The theater lights go down; You’ve got your popcorn, soda, and an expectation. What do you expect?
You expect to laugh, and maybe even shed a few tears while hoping no one notices. You expect forget the worries of the day and mutter, “Go! Go! Go!” at a fictional character while your heart pounds and you accidentally spill buttery popcorn on the person sitting next to you. When you go to the movies, you expect to be transported to another world and moved emotionally.
For each one of us it probably took just a few trips to the theater develop that expectation, but the cinematic experience is one that has matured into what it is over decades. Filmmakers, major studios, and theater designers alike have, through trial and error and constant experimentation, attempted to give us, from popcorn to projector screen the most compelling, immersive cinematic experience possible. So now, when we go to the theaters, we know what to expect, and we look for it. Our psyche is triggered by the scent of the popcorn, the dim lighting, and more. Our senses pick up on these triggers,we’re prepared to feel just as excited and moved as we’ve been every other time we’ve gone to the movies and seen awesome films.
We may not realize it, but one of these triggers is the look of the film itself. The vivid images of a movie on a large screen are typically delivered at 24 frames per second. So, when we see a motion trailer or feature film shown at this rate, it immediately registers as “theater experience”, and we are, once again,ready to experience something special.
But, do movies need to be shown at 24 fps?
Not necessarily. And what about a wedding film? Is it better to show a wedding film at 24 fps or, say, 30 fps, or 60?
We’d venture to say that it boils down to the experience the filmmaker hopes to give their audience.
What do we mean? Well consider the American Soap Opera.
Soap operas (or Day Time Serials as they’re sometimes called) are often delivered at 30 fps. You know, that gritty, ‘was-this-shot-with-a-video-camera?’ look. Now there may not seem to be much difference between 24 and 30 fps on paper. After all its only 6 frames right?
Well, not exactly.
When filming dramatic material, in general, images may be acquired or saved at a certain frame-rate, but the shutter is actually open for half of that time for each individual frame. For instance, drama for movies is generally filmed and delivered at 24fps, but the “shutter” is open for only half that time as each frame passes in front of the lens. That’s 1/48th of a second. If the producers of day time serials choose to follow the same rule that may be 1/60th or even 1/120th of a second!
Why is that significant? Well there’s a big perceived difference in the look, or more specifically, the motion blur, of footage with an exposure of 1/48th of a second versus 1/60th, 1/120th, or even 1/30th. It feels different.
So why so many different frame rates? Doesn’t the director of a soap want viewers to experience the same reaction that an audience in a movie theater would?
Well… not really.
Here’s where we start talking about triggers again.
You see soap operas (or day time serials) have been a staple of television since the 1950’s, and guess what frame rate old tube televisions used? If you guessed 30fps, you’re right! Later, soap operas, with their lower budgets and quick production schedules, were a perfect match for broadcast video cameras which captured the action at 30fps or 60fps. Soap operas were stories that became familiar companions to those who watched them. The characters became like family. And the world became someplace the viewers could get lost it, with its characters and conflicts, and distinct look.
So, initially there was no story-based reason for soap opera producers to deliver at 30 fps, it was simply delivered that way out of necessity as were the nightly news, and live sports. As a result that look became associated with the those visuals. In fact, while the day time serial has since be reduced to online delivery here in the states, your favorite news and sports are most likely still being delivered in either 30fps or 60fps.
As a society, the viewing experience of the news, sports, and soap operas is closely tied with the look of 30fps and 60fps- just as surely we’ve attached the slightly surreal imagery of 24fps to the cinematic experience. As a result, this is the look that tells our hearts to get ready to experience something unique, and those first few seconds of footage position our mind to take in the epic story that follows even before we know what that story is.
So, for cinematographers interested in duplicating the theater experience, the look associated with buttery popcorn, breathtaking visuals, and high production value, most times it’s advantageous to film at 24 fps as opposed to 30.
Our goal is to tell a story that draws our audience in, engages their imagination, and conveys the production value associated with a theater experience. The fastest way to do this is to speak the language that our eyes will recognize as “Time-to-get-ready-to-feel-something.” Right now, there’s little question that language is communicated in 24fps. That look is not muddied by other psychological associations. The eyes see this and immediately our minds are prepared for a cinematic experience.
Now, I say most times. 30p is tied to certain viewing experiences, and a cinematographer is conscious of this. News, sports, day time talk shows, soap operas, game shows, and sitcoms are some of those experiences. A valid question, then, for the cinematographer is: “Is that viewing experience the one I want my viewers to have?” Sometimes it is.
Of course, the entertainment industry is a progressive vehicle that’s constantly changing. Well-known filmmakers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron have begun to choose 48 fps over 24 in hopes that audiences will become used to this different take on the cinematic visual language. Many newer televisions use “motion interpolation” to make 24fps and 30fps footage look like 60fps for a “better” experience when watching sports, and many forget to turn this feature off for everything else. Because of this, the eyes of the young people are getting used to a different cinematic look. So, who’s to say that ten years from now, the use of higher framerates won’t replace 24fps?
Things change. We’ll see. But for now, 24fps works for me.