Is HFR the future of blockbuster cinema?

Avatar: The Way of Water is the latest film to utilise this tricky technology, which aims to bring audiences even closer to the action they see on screen.


Ben Schwartz


After years of false starts, high frame rate (HFR) cinema may have finally reached its tipping point. In Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron makes shot-to-shot changes between standard and high frame rates depending upon the action on screen. HFR, by lessening the disparity of both time and movement between consecutive frames, reduces motion blur and strobing, thereby producing imagery of increased sharpness and verisimilitude. This is particularly useful for 3D movies, which often struggle with smeary, stuttering images, a noted cause of eye strain.

The story of high frame rate predates the modern 3D boom. It begins with the late visual effects titan and director Douglas Trumbull, who spent much of his career dreaming of a new kind of cinema, one that broke free from the limitations of 24 fps (frames per second). As Trumbull recognized, the 24 fps standard wasn’t derived from some perceptual or cognitive imperative. Rather, it was simple economics.

With the advent of synchronous sound in the late 1920s, an optical track was added to film strips for audio playback. Studios, ever focused on keeping costs low, realized that 24 fps was the bare minimum required for comprehensible sound. Just like that, a standard was born – one that has held firm for nearly a century.

Doug Trumbull’s first innovation in the field of HFR was his Showscan process of the late 1970s and early 1980s. By utilizing 70mm film at 60 fps, Showscan produced images that were, according to the late Roger Ebert, “so incredibly high in quality that the screen seemed to be a transparent window revealing an actual image.”

Trumbull attempted to take Showscan into the production of his feature film Brainstorm, a science-fiction thriller about a proto-VR contraption that can record and play back dreams and thoughts. Trumbull envisaged it as the first variable frame rate film, with shifts from 24 to 60 fps for the virtual reality sequences. But Brainstorm was plagued with problems, climaxing with co-star Natalie Wood’s death during a break in production. Trumbull, financially constrained and facing resistance from his studio, ultimately scuttled the use of HFR.

Traumatized by the experience, Trumbull fled Hollywood and retreated to the mountains of southwestern Massachusetts to focus on the creation of immersive live entertainment and advanced imaging processes. In his later years, he developed a high-frame-rate 3D process called MAGI. It utilized a pair of 4K cameras, each running at 60 fps. But where the shutters of 3D camera pairs are typically synchronous, Trumbull’s cameras operated in opposing sync; when one shutter was closed, the other was open, producing a whopping 120 fps in total. The result was the most lifelike images yet seen.

Taking a cue from Trumbull’s pioneering work, 120 fps 3D was bravely adopted by Ang Lee on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man. On Life Of Pi, his first 3D film, Lee had struggled with motion blur aboard the bobbing lifeboat in which much of the story takes place. HFR provided the fix — action scenes come alive at 120 fps, with the added sharpness producing an invigorating sense of presence and dynamism.

The climatic firefight of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ends with a brutal hand-to-hand fight to the death — as seen in HFR 3D, it’s truly one of the most visceral on-screen depictions of contemporary frontline combat. Gemini Man’s set pieces, including the opening high speed train sniper scene and the motorcycle chase through the streets of Cartagena, contain an abundance of fast lateral motion. HFR eliminates the blur that would have presented at 24 fps. The effect is thrilling.

Lee wasn’t the first A-list director to experiment with HFR. Several years prior, Peter Jackson had utilized it on The Hobbit trilogy. With the stated goal of reducing eye strain and improving viewer comfort, The Hobbit was shot at 48 fps, but the process was still experimental and unproven, and the end result was widely panned. The transportive splendor of Lord Of The Rings was replaced with a grubby live video sheen. Props and sets looked cheap. Performances felt artificial. Even the visual effects were diminished. The very idea of HFR has struggled against this association ever since.

Enter James Cameron. If anyone was going to crack the code of HFR, it’s Cameron, arguably the supreme technician of contemporary filmmaking. “High frame rate is a tool, not a format,” he said in 2016. Avatar: The Way of Water is shot and projected at a base frame rate of 48 fps, but it alternates between standard and high frame rates throughout the film. 24 fps, achieved through the neat trick of frame doubling, is reserved for relatively static shots. HFR pops up during shots with rapid motion and, perhaps most effectively, during the film’s many stunning underwater sequences. The crystalline clarity of Pandora’s oceans and HFR are a perfect marriage of content and form.

But the choice of frame rate wasn’t strictly binary between 24 and 48. Cameron selectively utilized post-production software called TrueCut Motion to fine tune the HFR effect. This “motion grading” gives the filmmaker granular control over judder, motion blur, and speed; a wide range of motion effects can be created. Pixelworks — the makers of TrueCut Motion — shy away from the term “variable frame rate,” preferring “cinematic high frame rate” instead. EVP of Technology Richard Miller foresees a much wider application of HFR beyond high-end 3D. “We can give all filmmakers the ability to control the motion look in every aspect,” he says, “and then deliver it to the myriad screens, devices, and formats that now exist, ensuring a consistent look across each.”

Without a doubt, the imagery of Avatar will be perceived as jarring by many. The effect of HFR upon the viewer remains the subject of debate; its naysayers decry the image texture it produces, comparing it to the much-hated motion smoothing of modern televisions. It’s a difficult criticism to dismiss. Preference for 24 fps is profoundly ingrained, almost pre-conscious; it’s the only cinematic frame rate we’ve ever really known. Avatar’s lifelike imagery will pose a challenge to some deeply rooted viewer biases. If cinematic high frame rate is to truly become a thing, it will need to find an audience open to engaging with its innovations.

Published 21 Dec 2022

Tags: Avatar: The Way of Water HFR

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