A&E Opinion: A meditation on frame rates

This topic is a wee bit technical for most, but I can guarantee that when most people see something at an unusual frame rate, they can feel the difference.

What is a frame rate, anyway? Well, first we need to know what a frame is, and it’s just that: a single shot of a film, or game, or any other video form. How many frames can fit into a single second is what people refer to as a frame rate.

With me so far? I hope so.

Let’s use a standard example. An average movie at a movie theater (say, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, which I’ve reviewed here) runs at 24 frames a second. That’s the standard for films, and it’s been so for decades. But there was one movie that tried to buck that trend, back in 2012. Can you remember what it was?

The knight on the left moves at 30 frames per second, while the knight on the right moves at 60.

That’s right; it was “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which ran at many theaters at 48 frames per second. As a result, the film felt a lot smoother. This made a lot of people very uncomfortable; after all, movies have been at half that frame rate for a really long time now, so they weren’t used to it. It felt like a making-of documentary, or something on the Discovery Channel, since many of those shows run at that frame rate.

Video game enthusiasts have it a bit more complicated. Back in the eighties and early nineties, many games ran at 60 frames per second, which was the standard. But now, after the advent of 3D graphics and prettier games like “The Witcher 3” (which I’ve also reviewed here), most modern, big-budget games run at 30 frames per second, which eases up some of the game system’s processing power and allows developers to use it to make their games prettier and shinier.

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And in my humble opinion, it’s time to do away with lower frame rates.

Many will argue that the human eye can’t see past 30 frames per second, and that’s not entirely true. There are some people that can’t see past that, but most people can see well and far in advance of that. Professional baseball players perceive reality at a blistering frame rate that is far higher than most people can see, which is required to play the game efficiently.

Like every other aspect of biology, this is an area where we’re all different. Every eye has a different frame rate threshold, and most scientists call this phenomenon flicker fusion. But I think it’s a fair assessment that when it comes to entertainment that’s viewed on a screen, like a movie or video game, most people can see well past 60 frames a second.

Many TV manufacturers and filmmakers have boasted about technological feats like 3D and 4K resolutions that either makes pictures more detailed or gives them depth. I think we all know by now that 3D is a gimmick, useful only for films that cater to it. And while 4K TVs will dominate in the future, many people can’t tell the difference between it and existing resolutions. Increasing the frame rate of movies, however, will result in a difference that the human eye will definitely pick up, and it requires nothing more than a powerful camera that can record at that frame rate. No glasses, no expensive television; only the human eyes you already possess are necessary to watch and enjoy content at a higher frame rate.

Indeed, I picked up a monitor for my gaming PC last year that’s capable of displaying up to 144 frames a second, and it looks and feels incredible. For movies and most games, that’s excessive. But I will say this.

There’s a reason that “Call of Duty” dominates the gaming landscape today, and that reason could well be that it’s among the few games today that always runs at a smooth 60 frames per second, no matter what the platform you play it on. To go lower would render the experience so unlike “Call of Duty” that even the most dedicated fans would swear against it.

And while many people were uncomfortable seeing “The Hobbit” at 48 frames per second, I would advise those people to give it a second chance. Audiences have yet to get used to it, but I dearly hope that they do. A film at 48 frames per second contains twice the frames as a film at the standard 24, and that means more detail and much smoother motion. It is, objectively, a better experience, and while many look towards 3D and 4K as the future of film, I think this is where it’s at.

So the next time you see a movie or game claiming it runs at a higher frame rate, give it a chance. I guarantee you’ll be blown away.