The Science of High Frame Rates, Or: Why 'The Hobbit' Looks Bad At 48 FPS
The hero of Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat declared “The cinema is truth, 24 times per second,” as The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw noted while pondering frame rates and cinematic standards last year. Peter Jackson insists that it’s closer to 48 frames per second, as demonstrated by the groundbreaking new frame rate he utilized for this weekend’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But do scientific theories about the way our brains perceive images and reality — truth unfolding onscreen, in front of our eyes — support Jackson’s brave new vision for cinema, or undermine it?
There is a great gulf between the cinematic look of 24 fps, the traditional rate at which film images are presented in succession to simulate moving images on a screen, and 48 fps. The latter packs more visual information into each second of film, for better and worse. Jackson and his fellow HFR enthusiasts (including James Cameron and Douglas Trumbull) argue that 48 fps and even higher frame rates result in greater clarity and a closer approximation to real life. They also contend it reduces motion blur, thus improving the look of 3-D images.
But scientists and researchers in the field of consciousness perception say that the human brain perceives reality at a rate somewhere between 24 fps and 48 fps — 40 conscious moments per second, to be more exact — and exceeding the limit of the brain’s speed of cognition beyond the sweet spot that connotes realism is where Jackson & Co. get into trouble.
Movieline spoke with filmmaker James Kerwin, who lectured on the subject of the science of film perception and consciousness at the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies. (His presentation included an analysis of the work of Dr. Stuart Hameroff and British cosmologist/philosopher Roger Penrose, and their quantum theory of consciousness.) According to Kerwin, there really is a simple scientific answer for why The Hobbit’s 48 fps presentation plays so poorly with some viewers — and it's not something we'll get used to over time.
HOW OUR BRAINS PERCEIVE REALITY
James Kerwin: “Studies seem to show that most humans see about 66 frames per second — that’s how we see reality through our eyes, and our brains. So you would think that 48 frames per second is sufficiently below that — that it would look very different from reality. But what people aren’t taking into account is the fact that although we see 66 frames per second, neuroscientists and consciousness researchers are starting to realize that we’re only consciously aware of 40 moments per second.”
“Dr. Hameroff’s theory has to do with the synchrony of the gamma waves in the brain — it’s called gamma synchrony — the brain wave cycle of 40 hertz. There’s a very strong theory that that is why we perceive 40 moments per second, but regardless of the reason, most researchers agree we perceive 40 conscious moments per second. In other words: our eyes see more than that but we’re only aware of 40. So if a frame rate hits or exceeds 40 fps, it looks to us like reality. Whereas if it’s significantly below that, like 24 fps or even 30 fps, there’s a separation, there’s a difference — and we know immediately that what we’re watching is not real.”
HIGH FRAME RATES AND THE UNCANNY VALLEY
“You’ve got guys like Cameron and Jackson saying, let’s make it more real because the more realistic, the better; the higher the definition, the more 3-D, the more this, the more that. They’re not taking into account what’s called The Uncanny Valley in psychology. The Uncanny Valley says that, statistically, if you map out a consumer’s reaction to something they’re seeing, if they’re seeing something artificial and it starts to approach something looking real, they begin to inherently psychologically reject it."
"Not every person perceives the Uncanny Valley, however. There are some people that just do not reject things that look too real, although the vast majority of people do experience that phenomenon. So you’re going to get some individuals who see it and go, This looks great! The problem is anecdotes are not evidence. You have to look at the public as a whole, and I think that’s what Jackson and Cameron are not doing."
FORWARD-MOVING HFR VS. TRADITIONAL FILM CONVENTIONS
“There are all sorts of conventions in film that are not found in reality. People talk to each other in ways that they don’t in reality. Things are lit in ways that they’re not lit in reality. The make-up, the hair, the props, everything is fake. If you stand on a film set and you watch the actors performing, you don’t for a second think that it’s real. There are acting conventions that we have chosen to accept."
“One thing a lot of people are saying about The Hobbit in 48 is that the acting is bad — well, the acting’s not bad, they’re simply acting with cinematic conventions but it’s such a high frame rate that the motion looks too real and you can see through the artifice of the acting.”
THE NECESSARY SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF — WHICH 48 FPS LACKS
“It’s psychological: we need suspension of disbelief, and suspension of disbelief comes from the lower frame rate. The lower frame rate allows our brains to say, Okay — I’m not perceiving 40 conscious moments per second anymore; I’m only perceiving 24, or 30, and therefore this is not real and I can accept the artificial conventions of the acting and the lighting and the props. It’s an inherent part of the way our brain perceives things. Twenty-four or 30 frames per second is an inherent part of the cinematic experience. It’s the way we accept cinema. It’s the way we suspend our disbelief.”
“Those high frame rates are great for reality television, and we accept them because we know these things are real. We’re always going to associate high frame rates with something that’s not acted, and our brains are always going to associate low frame rates with something that is not. It’s not a learned behavior; [Some say] you watch it long enough and you won’t associate it with cheap soap operas anymore. That’s nonsense. The science does not say that. It’s not learned behavior. It’s an inherent part of the way our brains see things.”