T3 Opinion: It's time to drag cinema into the 21st Century

Film is a compromise, and it looks dreadful, but we have the technology to improve it

Perhaps you know the story about why movies are shot at 24 frames per second, perhaps you don't. Either way the reasons can be summed up in one word: compromise.

The problem with film is that it's bulky, expensive and difficult to handle. In order to keep costs and bulk down, film is shot at a bare minimum rate of 24fps - just enough to generate the illusion of continuous motion on the large screen. This saves money and keeps the physical bulk down for both shooting and projection. Film is so expensive to print that a very limited number of prints often tour the world, rather than a print being made for each cinema. Ever wondered why movies premiere in the US and then come to the UK only later? Well that's the reason: the physical film print is distributed overseas only after it starts to leave US theaters.

But these days film is teetering on the edge. If you look through some of the emails leaked from Sony pictures, you can see a debate taking place about releasing movies on celluloid instead of digital. But the tone of the emails makes it quite clear that, for lots of reasons, film is dying out. Few places manufacture it, and companies like Sony essentially have a stockpile they're working through.

Image of film reels via Wikipedia by Christian Razukas under CC licence

So with a digital future, why are we still watching movies at 24fps? Mostly it's about sentimentality. When Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48fps and released it, there was a lot of complaining about how it looked cheap. Paradoxically, people equate higher frame rates with lower budget productions. For Americans, this is how daytime soaps are shot, so people see smooth motion and assume low-budget.

In the UK we have pretty much either moved every aspect of production to 25p or artificially make it look like it's shot on film. Almost every TV show is made this way now, and people are still, mentally, equating it to quality. That's right, Hollyoaks looks classier because of the "film look".

But let's be honest here, when you watch an action movie the motion blur that's all too common with 24fps is a pain. I remember watching the Bourne movies and enjoying them, apart from during a fight sequence when I couldn't tell what the hell was going on. Look at any movie and it's the same. As soon as there's rapid motion involved, the whole thing looks like a blurred mess.

So as film gets phased out, how about we do the logical thing and move toward 48fps? Sure, for some films this might not be the best choice, and ultimately the decision will always be the director's. But for big-budget movies, how about we work out how to give those films a quality look without relying on a years-old compromise to fool our brains?

As 4K becomes more common we'll see the new Blu-ray format emerge, and it will support higher frame rates. It truly is time to shake off super-blur-o-vision and join the 21st Century.

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Lead image by Roman Bonnefoy used under Creative Commons licence
Film reel image by Christian Razukas used under Creative Commons licence