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30 FPS is Smooth, Man!
Written May 14, 2022


Motion picture cameras expose only 24 frames of expensive film each second.  However, at least in North America, TV cameras run at 30 frames per second.  (It's actually 60 fields per second, because each frame consists of two consecutive fields that are “interlaced.”  Everyone knows that, right?)

Because of the higher frame rate, motion shot with a TV camera appears smoother.  This distinction used to be obvious to me.

The effect is even more pronounced when action that was originally shot on film is shown on TV.  In one-sixth of a second, four film frames have to be spread over ten TV fields.  Because ten can't be evenly divided by four, a telecine technique called 3:2 pulldown is required.

Odd-numbered film frames remain on the screen for only 2/60 of a second, while the intervening frames get 3/60.

This results in even more jitter, but at least the film doesn't race along at Keystone Kops speed.

Recently, MeTV showed the 1953 movie House of Wax, introduced by horror-film host “Svengoolie” (Rich Koz, seen here in and out of character).

Famously, this was the first color 3D feature from a major American studio.  Theaters had to use twin projectors with polarizing filters in front of each, and the audience wore polarized glasses so each eye would receive the correct viewpoint.

Of course, MeTV could air it only in 2D.  But as I watched on my television, I began noticing that it somehow looked more like a TV show than a movie.

Motion was unusually smooth, even when the dancers kicked toward the camera.  The studio interiors looked sharp and “realistic,” more like a soap opera from 2003 than a movie from 1953.

I realized that House of Wax must have been filmed not at 24 frames per second (fps) but at 30!

I haven't yet been able to confirm that fact.  But the idea wasn't unheard of, particularly in the newer widescreen formats introduced beginning in 1952 to lure TV watchers back to the theaters.  Cinerama used 26 fps.  Todd-AO used 30 fps for its first two films, Oklahoma! and Around the World in Eighty Days.  “The difference does not seem great,” notes Wikipedia, “but the sensitivity of the human eye to flickering declines steeply with frame rate, and the small adjustment gave the film noticeably less flicker and made it steadier and smoother than standard processes.”

As a young projectionist, Richard Kilroy once ran an Oklahoma! revival “in true Todd-AO which is to say, in 30 frames per second versus the normal 24.  It was in 70 mm versus 35 and the results were nothing short of stunning.  Forget 3D — this needed no goggles to watch the film.  It was simply dimensional.  You could, when viewing this presentation, feel a breeze through a window if the curtains in the scene moved.  It was that real.”

James Cameron has said, “High frame rate is a specific solution to specific problems having to do with 3D.  When you get the strobing and the jutter of certain shots that pan or certain lateral movement across frame, it’s distracting in 3D.  And to me, it’s just a solution for those shots.”

High frame rates or “HFR” have been used by a few other current motion-picture directors like Ang Lee and Peter Jackson, who shot Lord of the Rings at 48 fps.  Some fancier television sets have a “sports” mode to interpolate new fields between those that actually exist, artificially simulating HFR.

But not everybody likes the look, which reminds them of cheap television.  After all, aren't soap operas taped at 30 fps?  “More frames are not better,” claims Jeremy Stuart.  “24 fps exists in a sort of magic zone where it's more than enough to feel smooth but not enough to feel ‘real.’  If you go above about 30 fps, your brain registers the motion like a real object moving.”

Cinematographer Steven Poster ASC writes, “I feel any fantasy-based or story-based information is best viewed on film.  The 24 fps film imaging system does not give the audience all of the visual information, so audience members need to fill in the blanks with imagination.”  I'm not sure I buy that.  But Poster continues, “What about soap operas?  Why do they work on video?  Soap operas are made so that the audience can feel an immediate connection to the characters and feel that those characters are part of their daily lives.  It's best to visually implant that information directly so it feels like it's live and happening now.”

Geoffrey Morrison of CNET doesn't think high frame rates will catch on.  “Even if you could convince studios to release more HFR movies, there will still be a percentage of people who will actively seek out non-HFR versions.  Or we'll just not go at all.  (How many of you reading this did that exact thing with 3D?  I sure did.  Avoided it at all costs — and I wasn't the only one.)  So studios, faced with a percentage that won't give them money, or give them less money against the greater cost of production, will likely cause HFR to wither like so many other technological ‘improvements.’”

I'm sorry, I kind of liked it. 



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