3D and/or HFR: what’s it good for? Read on…

The Hobbit film notwithstanding, I can think of lots of things that would work well in a High Frame Rate format, especially 3D HFR. For those of you who have experienced SHOWSCAN (60fps 65mm film), you know that an increased frame rate can introduce an element of realism not possible in slower frame rate formats, even in two dimensions. By increasing the realism of the medium, it’s important to remember that you’re not telling stories in the same way anymore. The language of cinema is largely based on 24 frames per second. Our century of finesse in the format has ingrained the notion of what cinematic storytelling “should” be. Generations of filmmakers have worked within the confines of the 24fps medium and we’ve been able to benefit from many great experiences created by these ever-pioneering tinkerers of discontent while they continually bend the “rules” of cinema.

When audiences first experienced the early Georges Méliès films, what they saw was an extension of theater. The scenarios were very theatrical with actors in costumes and makeup on a stage performing to an unseen audience. The main difference at the time, was that the theater experience now had an element of magic added to it – the impossible – characters vanishing in a puff of smoke, disembodied heads floating about the stage, all rooted in theater with the enhancement of film editing and the ellipsis of time to create a unique experience which started to differentiate cinema from theater. Given Méliès experience as a magician, he was able to create a new form of magic that could only be done with film. Frame rates were barely enough to convey a sense of smooth motion, often 16 to 20 fps, and sound was not yet part of the equation. The experience of early cinema took some time for audiences to learn how to watch films. We’re still figuring it out and 24fps seems to be some sort of unwritten law.

Now let’s jump to the present situation: watching 3D is also a learned behavior. We’ve barely given audiences a chance to figure it out as few filmmakers are pioneering the medium in a way that gives them a reason to appreciate the third-dimension as something new. There are lots of 2D-versions-of-3D-stories out there, but only a tiny handful of filmmakers have even tried to advance this potentially powerful storytelling medium by showing us how we can engage an audience in a profound new way. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what 3D storytelling can portend.

I tend to equate 3D storytelling with the experience of watching live theater. We sit in a dark room as actors, sets, costumes and lights coalesce to entertain us with compelling, emotional, engaging stories. We feel connected to the performers and to the story. We sense an intimacy with the medium, even though each of us is sitting in fixed position with a fixed focal length vantage point. How does the experience of great theater transcend these seeming limitations? By carefully crafting an experience that uses all of the techniques and methods of theatrical storytelling based on years of experimenting. It’s no different for 3D or HFR. We have the ability to connect with audiences in ways previously impossible on the big screen, we just need to spend some time experimenting with what makes each of these formats unique.

Trying to tell a “traditional” cinematic story with a higher frame rate is not enough. It can be a bit too real for conveying that sense of wonder we’ve come to expect. This new realism brings us a little too close to the action – we no longer feel a connection with new characters in fantastic new worlds – we see costumes, make-up and actors, we see fake walls and prosthetics. We are suddenly aware of the role of the camera as our vantage points are violently shifted before us without our consent. We’re seeing a bit too much. We’ve gotten to the point in cinema where the editing cadence seems to be dictated by an over-caffienated one-armed maraca player in a salsa band. Close-ups look great on the director’s iPad on-set, and ridiculous on the big screen. Spastic camera motion, narrow shutter angles, and an underlying impatience with the process of study, rehearsal, and creative intent seem to be de rigueur. Technique seems more important than story. Filmmaking has largely become an editing exercise – shoot lots and lots of stuff and figure out how it all fits together later in the comfort of the editing suite. Now is the perfect time to explore new ways to excite audiences (again).

Wouldn’t it be novel to slow down a bit and let the message come through the medium rather than the other way around? Interestingly, I believe 3D HFR can do that (and more!).