Can 120 frames-per-second revolutionize cinema?
The short answer to that question is: no. Or yes. Or maybe a little bit of both.
At the Friday night premiere of filmmaker Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at the New York Film Festival, Lee found himself met with a bit of skepticism. Not for the movie’s content itself, but for the technology behind it. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the first film to ever be shot in 120 frames-per-second (FPS), 4K resolution, and 3D, a stark comparison to standard cinematic 24 FPS and even the 48 FPS Peter Jackson employed for The Hobbit trilogies. “This is not just a new technology, but a new habit in watching movies,” Lee shakily stated before the film according to Slate. “I hope you keep an open mind.”
Critics tried. The Huffington Post wrote that the film was an “admirable misfire.” Variety wrote that some scenes were akin to “watching a high school play,” regarding the film’s too-crisp quality shining light on the “artifice of acting.” Village Voice film critic Bilge Ebiri decisively tweeted, “High Frame Rate is a fucking crime against cinema.” Reactions to the film itself were mixed, but with its imperfections blown overboard thanks to Lee’s experiment in hyperreal filmmaking. But while Ang Lee may be the first to tackle this particular unheard of frame rate for film, he’s not the first to greet controversy over a higher frame rate overall.
The first film to be shot in 120 frames-per-second, 4K resolution, and 3D
In 2012, upon release of director Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson pushed a 48 FPS wide release of the film. It was met with backlash over the inherent “soap opera effect” it carried. This is all because of the science behind our untrained eyes, according to filmmaker and University of Arizona lecturer James Kerwin. As movies are typically within the 24 to 30 FPS range, our brain is able to process that it’s not real and watch accordingly. Go any higher than that, and the result is jarring—measuring more as a made-for-tv, stilted-looking production (hence the term “soap opera effect”). “It’s an inherent part of the way our brain perceives things,” said Kerwin in an interview with Movieline. “Twenty-four or 30 frames per second is an inherent part of the cinematic experience. It’s the way we accept cinema. It’s the way we suspend our disbelief.”
There are potential upsides to a film with high frame rate (HFR). Like a more naturalistic look, similar to a reality show (no matter how uncinematic that description may be). Motion inherently looks crisper, with no blur—which is why many multiplayer shooters of today often boast 60 FPS. The most minute of details become striking and worthy of focus, like a tear on dear soldier Billy Lynn’s cheek. According to press notes at the film’s premiere received by Slate, Billy Lynn’s production stored 40 times more data per frame because of its absurdly high resolution.
Yet, when you get down to the science, our eyes remain untrained to recognize hyperreal film as anything but that: eerily realistic, bordering on Uncanny Valley like a high-budget videogame cutscene. And still, every time I walk into a friend or family’s house and see “motion smoothing” on their television, I’ll continue to do everything in my power to find the remote and change their unfortunate settings. I’m trying to remain open to the idea of HFR cinema, but maybe Ebiri said it best in his aforementioned tweet. HFR, at least now, is too gross-looking, too realistic, an expensive production resulting in cheap soap opera pizzazz. But I want to believe.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk probably won’t come to a cinema near you in its full HFR glory (because only two theaters in the United States can even screen 120 FPS), but the film is due for release on November 11th.