Joe Letteri, the Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor behind The Hobbit, is currently on an interview tour trying to explain to people who didn’t like 48FPS that they’re probably just too old to give it a chance. The line of thinking seems to be that it isn’t ugly, it’s just that people are so entrenched in their experiences with reliable old 24FPS that their eyes can’t properly attain the beauty.
But it turns out that 48FPS isn’t what we need to be worried about. It’s 60FPS.
In one of his conversations, Letteri explained that James Cameron was considering using the even higher frame rate for Avatar 2. “That’s closer to where persistence of vision almost disappears,” said Letteri. “In fact, these discussions came out of when we noticed the effect of that in Avatar. And we were brainstorming with Jim on how to fix it — well, this is inherent in the photography and the only thing you can do is go shorter shutter, but that introduces strobing, or you can go higher frame rate. We started experimenting with higher frame rate [from a standpoint of] how do we solve the problem?. . . It looks like something happening live.”
Which could mean that we’re on the cusp of true immersion, an experience with films that places us impossibly in the middle of the action. Or it could just look like crap.
This doesn’t mean Cameron will ultimately choose that frame rate for his Pandora follow-up, but if he does, he can expect a similar mixed reception to that of The Hobbit. On the other hand, the bulk of the complains about 48FPS in Middle-Earth seem to be the rate’s ability to destroy the magic normally delivered by make-up artists and set designers. Those illusions can’t be too exposed or a dwarf suddenly becomes a guy with grease paint and a fake beard. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the pantomime of movies can’t deal well (yet) with a too-bright light.
But since all the fantasy elements in Avatar are CGI, a higher frame rate might not matter on that front.
Still, there’s a long way to go before higher frame rates become the new normal. Even if Letteri is correct in thinking that younger audiences are responding positively to the imagery, the change (if it comes at all) certainly won’t be immediate.
The bottom line here is that higher frame rates are like other advancements, there will be a short period while the technology ramps up to meet expectations. That goes for all elements of the process becoming better (including make-up effects) in order to pivot toward the strengths of 48 or 60FPS. If that happens, if 48FPS becomes the go-to for most directors, hopefully our eyes will adjust and it will be like adding color to a black-and-white world.