Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cinematic Realism Considered - Part 2

Cinematic Realism Considered - Part 2

In Part 1 of CinematicRealism Considered, I discussed both ultra high definition (UHD) and high frame rate (HFR) as signaling the latest and most radical revolution in cinema technology in the last half century. These two recent advances in movie making and theatrical exhibition together with the advent of digital 3D can create a movie going experience that blurs the separation between fantasy and reality, fiction from non-fiction. Indeed the expressed purpose of these three technologies in combination is to simulate reality as closely as possible... creating cinematic realism.
To be clear, none of these advances would have been possible without the introduction and current ubiquitous status of digital filmmaking and exhibition. Digital Cinema became a disruptive technology only during the last decade, completely changing the way we think about moviemaking and removing most of the constraints that have been inherent in the use of physical film for almost a century. 

As a result, filmmakers like Peter Jackson have begun pushing the boundaries of this new medium in an attempt to dramatically change the movie going experience, proclaiming cinematic realism the future of cinema. However, to some, these changes call into question the very heart and definition of the cinematic experience.

Is There an Ideal Cinematic Experience?

Why do we go to the theater in the first place? I believe that most of us go to the theater to escape reality via visuals and audio that depict a story. But as camera, cinematic projection and screen technology continue to advance one has to wonder whether the movie going experience will continue to offer an escape from reality or is it destined to become an accurate simulation of reality framed within a story. This is an important distinction because we know from recent HFR releases that there are some movie goers who consider cinematic realism a radical if not uncomfortable departure from the familiar cinematic experience. 

The Digital Revolution in Cinema:

But lets back up a bit and put HFR in historical perspective.  In the absence of significant advances in digital camera and digital projection technology over the last decade this blog on cinematic realism would have little relevance.
Today the majority of movie theaters around the world are fully digital. In fact, digital technology has for the most part completely eliminated analog film for theatrical exhibition. This has had a profound effect on film printing and film distribution, which was the cash cow of the major film labs. Today, filmmaking and exhibition has entered a whole new era in which postproduction houses must compete with smaller, more agile finishing houses and VFX facilities must gear up with software and capex requirements to handle higher resolutions and higher frames rates. 

The 24 Frame Rate Standard:

Prior to the introduction of digital cinema and for nearly the past 90 years, the standard frame rate in the U.S. for exhibiting feature films has been 24 frames per second (fps). To the theater going audience today and in the past, the 24 fps experience is what cinema has been and what it's supposed to be.

So what is it about 24 fps that makes it so unique?  Nothing really. The 24 fps standard was an arbitrary number introduced to feature films in 1926 because it was considered the slowest film speed that could produce the illusion of smooth movement when coupled with audio while at the same time conserving the cost of film.  While 24 frames remains the current standard in digital cinema today, both analog film and digital projectors are typically double flashed or triple flashed meaning that each frame is shown twice or three times as they are projected. This is done to reduce the transition time between frames thereby mitigating flicker. So while we've always experienced 48 or 72 frames per second in the theater, only 24 frames of actual visual information has been displayed each second. I believe audiences tend to perceive today’s feature film experience as something other than reality because of the relatively low resolution that we get from 24 fps delivered in HD or 2K. This is true whether or not 3D is part of the equation. 

Deviating From The Norm:

To deviate from 24 fps can impose a different experience on the audience that may not be considered an enhancement for some films. Both HFR and UHD dramatically increase the amount of visual data delivered to our eyes and brain. High frame rate delivers more images per second, which increases the amount of visual information hitting our retinas per unit of time.  This is called 'temporal resolution' or time based resolution. Ultra high definition on the other hand increases the pixel resolution of each frame. It's going from HD at 1920 by 1080 to UHD at 3840 by 2160, which is 4 times the resolution.  It's basically the difference between a 2.07 megapixel image and an 8.29 megapixel image. This is called 'spatial resolution’.

It's our persistence of vision or the amount of time an image remains on the retina after removal of that image that melds 48 fps into a continuous visual experience with high data rate.  So if you combine higher temporal resolution with higher spatial resolution the amount of data reaching the retina goes up geometrically and when shot correctly, the screen literally appears to be approaching reality. Add quality 3D to this mix and you have a unique cinematic experience that appears to be an extension of reality.  

So it's easy to understand that 24 fps at 1920 x 1080 or 2K is, by comparison a low-resolution experience that delivers a 'dreamy' state clearly separate from reality. Some filmmakers and moviegoers will undoubtedly prefer lower resolution over UHD and HFR for some films and/or genre.  On the other hand, a variable frame rate approach might satisfy both desired experiences. HFR is most effective for wide shots and vista panoramas whereas a lower frame rate might be used for close ups and other tighter shots. Regardless of the genre of a movie, if a filmmaker uses variable frame rate creatively the movie going audience will likely to be more accepting of the enhanced visuals. 

Whether it's cinematic storytelling or cinematic realism I believe both have legitimacy in filmmaking and exhibition. It really comes down to a creative call for the filmmaker and a budgetary call for the studio.

In Part 3 of Cinematic Realism Considered we'll look at the relative contribution of 3D to the UHD and HFR equation and discuss cinematic realism within the context of the 'uncanny valley'.