Die 24fps, die!

No, that’s not German, I’m just tired of the fascination the industry has with 1920s technology. What is it about blurry, shuddering cinema that’s so consistently attractive?

Edison, who first started using 35mm film in 1892, originally favoured 46fps – “anything less will strain the eye” – and his main rival’s camera typically shot at 40fps. However, due to the slow and expensive film stocks of the day, directors frequently shot at slower speeds – often varying the speed within the same shoot! In 1915, a projectionists’ handbook declared,

One of the highest functions of projection is to watch the screen and regulate the speed of projection [by hand-cranking] to synchronise with the speed of taking“, though exhibitors regularly sped up the film to fit more reels in. Silent films often went as low as 16fps, but with the advent of “talkies” formats using optical sound strips on the film, cinematographers were forced to standardise on a consistent speed: 24fps.

In these enlightened days of digital soundtracks and digital video, we are of course not bound to any such limitation. We’ve hugely improved the sensitivity, resolution and grain of our film stocks and image sensors, and we relentlessly pursue the ideal of image quality. So why are we so quick to throw out our temporal quality (and degrade our spatial quality with motion blur) by deliberately shooting at less than half the framerate that video has been managing for years? It’s like buying a 5D mkII camera and then leaving the photo size at only 1024 x 768.

Now in some cases we have no choice – we have to match 24fps film from other sources, or the projector can only show it at 24fps, and so be it, we’re stuck with those. Yet even when we have the equipment to shoot squeaky-clean footage at 30fps or even 60fps with a fancy new digital camera, all too often we sabotage this with the ever-popular “film look”, deliberately degrading our results and going to great lengths to increase their jerkiness, just to look more “cinematic”.

Some may argue this is an artistic decision, like a soft filter or a bleach bypass, and of course it is. Low frame rate can likewise change the feel of a scene, increasing emotional impact. That impact is however somewhat lessened when it’s used indiscriminately, with nothing to contrast it to and no thought of appropriateness – like blurring ALL your film, even the credits.

Others may say that audiences prefer their sweeping pans across a majestic landscape to be shuddering and/or blurred by motion, because it nostalgically reminds them of those other wonderful, shuddering, blurry moments they experienced in cinemas, years ago, when there was no other choice. I say, welcome to the 21st century, where sepia-toned photographs appear only in historical pieces and museums. We can do better now – we have been doing better in so many other ways; why are we still holding ourselves back? We spend millions on realistic special effects, then skimp on the framerate that could actually deliver that realism.

Still others may insist that our clients demand it, so we have to deliver – but they probably want to sell us their popular film-look plugin. Besides, how often have our clients ever known what they really wanted?

Enough already. Digital cameras and digital projectors mean that framerate is just another tool of the trade – lower it for that dramatic scene, by all means, but don’t forget to crank it right up again for the majestic landscape pan. And for the credits.

Posted by Daniel Koch at 9:12 PM