[Editor's note: This story was originally published on Dec 20th, 2012. We're resurfacing it this week as part of our tribute to the great feature work that writer Wes Fenlon has done with Tested, as he embarks on his new career in games journalism.]
Bilbo Baggins waddles down the dimly lit hallway of his cozy hobbit hole, its cramped quarters at once instantly familiar, though they've lain dormant since 2003's Return of the King. Familiar, yet something feels off. The old hobbit moves too quickly, and as he opens a chest, peering fondly at the relics of his adventures collected within, I expect him to pull out a well-worn trinket and suddenly appear on the set of Antiques Roadshow. Or to reminisce himself into a flashback and be carried away into a PBS revolutionary war reenactment, where Bilbo's outfit wouldn't look entirely out of place.
In its opening moments, The Hobbit's 48 frames per second cinematography overwhelmingly reminds me of a public broadcast television program, filmed at a slightly-too-fast 30 frames per second.
Since silent films gave way to talkies in the 1920s, the frame rate of 24 frames per second has become standard in the film industry. 24 fps is not the minimum required for persistence of vision--our brains can spin 16 still images into a continuous motion picture with ease--but the speed struck an easy balance between affordability and quality. For the past century, cinema has trained us to recognize 24 frames per second as a reflection of reality. Or, at least, a readily acceptable unreality.
Doubling that speed to 48 frames per second removes the motion blur and strobing of fast-moving images, argued Peter Jackson in 2011. "3D shows you a window into reality; the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window," said James Cameron. But to the average viewer, 48 fps looks like an exaggerated version of a television program shot at the common video tape speed of 30 fps.
The stigma around higher frame rates leads to an important, and extremely complicated, question about how we perceive film: Why does 48 frames per second look so weird?
"[Film] is the medium we're exposed most to in our everyday life and it has evolved very rapidly in the last 100 years to permeate all aspects of visual culture. And yet so little is actually known of the psychology of viewers and how we make sense of what's presented on the screen in front of us," says Tim J. Smith, a lecturer in the psychological sciences department at Birkbeck University in London. Smith specializes in film cognition, studying how our brains process images and how perception interacts with the world of film.
In studying film cognition, Smith worked to link the language of film--moviemaking conventions and guidelines like the 180 degree rule--to their cognitive foundations. He came up with the attentional theory.
"The basic idea is that in the first few decades that film was around, at the start of the 20th century, filmmakers went through a rapid phase of self-experimentation," he says. "There were so many things they could do with the camera and with editing that they would try out things and see how they worked on themselves and see how audiences liked it. What they were doing was seeing which techniques were acceptable to their own visual system, which things made it easier for them to see what was happening on the screen and to make sense of the narrative. The things they experimented with that didn't work didn't get picked up by other filmmakers, so they died out very rapidly. You had this very rapid standardization towards how to shoot a scene and actually edit it together."
After about 90 years, that standard of the film language may be rewritten.
Part of that standardization was the frame rate of 24 frames per second. Now, after about 90 years, that part of the film language may be rewritten. The audience will have to learn to read again--and judging by The Hobbit's 48 fps presentation, filmmakers will likewise have to relearn how to write. Smith helped shed some light on the psychology of high frame rate film and why our brains so vehemently reject it. Read on.