Opinion: Pondering HFR

HFRWe are mere days from the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. There is going to be a wide variety of ways to experience the film, but the most talked about (and controversial) is High Frame Rate (or HFR).  I can probably say that without a doubt that HFR is probably the biggest change that has ever happened in the history of cinema.  In this post, I’m going to talk about what HFR is and why it’s so controversial.  I have to warn you in advance that this post may get a bit technical, though I hope that I’ll be able to word things, so you can understand what exactly HFR is. As you may know, films are made up of many still images known as frames.  Using a projector, the frames are shown in quick succession, which creates the illusion of movement.  The rate in which films are shot or projected are measured in frames-per-second (FPS), which are the number of frames that are seen each second.  Back in the silent era of cinema, films were hand-cranked at a speed of about 16 fps.  When sound was introduced in the 1920s, the standard frame-rate for films was increased to 24 fps and has remained that way ever since.  As such, it is probably safe to say that, in the last ninety or so years, we have come to associate the “true” cinematic experience with films shot and projected at the 24 fps frame-rate. With The Hobbit: An Expected Journey, Peter Jackson set out to shoot at 48 fps, which is double the current standard.  Presumably, this corrects some of the limitations of 24 fps, such as motion blur (people looking blurry as they move) or strobing (objects jump or stutter as the camera moves).  Of course, since 24 fps has been the standard of cinema for nearly a century, most people would see these “limitations” as merely “normal.” Indeed, the advanced word has been less than kind to HFR.  Some have been having an “uncanny valley” reaction to 48 fps and say that it looks “too real.”  Others have been saying that 48 fps looks too much like a British soap opera.  I believe there are also those who are probably criticizing HFR, purely because the it is shot and projected digitally, instead of on film (I can only imagine how much celluloid stock would be required to shoot a 3 hour film at 48 fps). While The Hobbit is only going to be released in HFR on about 450 screens in North America, it’s actually going to be quite widely available here in Toronto.  In fact, it was easier for me to getting a ticket for an HFR screening than, my first choice of, IMAX.  I’m seeing the film in HFR on Friday and I am going in with an open mind.  In this day an age, where films are seen by most as just entertainment, many of those criticizing HFR are failing to realize that its emergence is a defining moment in the history of cinema.  Sure, people who are used to decades of seeing films in 24 fps are going to be distracted and bothered by the change. However, many years from now, 48 fps could very well be seen by a new generation as merely “normal.”
Credit goes to The Filmmaker’s Handbook for all the background information on 24 fps.  For an interesting discussion of HFR from a technology viewpoint, check out Episode 933 of Leo Laporte’s Tech Guy podcast.

Sean Kelly Author

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described über-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).