This is a guest post from veteran Director of Photography and long-time Comprehensive Media friend Matt Coale. Matt has worked on Comprehensive Media projects for more than 20 years. This is a great post on the history, confusion and controversy surrounding the 24P frame-rate.
By Matt Coale
(My humble observation as a veteran Director of Photography)
Since the beginning of motion pictures, budgets have dictated the frame rate at which we view films. The faster the film runs through the camera, the quicker money leaves the producer’s pocket. With the new wave of digital cinematography and digital projection, it’s time we released the chains of “minimum frame rate” and have a better visual experience in the cinema and at home.
Before I present my case, here is a brief lesson in cinema and television technology.
A Simplified Lesson in Formats:
- Standard Definition (SD) video has 525 lines of horizontal resolution.
- High Definition (HD) video has 1080 lines of horizontal resolution.
- These lines are made of tiny pixels. They are recorded and projected in horizontal lines very quickly, many times per second. The more lines of resolution, the greater the picture clarity.
- Currently, when recording and presenting digital video, you have the choice of a progressive (24P, 30P) or interlaced (60i) format.
- Progressive scanning is a way to record and project moving images in which all the lines of each frame are displayed at once.
- Interlaced scanning records and projects two “fields” for each video frame. The first field contains the even numbered lines. The second field contains the odd numbered lines. This technique doubles the perceived frame rate and is designed to reduce “flicker”. Two fields create one frame. 60i equals 30fps (frames per second).
A Brief History of Frame Rates
From the beginning of the film industry, 35mm film has been a costly investment. To save money, producers strived to shoot the minimum frame rate and still provide a pleasing visual experience.
In the silent film era, 18fps (frames per second) was determined to be the minimum frame rate acceptable to audiences. By putting a shutter on the projector, and projecting each frame three times, the viewer’s persistence of vision created a fluid, realistic representation of realism.
18fps acquisition and 18fps projection were acceptable for the cinema audience of that era.
In 1927, The Jazz Singer brought picture and sound together in America’s first feature length “talkie”. The landmark film used a phonograph to reproduce the sound. Technicians and engineers began the task of adding sound to picture in a single system. An audio track was soon married to the film print. However, in order to effectively reproduce the sound, the frame rate of the projector needed to be increased to a minimum of 24fps. Consequently, the frame rate of the recorded/projected image was increased to 24fps.
24fps acquisition and 24fps projection were acceptable for the cinema audience of that era.
Around that same time, the “step-child” of cinema and radio emerged: Television.
In 1941the National Television System Committee established the standards for American television broadcasting. The established scan rate of 60i (60 interlaced fields or 30 frames per second) was based on the 60 Hz cycle of alternating current.
60i(30fps) acquisition and 60i(30fps) projection were acceptable for the television audience of that era.
Two Worlds Collide
During the 1950’s television sets began to permeate American homes. In the mid 1950’s King Kong was the first feature length motion picture shown to American audiences via the new television medium. It was a huge success. Motion picture studios and television networks now had a new source of programming and income.
Engineers and technicians were charged with the task of transferring motion pictures shot at 24fps to a 60i(30fps) medium. Simply speeding up the film was very obvious to the eye and ear. A technique of turning every second frame of film into three fields of video (2:3 pulldown) seemed to solve the timing problems but introduced “strobing” and “stutter” into the final product. Also, television cropped out 1/3 to 1/2 half of the image. The filmmakers cried out: “How can you deface our artistic work?” But the studios owned the films and there was money to be made!
24fps acquisition and 30fps projection (via a 2:3 pulldown) were acceptable for the television audience of that era.
Over time, that strobing and stutter became engrained in the American psyche and directly associated with top quality motion pictures. Europeans watching American TV would stand aghast and ask, “How can you watch that?”
In the 1950’s television audiences grew and cinema audiences diminished. Hollywood tried every gimmick they could conceive in order to reclaim their audience. The era saw an array of wide-screen formats come and go. 3-D and Smell-O-Vision had brief success. Technically speaking, not much changed. Films continued to shoot at 24fps and television was recorded and broadcast at 60i(30fps).
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Douglas Trumball (a motion picture genius and pioneer) introduced Showscan, which used 65mm film shot and projected at 60fps. This process rendered a motion picture that was not only extremely high in definition, but was dramatically smoother and more realistic. When biometrically tested with audiences, as the frame rate increased, so did the viewer’s emotional response. This response peaked around 72fps.
The numbers are in. The theory is quantified and proven; faster is better. But try to convince Hollywood producers to shoot and project 65mm film at 60fps. The increase in shipping costs alone was staggering. Showscan never gained traction. Trumball was way ahead of his time. Showscan declared bankruptcy in 2002.
24fps & 24P
In 1999 The Blair Witch Project hit the theatres. It was one of the first successful indie features to shoot on a video format and be transferred to film for 35mm distribution. Produced on a micro-budget, it went on to gross over $248 million worldwide. Everyone in the film industry took notice.
The challenge of getting a project shot on a 60i video format transferred economically to a 24fps film format had been overcome.
Shortly thereafter, manufacturers began releasing video cameras that could record at 24P. One frame of video equaled one frame of film. Now, indie films could shoot on a video format at 24P and exhibit on a film format running at 24fps: a process that cost pennies to the dollars.
The door for low-budget, independent films opened wide. The reviews, blogs and press releases spread the gospel of 24P throughout the world. Students, professionals and those in-between rejoiced: “We have been delivered from the bondage of film!” For documentations and low budget filmmakers, video acquisition at 24P was a godsend and they were right!
But a funny thing happened on the way to the theatre…
Sitting on the sidelines, feeling forsaken, television producers longed to be part of the celebration. There was a new “shiny ball” and they wanted to touch it.
I Be Hypnotized
“24P…24P…I must shoot 24P !!” was the new mantra for television producers.
The marketing said: “24P looks like film”. The blogs said: “24P looks like film”. Projects shot at 24P and transferred to film “looked like film” (duh). There it was, in black and white: “24P looks like film!”
If you repeat something enough…it becomes truth.
A lot of the television producers and students drank the kool-aid. They longed to become part of the “new wave” and shoot their projects at 24P because “it looks like film”.
Shooting 24P on a project destined for the cinema? It makes complete sense. 24P for a television project…are you kidding? Did you ever bother to do a side-by-side comparison of 30P vs. 24P displayed on a television? I have! You would have to be blind to think 24P has a higher quality image.
Being a good DP, I would acquiesce to a producer’s desire. I shot a lot of TV/DVD projects at 24P to please production. That’s my job; to make them happy. Personally, I hated the look of 24P for television. Why intentionally add degrading artifacts into your picture? I would lobby for 30P, which I prefer for broadcast TV. Some producers trusted my judgment. The insecure ones trusted the market (everyone else shoots 24P). Whatever their choice, I gave it 100%.
For the next few years, 24P permeated the broadcast industry. During the 24P/30P/60i discussions, I privately conducted a survey of 24P proponents. I would quietly question them on their knowledge of 24P and gather my evidence. To my surprise, 99% of the professionals did not know the history of 24P and why “it looks like film”, but they were convinced it was best. Even more frightening was the fact ALL the students coming out of film school were convinced 24P was the only video format to shoot.
To be fair, I knew what they meant by “it looks like film”. The strobing and stutter in their project matched their favorite Hollywood movie viewed on TV. But let’s be clear: What is seen on TV does NOT match the exhibition of the film in the cinema or the artistic vision its creator. Films in the cinema are shot at 24fps and projected at 24fps. It’s a 1:1 ratio. Most projects shot for television are recorded at 30fps and projected at 30fps; another 1:1 ratio.
In a perfect world, you exhibit your film at the same rate you record it. Why would you intentionally degrade your film at the moment of capture? I’ve banged my head against this wall for years. But then…some are still shooting BetaCam and I’m sure there are those still using floppy disks on their computer. Many are resistant to change. All I can do is present the history of 24P and hopefully a light will shine into the darkness.
Will Bilbo finally slay 24P?
We are working in an ever-changing, digital revolution. Film acquisition is slowly declining. In the end, it’s a “business”. The cost savings of digital acquisition and digital exhibition not only saves money, it’s better for the planet. Besides that, the digital images are getting better each day.
In the past, frame rates were controlled by the cost of film. The more film you burned, the more it cost production. With digital acquisition, the cost of increasing the frame rate is pennies. All it requires is a little more digital storage. Digital projectors in theatres are completely capable of projecting at higher frame rates.
In March 2011, Peter Jackson began production of The Hobbit. The production is shooting and projecting at 48fps for “enhanced clarity and smoothness”.
In March 2011, filmmaker James Cameron, gave a presentation promoting the idea of moving motion picture technology to faster frame rates such as 48 or 60 fps, saying that he would be shooting the sequel to his 2009 film
Avatar at one of those two frame rates.
The jury is in. The verdict is “faster frame rates increase clarity, motion and resolution”.It’s time we get away from this archaic use of “minimum frame rates” like 24P. Besides, if you were a true cinema purist, you would shoot at 18P !
It’s only a matter of time until we move onto 48P, 60P and 72P. Let’s start today. It’s time we move forward. It costs very little to have a better visual experience. Hopefully, The Hobbit will bring a quick death to the myth of 24P! It won’t happen soon enough for me.