HFR is Not a Dirty Word – At Least it Shouldn’t be

High Frame Rate or HFR, especially in a cinema setting, evokes some pretty strong emotions in people from love to hate. This debate was stirred up again recently with the release of Gemini Man, a new Ang Lee film. The movie was shot in 4K 3D HDR at 120 frames per second as was his last movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk.

I had a chance to see the Dolby Cinema 2K 3D 120 fps version in London the other week– something that is nearly impossible to do in the US (only 14 theaters showed it in this format in the U.S.). China has the vast majority of theaters that can display the movie in its full glory (3D 4K 120fps HDR). While the movie was not able to be seen widely in the 120fps format, this capability may be coming to the home sooner than you think – i.e. next year. Read on.

Many may recall the high frame rate debate in cinemas began in earnest with the screening of one of the Hobbit films at 48 fps. Most viewers, including myself, did not care for this HFR experiment as it indeed had a “video” not “cinematic” look.

I also had a chance to see some clips from the Billy Lynn film at 4K 3D 120fps. I would not say it had a cinematic look but it was less objectionable in the “video look” category. But the content was also better suited to this format than the Hobbit, in my opinion. The Hobbit is a fantasy, so you don’t want it to look too real. Billy Lynn is about traumatic experiences in war. Here, Lee used the HFR to make the war scenes very real thus creating a different emotion than if it had a cinematic look – at least it did for me. However, again, many were not thrilled with the format.

I’m Now a Fan

Gemini Man builds on this experience and frankly, still has fans and critics. However, I now count myself among the fans. Much of the film does have a more conventional cinema look while other sequences do not. In particular, the motorcycle chase scene does not have any of the motion blur or judder one would expect in fast-paced action scenes. This realism made these scenes more visceral and frightening in my opinion – without a video look. Critics thought the realism took you out of the movie, making everything look phony.

Viewers have a keen sense of when a movie scene “looks like video.” But what is it that we are seeing that makes us feel this way? For the most part, we are noticing a reduction in motion blur. Displaying five unique frames in the same time you would normally display one frame means everything sharpens up. But it gets even more complex once you go to HDR capture as well where judder (flashing at high contrast edges) becomes far more visible as well.

gemini man pic

Gemini Man and Billy Lynn both used a motion processing technology developed by RealD. This technology requires capture at 120fps but allows for the creation of any look by blending images to create lower frame rate looks and creating custom shaped shutter angle profiles (not simply a square shaped 180-degree one typically used in capture). Lee also likes HFR for 3D which creates a much better image – which I agree with.

Last week I met with PixelWorks which is working on its own motion processing technology, called TrueCut. They have spent the last two years working closely with cinematographers – the toughest critics of HFR – to develop a new platform for capturing, mastering, authoring, distributing and displaying content in HFR to cinemas and homes. So far they have used the technology on 4 or 5 films that have been released in China, but they have big plans to roll the technology out to consumers and Hollywood studios and post houses.

I plan to write a white paper on this platform soon as there is a lot to explain. I am excited about this new platform because it is not as restrictive in the 120fps capture and has been developed with a lot of input from professionals. HFR is different than motion smoothing which is what a TV does to create 60fps content from 24fps sources – and which can definitely have a cheesy video look when applied to theatrical content. This has prompted the introduction of “filmmaker mode” into some TVs, which I am not a fan of because of the higher visibility of judder in any HDR content.

Further, HFR got some pushback recently from James Cameron, who said he no longer intends to distribute later Avatar sequels in HFR.  Despite this, motion processing in general seems to be getting a second look – and that is welcome news.

This article first appeared on Display Daily.

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