48 frames per second: challenging our emotional attachment to film

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr James Walters
Recorded: 10/05/2012
Broadcast: 14/05/2012

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, today I’m with Dr James Walters who is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Birmingham. Hello James. 

James: Hello. 

Andy: So do you want to tell me a little bit about what it is that you do?

James:  Well I teach at the university.  I teach students on film and television courses and then my own research has been across a few different areas, both in film and television.  The couple of books that I’ve written have been in the broad area of fantasy film, thinking about an area of cinema that’s very popular with audiences and has sort of grown in popularity over time but hasn’t necessarily received a great deal of critical or theoretical attention.  So both books [are] really thinking about how we might define that area of film and how we might talk usefully about something that audiences clearly enjoy and that has quite a diverse output now.  Clearly there’s been some landmarks of fantasy film in the past few years and we’re leading up to further landmarks with things like the new Hobbit film that’s going to be released this winter. 

Andy: December?

James: Yes.   

Andy: And the landmark that you’re referring to, for those who don’t know, is that Peter Jackson the director is going to be shooting this at 48 frames per second – it’s normally 24[fps] which is the experience we’re all used to – and that’s caused quite a bit of controversy. It’s been very divisive. 

James: Well it has really because edited sections of the film were shown to quite a select preview audience and the reaction to this different frame rate wasn't necessarily positive. People found it quite disorientating and interestingly, people were suggesting that it was almost too real, that it showed the artifice  of the film far too much, whereas in people’s minds perhaps the 24 frames per second rate was more cinematic.  So it was seen to be not quite the cinematic experience that people would expect. Now Peter Jackson’s obviously defended this and sort of said that you have to give it time, that actually with any change there's a period of adjustment and, you know, a ten minute segment isn’t quite long enough to - 

Andy: Although, he suggested that ten minutes would be, in the actual film, ten minutes would be about the time he suspected it would take audiences to adapt. 

James: Which I quite liked that, yeah, and maybe he’ll have a ten minute credit sequence so people can just adapt. 

Andy: Yes, break them in gently!

James: And then start the film from there.   But there’s a funny sort of tension there because obviously this is the kind of archetypal fantasy film, the Hobbit, and it’s aiming or striving towards a greater sense of realism, a greater sense of definition, a sharper aesthetic experience than perhaps you have in other genres of cinema.  So in one sense it’s quite odd that you’ve got something that’s quite undefined in the way that fantasy can be – it can be quite a messy genre – having a visual style that’s very sharp and very defined and that’s the thing that people are sort of up in arms about at the moment.  The 24 frames per second thing came about for economic reasons. The cost of film, the cost of celluloid, if you were going to be shooting at 48 frames per second 80 years ago it would be incredibly expensive.  So 24 frames per second was kind of settled on and actually before that, sort of pre-1920s, they were shooting at 16 frames per second.

Andy: Which gave the flickery effect. 

James: Absolutely, that old style of film that’s actually quite charming. 

Andy: It is, yeah. 

James:  The interesting thing when we’re thinking about 16 frames per second being a particular era of film and then the 24 frames per second being sort of film as we know it, is audiences perceptions of what the cinematic world on screen is and I think that that lack of distinction, or distinctiveness I should say that 24 frames per second gives, is something that people clearly associate with the cinematic and that desire that that preview screening of the Hobbit seems to bring out, the desire for audiences to want to keep the cinematic world at a distance from their own, and I think that that would probably be very true of fantasy film particularly because it clearly is a world removed from the one that we know, that we experience, that we understand.  So it is interesting that these developments are happening here.  The other thing I think, the reason why Jackson is quite keen on this, is that films like the Hobbit have a lot of action, have a lot of kinetic movement in them and also have a great deal of scale as well. 

Andy: Yeah. 

James:  So one of the things that this faster frame rate allows for is picking out distinct details in movement, so while the camera’s moving you can still pick out sharp detail, and also when actors are moving very quickly you don’t get the blurring that you would otherwise get.  So it seems to be suited to a particular type of film and it’s interesting James Cameron then comes out and says ‘well, maybe the Avatar sequels will be filmed in 60 frames per second’.  

Andy: Wow.

James:  You know, why not? But you can see the logic because the Avatar films, if they follow on from the first film, will involve very rapid movement, depth of field, action happening at different distances and a very mobile camera as well and so really you can understand for practical reasons why that would be attractive for those types of film makers. 

Andy: Peter Jackson has said that he’s essentially ‘future-proofed’ The Hobbit. So he’s obviously confident that we are at some kind of crossroads. 

James: Every major technological development is controversial and isn’t always welcomed as a progression and something that’s exciting and should be embraced and I think that there’s an interesting thing there about the emotional attachment that audiences have to film and to particular eras of film as well and I think that when people talk about a love of cinema, they’re thinking of a slightly classical looking film a lot of the time, so they’re thinking about perhaps an image of Humphrey Bogart in black and white.  I mean there are still many people that prefer black and white to colour and there even people that exist that prefer silent cinema to sound cinema. 

Andy: Yeah.

James:  It may be that we’re on the cusp of something a bit like that, that maybe this change in frame rate might be seen in retrospect as one of those significant developments in film technology. 

Andy: Maybe historically we’ll look back, like you say, that this is a moment where there are some great shifts in film making, so it must be quite an exciting time to be working and teaching in this subject.  Is there anything else interesting on the horizon for you?

James: I think one of the key things when we’re looking at any of these developments is to keep a broad a perspective as possible. So that is a historical perspective, so placing any new development in the context of what’s gone before, we might look back at this in a few year’s time and it actually wasn’t a major development at all and you know, things - 

Andy: We’ve just been talking rubbish for ten minutes! 

James: [laughing] This will be a sort of testament to how wrong we kind of got it.   Hopefully not!  So keeping a kind of broad historical perspective is really important and also keeping a broad international perspective also. It’s quite easy to slip into the habit of sort of viewing Hollywood as kind of the centre but there are other cinemas. At Birmingham what we’re quite keen to do is to open up the discussion to as many different academic interests as possible and we’re actually holding a symposium tomorrow that’s going to bring colleagues together from across the university, researching very different areas, so that we can start to develop that kind of dialogue between us all and not necessarily form the same opinion, not sort of congregate on the same set of issues at all, but actually look at the diversity of issues that are being explored by different film academics at Birmingham.  That’s one of the first steps really towards establishing a 'Centre for Film Studies' at Birmingham which is a desire shared by many different staff at the university and that’s really to make more prominent and more visible the work that’s going on at Birmingham in film because there’s a very strong investment in film studies at Birmingham and it’s natural to have a home for that where people can share ideas and debate precisely the sorts of issues that we’ve been talking about today.

Andy: Dr James Walters, thank you very much for joining me today.

James:  Thank you. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.