Having already raised the bar for 3D technology with the first ‘Avatar‘, James Cameron has set his sights on a new mission for the upcoming sequels. He wants to increase the photographic frame rate from the 24 fps standard that cinema has used for over a century to 48 fps. The question is, even if he accomplishes this, how will anyone watch it that way?
I’ll be the first to admit that the current 24 fps standard is imperfect. This slow capture rate is prone to motion stutter, most noticeable during slow horizontal pans. To “correct” this, many HDTVs have frame interpolation features that can artificially increase the frame rate and make the motion smoother. The problem with this, of course, is that it tends to make the image smeary and gives it that undesirable “soap opera look.”
Cameron has experimented with shooting content at a native 48 fps frame rate, and believes this is an ideal solution because it gives the picture a very startling, almost hyper-real appearance. According to The Hollywood Reporter (is that still around?), he “fully intends” to shoot ‘Avatar 2′ and ‘Avatar 3′ at higher frame rates of at least 48 fps.
“When you author and project a movie at 48 or 60, it becomes a different movie,” he said. “The 3D shows you a window into reality; the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window. In fact, it is just reality. It is really stunning.”
OK, good for him. But how will any audience watch these movies projected back at his desired 48 fps? Cameron believes that D-Cinema digital projectors (the kind that would be showing the movie in 3D, for certain) would only require “a minor software upgrade” to be adapted to the higher frame rates. I’m not so certain it’s that simple.
Nonetheless, let’s say that he’s right and at least some theaters will be able to project the movies at 48 fps. What happens when they come to home video?
Most current HDTVs run at either 60 Hz or 120 Hz. The latter is an even multiple of 24, but not of 48. Even if these 120 Hz televisions were designed to accept a 48 Hz input signal (none are), some form of frame repetition pulldown would be needed to adapt the content to the screen’s native rate. That would introduce judder, which is counter-productive to the smooth motion effect that Cameron is looking for. Or the TVs could use frame interpolation to “guestimate” what the extra in-between frames should be. As mentioned above, that’s a process that has very poor results on most HDTVs. I’m sure that Cameron doesn’t want his $300 million blockbusters to look like soap operas.
Some HDTVs run at 96 Hz or 240 Hz, which are even multiples of 48. Even so, we’re still left with the problem that these TVs have simply not been built to accept a 48 Hz input signal. Nor is the Blu-ray format capable of transmitting at that rate. To watch these new 48 fps films at home in their original frame rate, we’ll need an all-new video format and all-new TVs. This, just on the heels of the industry’s attempt to push us all to 3D.
The transition to 3D has been difficult enough, but viewers can at least see and understand the difference between 2D and 3D. Most will have a hard time discerning any difference between 24 fps and 48 fps. There’s not enough benefit in that to justify the investment and expense.
Even more importantly, viewers have been conditioned over the past century of cinema to like 24 fps photography. That looks like a movie to us, not like video, which looks cheap (even though, ironically, it’s more expensive to shoot at 48 fps). Even Cameron himself seemed to acknowledge this when demonstrating the technique to exhibitors at the CinemaCon conference recently:
“Some directors like a stylized approach to action,” he said, as a sword-fighting scene played on screen behind him. “This almost feels like two stunt guys mock fighting.”
This seems like a fool’s quest that James Cameron is on. But I’m sure he’s been told that enough times in the past, yet he always seems to come out on top in the end. Perhaps he’ll find some way to make this work. I can’t see what that is, but I suppose that’s why he’s very nearly a billionaire and I’m not.
[via John Scalzi on Sci-Fi]