48fps: The Ultimate Battle Of Art vs Tech

Cinema has always been about a tension between art and technology, with art in the lead. That has changed now, and technology holds the leash. That's a bad thing.

I traveled to Las Vegas for CinemaCon because I knew I had to see what 48 frames per second looked like with my own eyes. It was vital for me to understand it, because no matter what 48fps was going to be a thing, and I wanted to know what kind of a thing it was.

I thought it was a bad thing. You’ve likely read my initial response to seeing The Hobbit at 48fps; that initial response rocketed around the web, getting quoted everywhere and bringing server-crushing amounts of  traffic to the site. My opinion stirred up a lot of discussion, and I tried to read as much of it as possible, checking out the comment threads of sites that had linked to us.

What I saw was something interesting. I saw the usual people arguing back and forth - despite many of them never having seen true 48fps projected - but what drew my attention was the fact that the people who were pro-48fps tended to fall into a large, generalized category: technical minded people, often gamers. They were aggressively forward thinking; anything ‘new’ was good, and everything ‘old’ was bad.

But there was an even stranger subset of those people - people who actively complained about watching 24fps movies. This wasn’t just one guy on one board; I saw dozens upon dozens of people complaining about ‘unwatchable’ 24fps, ‘stuttering’ movies and frame rates that essentially raped their eyes. I was really taken aback by this - who are these people? Have there always been, for the past 70 years of 24fps movies, people whose eyes are mortally offended by the flicker I find so comforting, so sweet, so magical?

I suspect not, but we’ll never know (my belief is that these people are explicitly not film people, and they use their screens for the internet and video games, which often run at 60fps). The big takeaway, after reading all of these comments (and I read hundreds upon hundreds) is that the debate between 24fps and 48fps can be essentially summed up by two warring sides:

Art vs tech.

The technically minded people want the next thing. They want fidelity, clarity and hyper-realism. They want the technology pushed to the edge, and then pushed some more. The reality of what they’re experiencing, be it sound or vision, is paramount. They want full, complete immersion. These people won’t be happy until they get a holodeck.

The artistically minded people are, in this case, more conservative. “If it ain’t broke...” they say, and they don’t think it’s broke. In fact, not only is it not broke, it’s already great. Cinema for them is a world of exquisite falseness made real by the shared dreaming that goes on in a movie theater. They don’t need explicit realism. They love suspension of disbelief.

And that’s the divide. The tech people want to be fooled, to be totally and completely conned by the images they see. They can’t help but pick apart every out of place pixel and flaw in the film. But the art types, they meet the movie halfway. Defects are part of the perfection, a contradiction the technical people can never understand.

The tension between art and tech has always been part of the history of movies, just like the tension between art and business. But now we’ve entered a strange new era in film, one where art has taken an explicit back seat to both tech and business. We’ve been dealing with the fact that business has outmuscled art since Star Wars, and at this point we’re all experiencing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome that makes us go see these terrible blockbusters no matter what.

But I feel like for the first time tech has outmuscled art as well; while the relationship used to be one where art turned to technology to help tell stories, now technology is its own end. James Cameron whispered in our ears ‘3D is a storytelling tool’ while he slipped something in our drinks to make us believe it. At least in that case there was a pretext of art to the whole thing; now with 48fps it’s purely about presentation, only about crispness and sharpness and technical advances. 48fps doesn’t help tell stories better.

Cinema isn’t a theme park, where the illusion of reality is everything. I don’t want Peter Jackson bringing the technology of King Kong 3D at Universal Studios - where you feel the spittle of a dinosaur and smell the bananas on Kong’s breath - into theaters. That’s carnival bullshit, not art. And carnival bullshit is great at a carnival, but nobody thinks Hamlet needs a Tilt-A-Whirl.

As all of this goes on - as business and tech conspire to make ticket prices more expensive and the theater going experience more gimmicky - the perfect compromise already exists. 3D is bullshit, and 48fps is nonsense. If Hollywood wants to get behind semi-gimmicky, theatrical-only experiences, they should get behind IMAX more. The art, the business and the tech all meet nicely in IMAX, an experience that immerses without needing to be a perfect imitation of reality - and one that earns a premium ticket price. Best of all, IMAX is an experience that can literally only be had in a theater. Home TV can never match it.

The focus on presentation, on technology, is the absolute wrong focus for cinema. Cinema’s immersive qualities come from great storytelling, not from tech trickery. Only time will truly tell, but I suspect that the imperfect tech of stop motion animation more profoundly impacted generations than CGI or modern 3D will, and it’s for one simple reason: we weren’t being immersed in it, we were immersing ourselves. You have to give yourself over to cinema, not expect it to take you away. 

I worry - and I know this is apocalyptic handwringing - that this is the end of the movies. Not that feature length entertainments will end, or even that movie theaters will go away (although they may morph into something unrecognizable, and more broad based, than what we have today). Rather I'm worried that the specific cultural spot occupied by movies is shrinking, that in an attempt to keep up with computer screens and retina displays the biggest filmmakers of our time are selling out what makes cinema special - the unreal dream of it.