“The cinema,” Jean-Luc Godard once famously declared, “is truth at 24 frames per second.” However, the legendary maverick's dictum is now under the threat of obsolescence. Filmmakers Peter Jackson and James Cameron, the creators of blockbusters such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar, are actively pushing for the cinema to run at 48 frames per second. Both men have endorsed the new shooting standard and will use it for their next projects – Jackson for The Hobbit, which has just commenced production in New Zealand, and Cameron's forthcoming Avatar 2 and 3 sequels.
Since the 1920s films have been made by using cameras that shoot 24 still images a second, and then projecting them at a speed which blends one seamlessly into the next. But with the rise of digital photography the standard 24 frames per second can be considered redundant. Proponents of the change, who now have momentum on their side, are pushing for 48, or even 60, frames per second as the new baseline.
What's the difference between 24 and 48 frames per second for the audience? “When you author and project a movie at 48 or 60, it becomes a different movie,” Cameron enthused to The Hollywood Reporter. “The 3D shows you a window into reality; the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window. In fact, it is just reality. It is really stunning.”
In a Facebook blog from the set of The Hobbit, Jackson also registered his belief in 48 frames per second, noting the improved picture clarity and reduced eye strain (especially in 3-D). But he also pointed out the huge logistical undertaking required to screen 48 frame productions. The films not only need to be shot at a frame rate of 48, they require digital projection. The conversion of the tens of thousands cinema screens worldwide to digital projection is underway, with North America leading the way, but it's not a given. Jackson also clarifies that current digital projectors have no problem with 48 frames, but servers do require upgrades.
“We are hopeful that there will be enough theaters capable of projecting 48 fps by the time The Hobbit comes out,” he writes. “However, while it's predicted that there may be over 10,000 screens capable of projecting The Hobbit at 48 fps by our release date in Dec, 2012, we don't yet know what the reality will be.”
Jackson, who has become a canny practitioner of Hollywood economics, also notes that he will be clearly directing the vast Hobbit audiences to see his two part fantasy epic on 48 frames per second digital systems. That may well spur on the conversion rate, especially if more productions get underway. Not surprisingly, the issue may resolve itself on monetary lines. The 3-D process has taken hold for event pictures post-Avatar because exhibitors have been able to change more for screenings. 48 frames per second may result in the same lucrative surcharge. Who know what Jean-Luc Godard would say about that?