How 48FPS Will Wall Off Cinema History

A High Frame Rate future could render 100 years of movie history virtually unwatchable.

This weekend Peter Jackson did an introduction before a 48fps screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Austin. He said that some people would love the high frame rate and that some would hate it. He explained why he loved it so much, and he said that after spending hundreds of hours watching HFR video, he found 24fps strange and strobing.

That was when I realized that 48fps was going to be a giant wall erected across the history of cinema, locking away 100 years of film from future generations.

For the last few decades it’s been tough getting younger film fans to watch black and white movies. People raised on color films have an almost automatic reaction to black and white as old fashioned and archaic. Forget silent movies - almost nobody watches silent film for fun anymore. And those are just the big technical changes in film history - anyone showing a pre-1980s movie to people of a certain age will find them recoiling against the pacing and camerawork; other younger viewers are repelled by the pre-Method style of acting in colorful 1940s and 50s films.

Each generation falls away from the film history of previous generations. It’s a natural thing. But a generation raised on HFR movies will have the same reaction Peter Jackson does to ‘low frame rate’ movies - they’ll find the viewing uncomfortable, the action choppy and the movie, in general, unwatchable. We’re going to have a generation who finds watching Star Wars homework the same way 90% of modern audiences find watching silent films homework.

In the event of total HFR dominance, some ‘low frame rate’ movies will be upconverted (just as modern TVs upconvert using TruMotion or other horrible settings), but the future audience will likely look at this like colorization - it still won’t be ‘correct’ to their eyes.

I’m not stupid - older movies are always a tough sell to new generations. The films of the 80s and 90s look impossibly dated to kids born after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. But widespread adoption of HFR is only going to make that divide much more serious, much deeper. There are older films like The Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia that, even when seen with modern sensibilities, work for modern audiences. Imagine a future where it isn’t just the aesthetics that alienate, but the very presentation format. It seems to me that such a future is one with a very clear dividing line, as clear as the division between silents and talkies - on one side are the movies people see, and on the other side is 100-plus years of cinema history.

After Jackson talked and after The Hobbit ran, a slew of 35mm played. I found the images on the 35mm prints to be gorgeous and rich, and the movement to be pleasing. But I imagined Peter Jackson sitting in the audience, moaning about the strobing effect in White Heat, and I saw the future.