The Science of High Frame Rates, Or: Why 'The Hobbit' Looks Bad At 48 FPS

Hobbit 48fps

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.

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.”

“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."


“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.”

“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.”

James Kerwin is currently in development on an adaptation of R.U.R. Find more about him at his website, and head here to read further on Dr. Stuart Hameroff's consciousness studies.

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  • Andrew Ryals says:

    Sounds to me like all of the psychological theories that all these different "Experts" are themselves just a bunch of theories that have very little basis. I mean come on, now they say that the more real things look the more we reject them as real, that sounds like some Chinese philosophy, not real science. Truth is, they probably survied people that saw a high frame rate movie, several of those people said wow that looked weird, and they assume that there was some new psychosis involved. Truth is it's just different from what they're used to.

    • Fox says:

      Saw second Hobbit in HFR at smaller screen theater. Also saw at IMAX theater non-HFR. Once again, HFR ruled. Got into the movie much more with HFR and was more dazzled and stunned by the special effects with HFR. The swooping camera movements (not exactly shaky cam, thank goodness) were easier to tolerate with HFR than non-HFR as well.

    • Neo says:

      Yes, it's a religious conviction. Lots of fluffy words to simply say "traditional cinema has a certain look." The only hard science when it comes to the 40 frames per second is the perception of judder. With eye pursuit we can see well over 1000 fps. And the reason 48 fps looks different is because it's shot differently. It's 100% Stereoscopic 3D Feature! 3D is shot differently. Deeper view, bigger and faster pans and enhanced sharpness to enable the... 3D effect! I also wouldn't be surprised if 80% of those that prefer HFR are men.

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      You're the graesett! JMHO

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  • Derek Bowen says:

    How on earth can it be psychological and not be a learned behavior? Is it somehow instinctual?

    Why on earth would we have instincts to separate reality from movies when movies are a human invention made within the last two centuries?

    Hell if anything it would be because motion pictures exist and reality exists and we grew up with them side by side that we would thus learn how to distinguish between one and another. Its a key part of brain development nowadays since we are inundated with visual motion both real and faked.

    And thus it HAS to be a learned behavior. However, watching several hours of HFR cinema is not going to suddenly undo your learned expectations of a lifetime watching traditional 24 FPS film.

    Really you'd need to compare differences across generations to determine that it's "not a learned behavior."

  • will says:

    "We see at 66 frames per second". Stopped reading at this point.

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  • Erik says:

    I disagree with the "science" of this article. I've read that the military have done study's on how many "FPS" the human eye and and brain can detect and its far more the 66. And its much more important to them to know the facts about human sight and reaction time then some movie people. For them its life or death to know how the human eye and brain work when it come to sight.Not just weather thing look good or not.

    • nelsonerico says:

      I know, and I even found out that the maximum frame rate of our eyes is 1000 fps, and The Hobbit only has 48 fps, which is NOTHING in comparison, 48 fps may look real, but not exactly real, also you get a bigger sense of depth in each scene, you can look deeper in the details of the view, and even 1000 fps is better than 48 fps or even 60 fps, Classic Soap operas are 60 fps, so The Hobbit's frame rate is only an approximate match rather than an exact match.

  • nelsonerico says:

    48 fps is not an exact copy of reality, I found out that our eyes can see up to 1000 fps and the Hobbit only went up to 48 fps, which doesn't even come half as close to 1000, but it's closer to looking more realistic than 24 or 30 fps, People need to stop moving back from higher frame rates and going back to lower ones, it's like moving back to primitive technology instead of moving forward into good and modern technology, I have cable and my favorite show is on channel 299, it's a family and kids show with fantasy, action, drama, suspense, romance and science fiction, yet it's not a soap opera because soap operas are only for teenagers and adults, but the frame rate on the show is 60 fps which exceeds the Hobbit's frame rate of 48 fps.

    • Your favorite show is 60 INTERLACED frames per second, which equals 30 full fps.

      • Neo says:

        You misunderstand the technical details of interlacing. Interlacing is a spatial reduction in information not a temporal reduction in information. A 59.94 fps interlaced video signal simply has the same amount of data as a 29.97 fps video signal, a form of compression similiar to chroma subsampling, but still has the full 59.94 frames per second of information. This is why the soap opera effect applies to 59.94 fps shows and not the standard 29.97 fps web videos you see on YouTube.

        People that claim humans can't see more information that's contained in a 24 fps video signal then go on to complain about the soap opera effect are clearly moronic. That fact that there is a clear difference in "looks" of various frame rates proves this.

        Here's a link to a website that discusses even higher frame rates and there benefits:

        • Russell says:

          You all miss the point. 30fps shows close to the natural blur which you see when you move your hand in front of your face, like when you have the old mouse pointer trails turned on. The hobbit looked crap because it's a whole bunch of static images shown really fast. You can show me 6000fps as long as you can capture the natural blur, then I can relax and enjoy the movie.

          • Neo says:

            No, just no. Frame rate has nothing to do with blur or strobing. Shutter angle is what determines blur or strobing. If the desired look is a blurred image then that can be achieved with with a longer exposure or even with post-production effects.

          • Russell says:

            Hey Neo, I had not known about shutter angle, but after reading about it, I understand your point. Why then does the hobbit look bad and annoying to my eye? I thought it was the natural blur.

          • Neo says:

            One issue not mentioned is that the Hobbit actually used a mush deeper depth of view to increase the stimulus of the 3D technology. Research showed that when people watch 3D they linger on the backgrounds a bit to take in the effect. This has a side effect of making the overall look a bit sharper and might be part of why some people don't like it.

        • xaeus says:

          I can clearly distinguish between PAL and NTSC formats when it comes to watching a movie.
          The difference between 25 and 30 FPS is quite detectable.
          As for the human FPS, the average eye detects 28 FPS. You can test this by using a video game with pre-set FPS lock. 40 or higher may be detectable if you train and focus correctly.

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