The Real Reason Why High Frame Rates (HFR) Do Not Work

You’ve seen it—that high-frame rate version of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ang Lee. They are great stories. But why do they make us cringe like we’re watching an episode of a British soap opera? And why do we consider that a bad thing? Some viewers prefer it – saying that it gives a heightened sense of realism. We could even argue the benefits of HFR by the Box Office gross receipts. There have been many articles and arguments for and against the visual benefits of it. So it doesn’t necessitate another article unless of course it offers another perspective.

The main basis for discussing HFR films has been the total number of images that are viewable during a given time. For example, 60 Frame Per Second (FPS) vs 24 FPS. Does 60 images per second actually give you a more realistic viewing experience? Is 24 more cinematic or “dreamy”? Possibly. I’d like to offer up another theory that the quality or type of viewing experience is based not directly on the total number of frames or images viewed, but rather on the moments between the frames.

Let me explain.

I love Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s a whacky, fast paced, 4th-wall breaking comedy about a guy (Matthew Broderick) who decides to ditch school for a day of fun. But there is one scene that stops everything and takes a moment to let it breathe. It’s when Ferris and his buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck) go to the museum. While everything is zany and full of energy, Cameron is stuck having some sort of traumatic, perhaps cathartic release staring at an unassuming portion of a painting by George Seurat’s Sunday in the Park. It’s a little girl, often hidden or ignored by most viewers of the painting. That one moment explained not only Cameron’s angst-ridden teenage life, it also explained the crux of the movie. Childhood can be lonely. And perhaps that childhood loneliness extends well into adulthood. Oh God!

Who know what Cameron was really thinking*. But he must have spent, what appeared to be, a good hour staring at that one painting. Assuming he viewed it for an hour, technically he was looking at a “film” with a projection speed of One (1) Framer Per Hour (FPH) with the option of viewing it again or moving onto something else. In other words, when Cameron was ready, he could view another frame of his movie in his mind. It is a moment of choice for the viewer. In this case, the viewer is a character in this movie. That’s a bit META, but then so is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

When we look at a motion picture, we are told frame by frame, where to go. This is true in lower frame rates, but especially true in higher frame rates. Now while I am talking about the in-between frame durations, I am also talking about the in-between moments in general. If you can’t breathe, you can’t taste the food. And just as you need the in-between moments to define both here and there, I am proposing that the duration between frame is as important in affecting the viewer’s experience as the total number of frames (actual images) viewed per second.

If we look at a motion picture, say 24 fps, the time between frames is approximately 1/24th of a second, or .041 seconds. For 60, it would be .016. In a HFR movie, we have less time to view and process the frames. This builds a type of psychological resentment as our choice to “move on” to the next frame is dictated by an external source. It is quite possible some people require or want less time to process images just as there are average athletes and the Michael Jordans of the world.

On the other hand, you don’t just drink wine. You savor it. You put it in a proper glass, open the bottle and let it breathe; smell the aroma, slosh it around a bit to get a feel for the body. You build suspense about the experience of the first sip. That’s why Hitchcock says to let the viewer know about the bomb under the table before it goes off. You build suspense. And that suspense (or terror, or joyful anticipation) is what I call the true Movie Experience. That movie experience resides in the mind and hearts of the viewer, not on the screen.

What do you think that Cameron was thinking in that moment at the museum?

Democratization of Technology

It has been said that technology has revolutionized the creative process by democratizing the playing field. Indeed, the personal computer has liberated many creators in the competitive and creative process. However, the same technology has resulted in a proliferation of ugliness which abounds from instant push-button digital effects to other thoughtless processes. Sure, we gave power to the people. But the people, we forget, include our Uncle Bob who despite his loving kindness, couldn’t draw a straight line to save his life, nor does he care to.

The Edisons of our digital era such as Thomas Knoll and Kai Krause have contributed significantly in changing the way we create visual imagery. It is doubtful however, that they could have foreseen the effects their tools would have decades later. Just as important political figures are elected by both the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor, the logical and the irrational, so too have the artistic landscape been subject to the masses by the availability of technology.

With due respect to Francis Ford Coppola who said that, “…one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camcorder…” it would appear that there would be another thousand or so little fat girls in Nebraska who would use the camera to shoot a series of unwatchable home videos—nothing against Nebraska, of course. Regardless of technology, if the probability of that little girl in Ohio becoming the next Mozart is high, it’s not because she has a camcorder. Likely, it’s because she has some semblance of talent and a one degree of separation from some movie mogul. Having the right tool always helps. But the tools don’t always come in the form of a hammer, camcorder, or computer. Oftentimes, it comes in the way of social validation and perhaps, just perhaps residing in Ohio.

There is in the Western World a belief that though poetic justice, the meek and the hungry are entitled to the means that will save them from external or self-imposed tyrannies. This is naive. In the hands of the masses, we see that beautiful art runs alongside pornography, garage sale signs, and junk mail.

Technology is simply a reflection of our societal consciousness.