Faster, Cinematographer! Kill! Kill! Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-04-26 16:38:22-04:00 No comments

Much foofaraw about the 48-frames-per-second footage exhibited from Peter Jackson's Hobbit production. One of the comments (by user "dreamfasting") has this magnificent statement: "Every pixel you take out of the imagination and put on the screen is a pixel you are taking responsibility for."

This applies to a lot more than just pixels.

I'll start with the pixels first. I haven't seen the footage in question, but there's a lot of things that keep coming up — namely, how the very crispness and detail in the imagery also reveals the very fakery going on in front of the camera. Maybe all of that will be cleaned up in post (and that's what a lot of people suspect), but the whole thing exposes a very basic problem: Is more always better?

The "film purist" argument seems to revolve around the idea that 24 fps is somehow ideal, that we could have gone to 30 fps decades ago (with the home video revolution) but didn't, or some variant of that. The "progressive" argument is that 24 fps is just what we associate with "the film look", that 60 fps or better is better all around because more picture information is being provided to us temporally, etc.

The romantic in me would like to believe there's something about the nature of 24 fps that hits a very deep level of our brains. I have not been shown much scientific study in this field, though, which is why I'm filing it under "romanticism." But for the sake of romanticism, here is my defense of 24 fps:

1) The film look is something that stands right on the threshold of what we accept as realistic motion, but at the same time isn't — and therefore has a kind of dreamtime, just-one-step-detached-from-reality look to it. Just enough of our imaginations are engaged to fill in the blanks.

2) When I watch a film, I am not obsessed with realism or forensic replication of reality. Even a "realistic" film does not have to be realistic to be interesting. I'm reminded of Ebert's old formula about black-and-white vs. color. Who looks better: your grandparents in their (B&W) wedding photo, or your parents in their (color) wedding photo? The more "realistic" thing is only the more "interesting" thing when the imagination is chained up.

3) A more realistic picture is not always one more suited to your intentions. Costumes and props that look great on stage — when you're seated at least twenty feet away or more — look hincty and loud up close. I don't mind 24 fps hiding some features and exposing others, because it's the director's job to call attention to the things that matter anyway, and to know how to work within the limits of his medium. I don't mind 24 fps limiting how quickly you can pan the camera, because when you're dealing with a screen that big (and you are dealing with a screen that big, yes?) waving the camera around becomes counterproductive.

Again, I haven't yet seen the 48 fps footage. I'm curious, and I expect to have more to say afterwards. But from what I've seen in other realms (60 fps non-interpolated progressive playback), 24 fps still garners affinity for a reason, and so far I feel those reasons are more than just inertia and the habits of history. Something else is at play here.

Now about the "more than just pixels" line — actually, I should save that for a second post...

Tags: aesthetics art cinematography movies storytelling