High frame rates in movies are a cheap gimmick

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With the recent resounding flop of “Gemini Man,” another movie boasting impressive technical achievements failed to make much of an impact on moviegoers. Despite its groundbreaking 120 frames per second (five times the norm), the movie will likely lose more than $75 million on a nearly $240 million budget. The movie garnered a dismal 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, largely due to a “frustratingly subpar story.” Problems plagued the movie throughout its decade-long production, from its carousel of actors and directors to its multiple script rewrites. All of this comes in spite of (because of?) using 40 times as much data as a normal movie. Why? Well, maybe it’s because high frame rates are gimmicky and not truly appreciated by audiences.

Frame rates, also known as frames per second (fps), measure the number of photos shown each second in order to give the illusion of continuous movement to viewers. It’s like those little drawings drawn in the bottom corner of notebooks that look like they’re moving when you flip through the pages but on a much more precise level. Ever since the transition away from silent movies in the 1920s, the industry standard for frame rates has been 24 frames per second, well above the 10 to 12 frames per second required for the human eye to see the illusion of movement. Twenty-four fps produces a tiny amount of blur that, while very difficult to notice, contributes to a “cinematic feeling” when watching videos.

So if 24 is, has and will continue to be the norm, why deviate from this proven formula? The answer lies in the blur. When standard cameras attempt to capture high-activity movement, the blur becomes much more noticeable. This can lead to problems, especially in sports. By raising the frame rate, filmmakers can increase the crispness of their product, improving their ability to capture abrupt movements or subtle emotions. In “Gemini Man,” the high-velocity action shots come out crystal clear and close-ups of Will Smith’s face highlight even the subtlest facial expression.  

“Gemini Man” is not the first film to experiment with frame rates, as the transition from film to digital cameras has expanded this practice. “The Hobbit” trilogy did as well, albeit with only 48 fps. On the other side of the frame-rate spectrum is hand-drawn animation, which is usually 12 frames per second. Notably, “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse,” which was animated by both hand and computer, used 12 frames per second in order to magnify its distinctive cartoonish style. However, just because a cinematic feat exists does not mean that it can be implemented so easily.

“Gemini Man” is rarely ever seen in its original 120 frames per second format since only 14 theaters in the United States can show the movie at more than 60 fps due to a lack of adequate equipment. Not that you’d be missing much, as the difference between 60 and 120 fps is hardly noticeable, and, if anything, the higher frame rate could even detract from the movie. One of the biggest complaints about “The Hobbit” trilogy’s 48 fps was that the movies felt unnatural because they lacked that familiar cinematic blur. Furthermore, advanced theatrical experiences have a tendency to intimidate. 3-D, which rarely seems to work as intended, has left a bad taste in many a moviegoer’s mouth. 

Another possible reason for the commercial failure of “Gemini Man” could be that moviegoers simply are not swayed by technological achievements. Sure, when “Avatar” rolled around, people were certainly willing to flock to theaters to see such a cinematic achievement, but “Gemini Man” lacks the buzz that “Avatar” did. It probably doesn’t help that the cinematic feats of “Avatar” blow those of “Gemini Man” out of the water. 

This is fairly similar to movie soundtracks, which are also often gimmicky tricks designed to draw people into theater seats (I’m looking at you, “Don’t Call Me Angel.”). The difference between frame rates and movie soundtracks, though, is that soundtracks actually can contribute to a movie. In recent years, “Baby Driver” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” have integrated music to great success; however, in each of these scenarios, the soundtrack was prominent in not just the theatrical experience but in the plots themselves. It would be extremely difficult to somehow work a high frame rate into the story of a movie, so until that happens, frame rates will probably continue to be an expensive technical gimmick.

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