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What is… HFR (High Frame Rate)?

Peter jackson & Martin Freeman on set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe ‘What is…?’ feature has been away for a little longer than intended, but it’s back and will be taking a little look at the rather hot topic of high frame rate (HFR).

A lot of the buzz surrounding Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was not about Bilbo or a massive dragon, but rather about the fact that it marked the first time a mainstream movie was filmed and projected in HFR of 48 frames per second rather than the industry standard 24 frames per second (fps).

First, a little background regarding frame rate.

Films are technically still how made how they were over 100 years ago when cinema was invented. They are a series of still images played quickly in a sequence to fool us into thinking they are moving. Each one of those images is a frame and the frame rate (measured as frames per second) is how quickly they are filmed and projected to be seen by our eager faces (if I have this drastically wrong, then please someone point it out!). There was much playing around with frame rates until it was decided that 24 fps would be the industry standard as it was the lowest possible frame rate to produce smooth motion without having to use the longer reels of film needed for higher frame rates. Anything filmed and projected higher than 24 fps is considered HFR.

Shooting at a higher frame rate reduces the motion blur and adds a greater sharpness to the images, allegedly giving a more accurate representation of real life, compared to the cinematic ‘look’ of 24 fps. This is because the viewer is seeing twice as many frames per second, meaning the eyes and brain have fewer gaps to fill in in between frames. This is also the case when watching a HFR film in 3D, producing clearer images and reducing the blur and strobing that can occur.

Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is considered the first film to be filmed in HFR, this isn’t the case. Films Oklahoma (1955) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) are technically considered HFR, being filmed and projected at 30 fps. The first IMAX HD film, Momentum, was shot and projected at 48 fps, whilst special effects experts Douglas Trumbull devised a new film format called Showscan which operated 60 fps.

However, it was indeed Peter Jackson and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, released in December 2012, that brought HFR into mainstream cinema. Jackson has been very vocal in his support for HFR, suggesting that this is where the future of cinema is heading, stating: “HFR 3D is “different” — it won’t feel like the movies you’re used to seeing, in much the same way as the first CDs didn’t sound like vinyl records. We live in an age when cinemas are competing with iPads and home entertainment systems. I think it’s critical that filmmakers employ current technology to increase the immersive, spectacular experience that cinema should provide. It’s an exciting time to be going to the movies.

Despite Jackson’s enthusiasm, reaction to HFR has been mixed. Whilst some have said it allows for a much more immersive experience, many have countered by saying it removes their suspension of disbelief and that everything looks too ‘real’. Some have complained it looks like on-set behind-the-scenes footage or a TV production. Other filmmakers clearly believe in its worth, with James Cameron apparently intending to use it for his Avatar sequels, whilst Andy Serkis will use it for his adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

This has merely been an overview of HFR; the topic is incredibly detailed and way beyond my brain power. You can go into minute detail about light levels and the ins and outs of the cameras used, but I’d be lying to you (and myself) if I said I understood any of that. There are couple of interesting pieces of further reading here and here, though, should you fancy delving deeper into the HFR rabbit hole.

What are your thoughts on HFR? Is it the future of cinema or is Peter Jackson flogging a dead hobbit?

More entries in the ‘What is…?’ series can be found here.

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