What is… HFR (High Frame Rate)?

Peter jackson & Martin Freeman on set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe ‘What is…?’ feature has been away for a little longer than intended, but it’s back and will be taking a little look at the rather hot topic of high frame rate (HFR).

A lot of the buzz surrounding Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was not about Bilbo or a massive dragon, but rather about the fact that it marked the first time a mainstream movie was filmed and projected in HFR of 48 frames per second rather than the industry standard 24 frames per second (fps).

First, a little background regarding frame rate.

Films are technically still how made how they were over 100 years ago when cinema was invented. They are a series of still images played quickly in a sequence to fool us into thinking they are moving. Each one of those images is a frame and the frame rate (measured as frames per second) is how quickly they are filmed and projected to be seen by our eager faces (if I have this drastically wrong, then please someone point it out!). There was much playing around with frame rates until it was decided that 24 fps would be the industry standard as it was the lowest possible frame rate to produce smooth motion without having to use the longer reels of film needed for higher frame rates. Anything filmed and projected higher than 24 fps is considered HFR.

Shooting at a higher frame rate reduces the motion blur and adds a greater sharpness to the images, allegedly giving a more accurate representation of real life, compared to the cinematic ‘look’ of 24 fps. This is because the viewer is seeing twice as many frames per second, meaning the eyes and brain have fewer gaps to fill in in between frames. This is also the case when watching a HFR film in 3D, producing clearer images and reducing the blur and strobing that can occur.

Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is considered the first film to be filmed in HFR, this isn’t the case. Films Oklahoma (1955) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) are technically considered HFR, being filmed and projected at 30 fps. The first IMAX HD film, Momentum, was shot and projected at 48 fps, whilst special effects experts Douglas Trumbull devised a new film format called Showscan which operated 60 fps.

However, it was indeed Peter Jackson and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, released in December 2012, that brought HFR into mainstream cinema. Jackson has been very vocal in his support for HFR, suggesting that this is where the future of cinema is heading, stating: “HFR 3D is “different” — it won’t feel like the movies you’re used to seeing, in much the same way as the first CDs didn’t sound like vinyl records. We live in an age when cinemas are competing with iPads and home entertainment systems. I think it’s critical that filmmakers employ current technology to increase the immersive, spectacular experience that cinema should provide. It’s an exciting time to be going to the movies.

Despite Jackson’s enthusiasm, reaction to HFR has been mixed. Whilst some have said it allows for a much more immersive experience, many have countered by saying it removes their suspension of disbelief and that everything looks too ‘real’. Some have complained it looks like on-set behind-the-scenes footage or a TV production. Other filmmakers clearly believe in its worth, with James Cameron apparently intending to use it for his Avatar sequels, whilst Andy Serkis will use it for his adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

This has merely been an overview of HFR; the topic is incredibly detailed and way beyond my brain power. You can go into minute detail about light levels and the ins and outs of the cameras used, but I’d be lying to you (and myself) if I said I understood any of that. There are couple of interesting pieces of further reading here and here, though, should you fancy delving deeper into the HFR rabbit hole.

What are your thoughts on HFR? Is it the future of cinema or is Peter Jackson flogging a dead hobbit?

More entries in the ‘What is…?’ series can be found here.

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32 thoughts on “What is… HFR (High Frame Rate)?

  1. keith7198 says:

    I never saw The Hobbit in this format but I heard some mixed opinions on HFR.

  2. I loved it. I loved the added realism… I dont think people were ready for that though, it reminded them of watching a play. LOL. But to me, isnt that what its supposed to be about? Shouldnt things look as real as possible on screen?

    I hope more movies go HFR, but the way The Hobbit got kicked around, who knows…

    • I think it’ll take a couple more movies in HFR to discover whether it’ll take off. I don’t think it will. I think there may be a select few who use it but I think the majority will steer clear, a bit like 3D.
      I thought it looked good at times and added to the clarity of the picture, but the movements looked unnaturally fast at times and I thought it cheapened the look of some of the CGI.

    • ianthecool says:

      I don’t know Fogs. Shouldn’t movies have a little distance from reality, as all art does?

  3. ckckred says:

    I haven’t seen HFR, but I’ve heard mixed thoughts on it.

  4. Hunter says:

    I didn’t actually see The Hobbit, but I heard a lot of people talking about it of course and the HFR. Thanks for the clarification. I had a feeling that’s basically what it was but I couldn’t be bothered with actually looking it up so thanks!
    And are there really going to be Avatar sequels? Awww….

    • Haha, afraid so! And it is sequelS – plural. Not sure how many yet but a good few at least, I think. Whether James Cameron will still be alive when they come out will be a different matter, considering how long Avatar took!
      And glad I could help clarify things! 🙂

  5. Brian says:

    I thought the HFR Hobbit looked great. There was much less motion blur involved with the 3D and everything was much more “there.” I really didn’t get the “soap opera” feeling that people were complaining about.

    • I did in places but wasn’t too bothered about it for the most part. It definitely made the 3D a lot clearer, which was one of the biggest advantages for me. I would definitely want to see a few more films in HFR before I say yay or nay.

  6. johnlink00 says:

    Working in the movie theater industry, I can say that a couple of factors have kept HFR from becoming prevalent. First, the mixed reception has operators hesitating on showing films in HFR. Secondly, with 3D also having a mixed reaction and many people choosing 2D over 3D, theaters would, conceivably have to have four screens of a movie with a 2D SFR, a 2D HFR, a 3D SFR, and a 3D HFR. Now, of course, you could nix, say, the 3D SFR. But some average consumers are already confused (believe it or not) with 2D/3D. Adding another layer, especially if a studio forces you to run a clean print of 3DHFR (meaning that given screen cannot show anything but 3DHFR), it limits the theaters flexibility in creating a schedule.
    All of this would be stomached if much of the industry hadn’t just spent a boatload of money to upgrade to digital cinema, then spent another (albeit smaller) boatload to update those same projectors to 3D. Converting those projectors to show HFR is yet another expensive upgrade, so many operators are going to wait and see how it plays out before diving in. Some of the big chains, like Showcase, have put it into some of their high-end theaters. And, of course, the big markets are getting it first (partly because the studios are helping pay for some of that in an effort to jumpstart the format).
    As for me, I haven’t seen it yet. I would like to. I hope my theater converts at least one screen so that we can offer it to our customers.
    Great article!

    • Thanks John! And thanks for some insight into how it works in the cinemas. I didn’t realise it was such a ball ache for cinemas, particularly with the clean print you mentioned, I had absolutely no idea that happened. What would they want a screen to not show anything else?
      I definitely think it offers customers more choice but I think there is such a thing as too much choice as well. I can’t see it becoming the norm any time soon to be honest.

      • johnlink00 says:

        Say you have 16 theaters. Studios are fighting for their movies to be in those theaters. You book everything for the week, with 15 theaters being taken up with new, or nearly new content, and have one screen left. The studio wants their new stuff to have more shows, so they will say “You can have one extra print, but you have to play it clean, you can’t split it with something old.” In practical terms this really means you have to have a certain number of shows (usually five for an average length movie), so if you were creative you could spread those shows out over several screens to try and sneak in extra shows of other things. Most theaters don’t get into this practice because you risk confusion (we do it because we have a strong projection team and we scratch for every show we can).

        This was the common practice when there actually were physical ‘prints’ of films, which studios had a certain number of (usually 1500-4000 depending on the size of the release), had to pay to produce, and wanted to make sure not to waste their prints. Now that everything is digital, it really does not need to be that way. But the studios maintain that system as a way in trying to strong-arm theaters into ditching old stuff for new stuff. For example, a studio will often tell us that we can’t run a 2D print of a given film unless we run a 3D print clean. We have to do this, giving the 3D print its five shows, even though we know the 3D print will undersell the 2D print drastically at our location.

      • That’s really interesting and I had no idea it was quite as in-depth as that. Naively, I thought that it was up to the cinema how it showed it, but I guess the studio has pretty much complete control over everything. It must be pretty interesting to see how it all works. It’s a bit of a dream of mine to own a small cinema, bet it’s a logistical nightmare at times though!

  7. filmhipster says:

    People would get used to it if everyone employed it….I prefer it but most people think it looks too real.

    • That is very true, people would get used to it. It’s just completely out of the ordinary at the moment. I don’t know if you can put HFR onto a Blu-ray or anything, so it could well be a case of it being a cinema-only experience.

  8. mettelray says:

    Interesting! I was actually thinking of a feature that would have kind of the similar idea as is “what is” but there’s never too much educating when it comes to movies. 😀

    • There certainly isn’t! There’s so much to learn that you could have a blog dedicated just to something like that. I’ve already learned loads I didn’t know so I would recommend it if just to learn a little something yourself.

  9. Popcorn Nights says:

    Interesting article, thanks for explaining this. Was there a choice between seeing The Hobbit in 24 fps and 48 fps in the end or have I got the wrong end of the stick? I thought I saw it in bog standard 24 fps frame rate 2D, but I may well be mistaken, and could have been watching the higher frame rate without realising. If it was 48 fps it looked good to me.

    • Yeah most cinemas gave viewers a choice of how they saw it, which was likely a little overwhelming for the less seasoned cinema-goer. If I’m right, you could see it in 2D 24fps, regular 3D, and 3D 48 fps. Some cinemas also showed it in IMAX 3D 48fps. Not all cinemas had all those options I don’t think though. It’s a bloody minefield!

      • Popcorn Nights says:

        Ah okay, thanks for explaining! I thought the version I saw looked ‘normal’. Well, as normal as a couple of hours’ worth of giant flying dragons, underground goblins, elves and dwarves can look, anyway.

  10. ianthecool says:

    Its interesting that he compares it to CDs and vinyl, since its commonly known that vinyl sounds better.

    • I don’t know whether vinyl sounds better but a lot of people do prefer it. I’m guessing Jackson was referring to the clarity of the two formats, and the change from one to the other. I’m too young to really remember the shift but I’m guessing a lot of people were really against it but eventually came round to CDs once they got used to them and he’s probably hoping the same happens with HFR.

  11. Mark Walker says:

    Great to see this series return Chris. Very useful info as always. Nice one man.

  12. ruth says:

    Insightful post Chris, well done! I actually don’t mind HFR, but maybe ’cause I like the universe of The Hobbit that I’m not as picky about things. Yes it’s perhaps too crisp but I actually appreciate that level of detail. I don’t mind more movies being served in this way, better than 3D as we don’t have to pay extra.

    • Thanks very much Ruth! I’m sure they’d find a reason why we needed to pay extra 😉
      I think the level of detail it provides is excellent but I’d like to see it in a film that wasn’t so CGI-heavy as it does make the CGI look a little less real. I want to see a couple more films in HFR before I definitely say I do or don’t like it.

  13. sati says:

    I really liked the way they did it in the Hobbit but it took some time to adjust myself to it – through the first 10 minutes I had to hold on to my chair because everything was moving so fast 😛

    • It definitely took a bit of time to adapt, I actually thought it was being projected too fast in error to start with. And it does definitely change the way things looks when the action moves faster. Apparently some people complained of motion sickness during the film at times. Think that’s a little over the top myself!

  14. “is Peter Jackson flogging a dead hobbit?” LOL

    Great article, man. My reaction to the HFR in The Hobbit was a bit mixed. I thought it looked great most of the time but often the movement was too swift and fluid and looked weird.

    • Cheers mate 🙂 Yeah I’m totally with you, I thought at times it looks really clear and crisp but other times it just looked strange and didn’t work. Maybe once directors work out how to get the most out of it then it’ll improve.

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