Cine Gear 2012: The Debate over High Frame Rates Grows Among Filmmakers, Manufacturers

Rob Legato Oscars P 2012
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Footage from Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit," shot at 48 frames per second, has ignited the discussion.

Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato recently made a short test film at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second. But after viewing the results, he decided that artistically he preferred an identical short he filmed at today’s commonly used frame rate of 24 frames per second.

“I preferred 24 (fps) artistically,” Legato said of the test he conducted for camera maker ARRI. “The video look was the only thing that would stop me from using [high frame rates] or endorsing it wholeheartedly. It reminds me of something that growing up, I didn’t want to use. I grew up in the videotape vs. film age. Maybe I have higher sensitivity to it.”

This past weekend at Cine Gear Expo in Los Angeles, Legato was among the filmmakers and manufacturers debating the creative options offered by high frame rates.

To date, filmmakers like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and Douglas Trumbull have been driving the conversation. In April at Cinemacon, Jackson screened about 10 minutes of unfinished footage from The Hobbit, his two-part 3D prequel to The Lord of the Rings, which he is making at the higher frame rate of 48 frames per second. (Movies have been shot and projected at a standard rate of 24 frames per second since the arrival of talkies.)

But the work in progress – the clip had not been color corrected and the vfx were not completed – received mixed reactions, and a number of bloggers, whose opinions quickly ricocheted across the web, found fault with the footage.

In the wake of those reactions, Legato decided to conduct his own test. Speaking at a panel at Cine Gear, he described how he filmed the short The Decision.  He used ARRI Alexa cameras with a Cameron | Pace 3D rig, which holds two cameras that capture a left eye and a right eye image. In this instance, he used one camera to shot at 24fps and one at 48fps -- enabling him use the two cameras to create identical (2D) shorts for side by side comparison. Legato then edited and color corrected the project.

Legato admitted that his preference for 24fps may be because he grew up working in film rather than video. A number of attendees at both CinemaCon and Cine Gear also find fault with what is sometimes described as 48 fps’ “video look.”  Legato and other filmmakers on a Cine Gear panel acknowledged a bias against a video look may be generational.

Speaking about the production itself, Legato said that working in 48fps had “little impact” on the shoot itself, but “a lot of impact” in postproduction.

Take rendering, for example, the process of calculating the information in a CG file for final video output—essentially turning numbers into images. “If it takes one hour to render a frame at 2K resolution, it takes 4 hours at 4K. In (3D) it goes up to 8 hours per frame. Add 48 frames per second and … that is a crazy amount of material that needs to be generated,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

However, he noted, computers will continue to get faster and VFX pros will explore ways to speed up the process. (In separate interviews with THR, both Cameron and Jackson also have acknowledged that visual effects present a challenge when working in 48fps.)

“Usually technology takes a step back” when it is in early stages of development, Legato observed, citing color and sound as past examples. “Probably the same thing is happening with high frame rates.”

Proponents of high frame rates have argued that they improve 3D and action sequences, because a higher frame rate can create a smoother image that could make 3D viewing more comfortable. They also point out 48fps can eliminate or greatly reduce motion artifacts such as blur.

But Legato said, “Motion blur never bothered me.” He offered another option: “You can shoot 48fps if it pleases you for certain sequences, such as if you want to eliminate motion blur.”

On 48fps use for 3D, ARRI president and CEO Glenn Kennel told THR, “I think [high frame rates] are compelling in 3D. It makes the motion smoother, clearly, more immersive and relaxing. In 2D, the impact is also smoother motion, but some people don’t like it because the look also becomes more real.”

“There are other cues beyond frame rate that we associate with film,” he pointed out, citing grain and contrast as examples.

Today’s digital cinematography cameras support variable frame rates. “All cinema class cameras can shoot at least up to 60fps,” Kennel said. “There is a curiosity [about high frame rate movies], but I wouldn’t say there are a lot of people asking for it.”

“We are ready for it when people decide to shoot high frame rates,” said Sarah Priestnall, vp of market development at Codex Digital, which manufactures devices that are used on-set to record images from digital cameras.

Priestnall added that she expects to see very limited high frame rate production “happening within the next year.”

On the exhibition side of the equation, there was interest in high frame rates heading into CinemaCon, where leading projector makers demonstrated their projection upgrade paths. The debate grew following The Hobbit presentation.

Addressing the question of exhibitor interest, Sony exec Alec Shapiro said, “I can’t say that we saw much impact one way or another.”

Shapiro, whose promotion to president of Sony’s Professional Solutions of America was announced on Friday, said, “I’m not getting any direct inquiries [for high frame rate movies]” on the production side.

Also speaking with THR at Cine Gear, International Cinematographers Guild president and director of photography Steven Poster said, “It is so new. People are starting to figure out what we can do with it. It is another tool in our palette. You can use it, but you don’t have to use it all the time.”

Legato agreed, adding:  “It is not an all or nothing thing.”

Jackson shares that view.  In an interview after the CinemaCon footage screening, the director proposed that for aesthetic purposes different frame rates could be mixed into a single film. Trumbull is currently developing an exhibition technique for such uses.

Said Jackson, “As another creative tool, I think [high frame rates] is a really important thing.”