The History Of The High Frame Rate

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The History Of The High Frame Rate

How Technology Can Speed Things Up, And Slow Them Down

Zack Snyder’s 300 is one long, slow slog through hell. Emphasis on “slow.” The historical action epic, which depicts the last stand of a group of doomed Spartans besieged by Persian forces, is made up of 25% slow motion footage.

At key, extended sequences – from battles, to the much-memed “This, is, Sparta!” scream – Snyder slows time, giving the audience the opportunity to soak in his blood-strewn details; to embrace the balletic horror of it all.

Snyder isn’t the only filmmaker to favour slow motion, of course. Auteurs the world over have used the device to depict everything from fluttering birds – as in John Woo’s live-action cartoon, Face/Off – to superpowered heroes dodging bullets as they cut through the air like butter – as in The Matrix. Slow motion gives filmmakers the ability to emphasise movement; to create a sense of impending doom; to ratchet up comedy. It is one of those profoundly versatile tools that, under the right guidance, can do whatever a filmmaker wants it to do.

Image: The Hobbit via New Line Cinemas

And it’s easy to produce, too – slow motion is made possible by high frame rates. In essence, most films are captured and projected at a standard frame rate of 24 frames per second. That means there are 24 still images to every second of screen time. 

This was not always the case. In the early days of cinema, films were captured at anywhere from 16 to 40 frames per second, usually dependent on the speed at which the camera’s hand crank could be turned. But by the development of “talkies” – films with sound – 24 frames became the industry standard.

Image: The Hobbit via New Line Cinemas

That number is not arbitrary. 24 frames per second has been determined by the minimum speed at which cameras can capture action and record sound, while also creating the sense of realistic, smooth motion. It was, in essence, a financial decision to set that standard – film technicians had impetus to create the smoothest motion with the least amount of celluloid.

When run together, these 24 frames compose one second of movement, creating a flow of images that make immediate, uncomplicated sense to a viewer; that are so ingrained in how we watch movies that our brain doesn’t even catch onto the mechanics that guide the camera. 

But cameras are able to shoot at much faster frame rates. And when footage is shot at those higher frame rates, and then played back significantly slower, slow motion is produced. For instance, in the case of super slow-motion – the kind that Snyder in particular favours – footage is shot at 960 frames per second. When that footage is played back at a standard rate, it becomes that elegant, stylised slow motion that viewers have come to expect.

Image: Face/Off via Paramount Pictures

That’s not all that high frame rate cameras are capable of, either. When the high frame rate footage is not slowed down, and played at a normal speed, it becomes hyperreal; uncanny. Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy was shot and ran at 48 frames per second, twice the standard. Years later when Ang Lee, the director of Brokeback Mountain and The Hulk, decided to follow suit and experiment with fast frame rates, he adopted a format that ran at 120 frames per second in his film Gemini Man

Viewers might not be able to place their finger on it, but they will almost all be able to sense when they are watching a film at a faster frame rate. This is due to the fact that faster frame rates create an uncannily heightened feeling to the material. Because we’re so used to 24 frames per second, our brain processes footage shot in that format as resembling the motion of our actual lives. It looks “real” to us. Anything more than that looks bizarre; too crisp, with a level of detail that we are not used to seeing onscreen. But 24 frames per second are a construct – in actual fact, our brain takes in images much faster than the camera normally does.

Image: The Matrix via Warner Bros. Pictures

The addition of more frames per second means that films shot on a faster frame rate more accurately capture the motion that we experience in real life. But that doesn’t mean that they necessarily feel like real life. Cinema is made of constructs that have become normalised, and as soon as those constructs are broken, the result is a feeling of bizarre alienation, even if the breaking better resembles what we see when we’re not sitting in the dark of a theatre. There’s just a rawness to films shot on the format, as though they’re being stamped directly onto your eyeballs.

But, excitingly, fast frame rate cameras are not an exhaustively explored country. There is still more to do with them; more to shoot. Who knows which filmmakers will use it, and how – who knows the impact it will continue to have on the artform? Visual storytelling is always in motion, after all.