09 Jul 2017

Why 24 frames per second is still the gold standard for film

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RedShark Replay: As moviegoers, we're all suckers for motion pictures at 24 frames per second. Joe Foster explores why 24fps still reigns and whether higher frame rate films will ever usurp the longtime standard. 

No matter how technologically advanced a piece of kit can get, one element that never changes is human perception and comfortable familiarity. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of film. A cinematographer may prefer and choose the aesthetics of a UHD Alexa SXT over a camera that will deliver a full 4K, 6K or even 8K picture, depending on the project in question. Someone else may also choose to utilise less perfect lenses, like Janusz Kaminski shooting Saving Private Ryan with older, stripped down Panavision Ultraspeeds, instead super sharp and new lenses.

The same is true for the frame rates that we shoot at. There has always been a deeply passionate romance with shooting at 24 frames per second (fps) for films. While we may marvel at the frames we can record per second on our marvelous new cameras, we still come back to what has been referred to as the 'golden' standard of film production.

But will this last?

How I Met Your Frame Rate

So why 24 (or 23.976 to some)? The affair started for two quite common reasons why anything is standardised: technological and financial.

Ever noticed that, back in the silent film era, films looked jerky and unnatural? Because the cameras were hand cranked, the rate of each frame could vary from 14 to 26fps, yet were projected at 24fps no matter what. This variable was eliminated when the Vitaphone process came to town, synchronising sound-to-picture and giving birth to the 'talkies', starting with the The Jazz Singer in 1927 (which also had the distinction of being the first filmed musical). The standard frame rate was set to 24fps to make the whole process work. Even though lower budget silent films were still being produced after 1927 and newer and better sound recording methods were developed (including the addition of recording sound next to the picture along the film strip), filming at 24fps became the standard.

It also made economic sense as well. Film stock wasn't cheap and it was decided that a rate of 24 was the best compromise between how much stock would be needed and creating a satisfactory level of realistic motion.

Fast forward a few decades to the invention of the television and broadcast standards, including interlaced and the progressives, and different frame rates came into play. Meanwhile, cinema stayed faithful to the 24fps standard and audiences grew accustomed to it. Even today, if you want to achieve a 'cinematic look' to your home movies, you would use this standard.

Unfaithful

There have been attempts in the past to move on, to evoke a similar passion for another standard or look, but so far things have been fruitless. I remember back in 2009 looking forward to Michael Mann's true story gangster movie Public Enemies. The motion seemed so lifelike, some of it was shot with the latest high definition cameras, and it looked set to blow my amateur movie-going mind. What we got was something different. Not just digital noise in the darker scenes, but the whole affair just looked wrong somehow. The smooth motion of the actors looked like they had come from segments of a behind the scenes documentary, filmed on someone's smaller camcorder. Although it was a mixture of film and digital, the setups used (e.g. a 360 degree shutter for a woodland nighttime shootout) just didn't sync with people's expectations – one of the cameras was a Sony EX1 for goodness sake...

A more recent example was the backlash against Peter Jackson's choice of releasing his first Hobbit movie back in 2012 at 48fps. Many are familiar with this story of course, but despite Jackson's view of "just get over it;" audiences just couldn't move on. Like Public Enemies, it just looked 'too' real, like reality television, instead of a fantasy to escape in.

Moving On

How long can the romance last with 24fps? Believe it or not, this liaison with higher frame rates isn't going away anytime soon, with some still advocating moving on from the standard rate of dramas onto 30, 60 or even 120fps, in the case of James Cameron's future installments of his Avatar franchise (or, at least, that's what the rumours say). In fact, Hollywood technology wiz Douglas Trumbull claims that this particular frame rate will push us into new territory and away from the backlash that The Hobbit received. The effect will apparently look a lot more natural and less jarring than what 48fps delivered. Time will tell.

If the worlds of sports broadcast or video gaming have anything to say about it, the divorce from 24p should be well on its way. You only have to open up the comments section for a new game release to see the bitter outcry of "only 30fps?!" or "Not running natively at 60p?!" to see the new trend. It is true that Grand Theft Auto V or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain do suit 60fps without looking odd. The smoother, more realistic motion does add an extra level of realism and immersion to enjoy. Reality television, in general, does well in the bed of high frame rates, too, since it is supposed to look as real as possible.

It is conceivable that, as more generations of people grow accustomed to faster frame rates for their video games, sports and TV shows, they will start to expect the same from feature films and dramas.

Its You, Not Me

Is it perhaps the fault of the audience then? Are we just so used to 24p that we've become narrow minded at the prospect of anything else on offer? In some ways, this is true. After all, the frame rate didn't become a standard for any artistic reason; just like any bygone filming technique, it was chosen because of limitations with technology or budget. Also, it comes down to whether or not the motion effect that a certain frame rate provides suits a particular project.

I can't help but feel that it is more than that and it's not so easy to simply dismiss that legacy. It is true that 24fps may not have originally been an artistic choice, but the reality is that it very much is now. Many have talked about the slower frame rate giving a dreamlike quality, arguing that this is why 24fps suits the fantasy of a film. It's hard to argue against that point. It's become as much a part of the artistic process as using a shallow depth of field. In the end, I think of the circumstances of how 24fps came about simply as a happy accident. It's possible that, had it not have happened, some artistic cinematographer would have come along and done it anyway and audiences still would have loved it.  

An Avatar sequel will probably still look gorgeous at 120fps and the creative freedom to use a different technique to tell a story is wonderful. If it suits a project, experimentation can produce wonderful results (a great example is Saving Private Ryan using 90 and 45 degree shutter angles). The fact is that 24fps does suit film and it always will.

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