comes from essentially a 360 degrees shutter angle. The fluidity of The Hobbit comes from the higher frame rate. Different origins, same feeling. This fluid image appears more life-like. Similar fluidity is expected in video games. 30 fps is the minimum that is considered acceptable for a video game, with 60 fps or more being preferable. All this is based on the relation between interactive responsiveness of game controls and high frame rate.

Quake 3 screenshot

Quake players would often run the game with a frame rate into the hundreds for maximum fluidity and responsiveness

3D movies

3D changes things for cinema. Most importantly, it blurs the boundary between the fantasy of cinema and reality by tricking the brain to think that what it sees on the screen is not a screen at all, but deep and three dimensional. This is in direct contradiction with the otherworldliness of cinema, as defined by its most famous image artifacts. So, in a sense, in the moment we put 3D in the equation, we clash with the dream-like nature of cinema. And even more: one might say that with 3D we give up the dream nature of cinema. But there is more than just philosophical reasoning.

Problems with non-coinciding eye convergence and eye focus aside, 3D simply does not coexist well with strobing and motion blur. The already strained eyes get additional load while trying to discern depth plans because of the lack of crisp object edges and the jerky movement. Selective focus does not help either because the eye can’t wander freely through the scene (but that’s unrelated to frame rate). So 3D tells the brain “This is real!”. On the other hand, the motion blur and strobing artifacts obstruct this perception.

So we can argue that 3D simply is not cinematic. With its life-like aspirations 3D is more suitable for interactive representations of reality like games and, ultimately, virtual reality. But – like it or not – 3D is here anyway.

So there is really only one logical direction to go from here in the 3D cinema case. Motion blur and strobing need to go. 48 fps will no doubt help tremendously in terms of both fluidity and crispness. And 3D cinema becomes reality – for good or bad – thus resolving the contradiction. And if we are lucky, 2D movies will stay 24 fps so that we have our opposition to reality.

The familiar fluidity of TV and video games is the main reason younger generations will most likely embrace 48 fps without questions. That, and probably being more open to changes. They have sunk so many fluid images through their TV and games entertainment, that actually it won’t be surprising if the strobing film look is going to be considered weird and severely outdated in a few years. And the hyper-realism of the “be in the scene” factor will no doubt sell the concept to many others.

(There are some further thoughts on the topic and an interesting reference to silent films in my follow-up article on frame rate as artistic choice.)