Posted by: structureofnews | December 27, 2012

The New Normal

The_Hobbit-_An_Unexpected_Journey_74Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes? – Chico Marx, in Duck Soup

That famous line comes to mind when reading all the criticism over director Peter Jackson’s decision to film The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, twice the usual 24 fps rate.  It’s hard to find any professional critic who likes the faster speed, which Jackson has touted as being much more realistic and lifelike, not least because it eliminates a lot of the motion blur we’re accustomed to when there’s a lot of camera motion.  (And believe me, there’s a lot of camera motion in The Hobbit.)

It’s a fascinating debate because it pits the issue of our expectations – what we’re used to – against what we actually see. And that’s a debate that has interesting parallels for the world of journalism as well.  Or, to put it in a Future-of-News context, what’s natural? What we’re used to, or what we can get used to?

First, some background.  Most films are shot and projected at 24 frames – still images – per second, creating the illusion of motion.  It’s not a perfect illusion, of course; if there’s a lot of motion, some images blur.  Shooting (and projecting) at twice the speed overcomes some of those limitations, as well as allows much more detail to be seen.   A good thing, no?

Apparently not.  Critics are aghast at everything from the video-gamey look that results from the higher definition, to the fact that the higher speed makes sets and props look like, well, sets and props, to the “non-cinematic” effect that it creates.  (I should note I haven’t seen it at 48 fps; at most cinemas it’s showing at the regular 24 fps rate.  It’s a long movie at any frame speed.)

Peter Jackson, for one, is pretty adamant about why it’s better:

Looking at 24 frames every second may seem ok—and we’ve all seen thousands of films like this over the last 90 years—but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or “strobe.” Shooting and projecting at 48 fps does a lot to get rid of these issues.  It looks much more lifelike, and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D.

I saw a new movie in the cinema on Sunday and I kept getting distracted by the juddery panning and blurring.

Which is another way of saying, if you get used to it, you’ll get used to it.  After all, what’s “cinematic” anyway?  It’s a collection of conventions and expectations that we’ve grown accustomed to, and expect, when we see a movie.  And what many of the critics are unhappy about is that this movie doesn’t feel like what they expect a movie to be.  (To be sure, The Hobbit has plenty of issues; but I don’t think they’re related to the frame rate.)

We expect movies to have color, and sound – but those were once newfangled things that took getting used to, as well. Vulture.com asked Marty Banks, a professor of optometry and vision science at Berkeley, what he thought of the new frame rate.

“Colors are not as rich on TV sets or desktop monitors,” said Banks. “The motion is not as smooth. Brightness is not as great. We’ve adjusted to that, and we accept it. So when we see a projection that is closer to reality than what we are used to, our brains go, ‘Whoa!’ and we get this ‘hyper-real’ sensation. I think that’s what’s happening to people. Things look unusually sharp [in The Hobbit], and we’re seeing something closer to reality… If people are frustrated, it’s because this seems a violation of what has been considered normal.”

Indeed, as Jackson points out, there was nothing really magical about the 24 fps speed anyway:

Originally, 24 fps was chosen based on the technical requirements of the early sound era. I suspect it was the minimum speed required to get some audio fidelity out of the first optical sound tracks. They would have settled on the minimum speed because of the cost of the film stock.

That’s a point NYU professor (and friend) Adam Penenberg also makes with a provocative post about the future of books: That all art forms are the creation of some compromise between technology and economics.

Technology and economics have always shaped the evolution of art. Starting in the early 19th century painting evolved with new hues like cobalt and cerulean blues, chromium green, then cheap synthetics such as rose madder, ultramarine, and zinc white, followed by the invention of the collapsible paint tube, which offered pre-mixed colors in a more portable form. It became cheaper and more accessible to greater numbers of people, increasing the pool of potential painters and ultimately helped spawn Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.

So what has all this got to do with The Future of Journalism?

Lots.  Technology had much to do with the inverted pyramid structure that defines much of modern journalism.  Newsprint costs and space limitations kept stories short.  The daily rhythm of a paper helped shape the self-contained narrative story.

But technology and economics – at least of the news business – have changed radically in the last few years.  Shouldn’t we be changing – equally radically – what it is we produce and actively embracing what technology now allows us to do?

That isn’t to say we should be killing off the narrative story as a time-honored form of imparting information. (Although, as USC professor (and friend) Gabe Kahn points out, it’s hard to make money out of any individual story these days.) But we should be exploring how else we can inform our readers – whether through structured text such as with Politifact, rethinking reporting ala Homicide Watch, or capturing relationship data as Muckety does.

We shouldn’t be trapped into a world that’s defined by 20th-century journalism technologies, any more than film directors should be limited by late 1920s conventions on film rates.  As Adam notes:

In the same way that an engineer wouldn’t dream of starting with the raw materials for a horseless carriage to design a rad new sports car today, books won’t rely on mere text on a screen with a smattering of images, the stuff that today’s e-books are made of.

In any case, it isn’t one or the other:  As several film commentators have pointed out, today’s digital projectors don’t need to show only in 48 fps or 24 fps; they can use the appropriate frame speed for the appropriate parts of the movie, showing more detail when necessary and less when there are artistic reasons not to.

Not all that’s new is good; and some old conventions have great value.  Daniel Engber at Slate points out that:

Pixar likes to draw in the shimmering hexagons of a camera lens flare, even though its cameras are only virtual. Some live-action filmmakers add in lens flares for nostalgia, or to distract the viewer from a wonky CG effect.

Which is bizarre, when you think about it:  In other words, our notion of reality is so much driven by what we’ve become used to seeing on the big screen that other media have to mimic it.  But the broader point is that we should use what works best for our ultimate goal – informing the public – and be less hung up about what our conventions have been.


Responses

  1. […] Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes? – Chico Marx, in Duck Soup That famous line comes to mind when reading all the criticism over director Peter Jackson’s decision to film The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, twice the usual 24 fps rate.  […]

  2. Reg,

    No offense, but you lost me in the last graf. Personally, I don’t find it bizarre or even particularly true that “our notion of reality is so much driven by what we’ve become used to seeing on the big screen that other media have to mimic it.”

    The reality, at least from my perspective, is that there has always been a lot of cross-medium borrowing going on, and it would be a real stretch to consider the motion picture medium as the primary source of mimicry. It might be pointed out, for example, that Peter Jackson’s work is dependent on the original Tolkien novel, and that early feature films originally worked within the constraints of live theater’s proscenium arch. Such constraints now having been mostly broken due to an evolving toolset which includes also now borrowing from video games.

    Then too, it’s possible to argue that once you’ve jettisoned one set of constraints, another pops up to take its place. Jackson’s choice of 48 frames per second introduces, at least in the online realm, bandwidth issues that shouldn’t be taken lightly. This is something News Corp ran into with The Daily; users were saying that the sheer size of what was being put out made for a painful download.

    Still another evolving constraint affecting the news business is that you have something of a wag-the-dog situation of device OEMs and original content creators. Responsive design can pick up some of the slack for that but has limits particularly in the situational context of the end user at the time the content is being consumed. Somebody with a tablet and a free hour at home is a much different audience from a guy with a smartphone waiting for a bus due to arrive momentarily.

    At the risk of mixing metaphors, until the boundaries of device form factors has a chance to stabilize, the news business is likely to remain playing a game of whack-a-mole trying to provide mostly adequate content without ever having the time or money to develop tools that would really push the potential of the online realm as a new medium.

    Regards,
    Perry

    • Perry,

      Apologies – I should have been clearer. It seems it should be odd (even if it isn’t) that lens flare – the result of a technical limitation in movie cameras – is so embedded in our view of what the world looks like on a screen (which, after all, is supposed to be a representation of what the world actually looks like) that even after we can avoid the issue of lens flare, we still deliberately insert it in.

      I realize it’s probably actually not that bizarre; lens flare has become a cinematic convention that countless movies have used and now occupies a particular space in our brains. It’s not that different from having painting software that imitates brush strokes.

      And I agree with you 100% about new constraints – both technological and economic – constantly being created. My broader point is that we shouldn’t cling to old constraints out of a sense of tradition if they’re not helpful to our broader mission; we have enough current constraints to deal with without burdening ourselves with unnecessary old ones.

      As for whack-a-mole – I’m also 100% with you there. Responsive design will only take us for far, and is focused far more on the act of creation than on the end-user use case. It may well be the best solution for the moment is to really focus on very specific use cases and trying to address those needs rather than being a more broadly-oriented news organization.

      Thanks for the comments, as always.

      Reg

  3. More frames, more pixels, more everything– it’s all good. Ever seen an IMAX movie? You leave the auditorium sans socks. Even better would be Trumbull’s Showscan (70mm @60fps) but oh well. For journalists, the world is ever more at our fingertips, and with, as ever, good writing, we can do our jobs better than ever before. The world is magic.

  4. Enjoyned this post. Thank you. Another example of this playing out now is readers’ preference to use e-editions on the iPad (PDFs of the printed product) instead of tablet-optimized news apps. I’ve spent my career trying to convince journalists that there are other ways of presenting information. Now I find myself having to convince readers, too.

  5. […] The New Normal (structureofnews.wordpress.com) […]

  6. […] by 20th-century journalism technologies. Das schreibt Reg Chua von Thomas Reuters in dem Artikel The New Normal in dem auch Hobbit-Fans auf ihre Kosten […]


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