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.