December 17, 2012

The Hobbit's high frame rate as mid-century revival

Judging from the Lord of the Rings movie that I fell asleep during, the new Hobbit movie must be a real snoozer -- blowing a kid's movie up into a hundred-hour trilogy? Jesus.

Although I won't go see it, I was interested to hear that Peter Jackson has been trying to push for a new technology in recording and displaying the movie -- capturing it at 48 frames per second, or twice the standard rate. It's actually closer to the frame rate used for TV shows. By taking twice as many snapshots per unit of time, the result is more photorealistic.

And yet by pushing photorealism too far, it winds up looking merely like TV. Here's someone's attempt to re-create the effect as accurately as possible through a YouTube video:

Now, 24 frames per second has been the industry standard since the birth of the talkie era in the late 1920s. It provides just enough of a flow of images to be convincing, yet not so much flow that it looks ordinary. It conveys that the movie is something special, like the brushstrokes of a painting.

As it turns out, there was an earlier attempt to boost the frame rate of blockbuster movies, then as now to achieve less flicker and more realism. When would you guess that was? That's right -- the 1950s. Oklahoma! (1955) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), both of which landed in the top 10 at the box office, were filmed at 30 fps when the Todd-AO process began taking the industry by storm.

They soon dropped the technology and returned to 24 fps for their subsequent hit movies like South Pacific, Cleopatra, and The Sound of Music. Based on the tepid reaction to the Hobbit's high frame rate, I assume it too will become marginal after perhaps another couple of trials.

The approach to movie-making in the mid-century might be best described as the Bombastic Ordinary. And in so many ways, movies of the past two decades have slowly revived that approach: not only taking a stab at higher frame rates, but also running times well over 2 hours, epic themes and plotlines overflowing with backstory, a long depth of field that displays too many distracting objects in clear focus, the worsening of that problem by the use of 3-D, other sensory gimmicks like vibrating the theater seats, and dull visual effects, whether the rubber suit of many a cheesy '50s sci-fi flick or the porridge-like CGI of today.

The general audience in both periods has so little appreciation for the unusual, the sacred, or the sublime that no profit-seeking movie producer would make something that stood out as visually special. It has to look as much as possible like everyday real life. And yet audiences "won't leave their homes" unless there's some kind of different experience, hence the bloated narratives, pretentious acting, and fantasy settings that don't feel tantalizingly exotic, but too remote to get truly lost in.

Our Neo-Fifties zeitgeist is easiest to see in the visual culture because it's palpable rather than abstract, and because the visual culture of the past is fairly well preserved, unlike fuzzier social trends. Those who refuse to believe that teenagers these days have such low sex drives cannot wave away how similar our movies look and feel to mid-century movies.


  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark had a lot of moments with extremely shallow depth of field. Funny how many there were in stark contrast to most movies.

    Particularly the abnormal closeups on the actors faces. It feels campy today.

    Getting close up on Harrison Ford's face makes sense. I cringe at the thought of someone like Jake in Avatar. He just isnt famous enough for that to settle with my gag reflex.

  2. Yeah, Raiders was shot during the heyday of anamorphic. I've been meaning to put together a quantitative post on the rise and fall of anamorphic lenses. The data's all there, I just need to code it.

    By now nearly all of the widescreen movies use Super 35 instead of anamorphic, so all of that striking contrast between focus and blur is gone.

  3. Yet you can't wave away the difference between even schlock like Oklahoma! and Around the World in 80 Days and Transformers 3, Twilight: Breaking Dawn and rebooted comic book movies ad infinitum.

    Neither does the list of best-selling books from the 50's include a lot of chick lit or vampire novels.

    Illicit chick lit at the end of the decade: Lady Chatterley's Lover. Today: 50 Shades of Grey, a fan fiction send-up of a teen vampire novel.

    Your cultural cycle is superimposed upon a broader civilizational decline.

  4. You should get to know the 1950s in more detail, you'll be surprised by what you find. Same with the Victorian era. Most conservatives have declared it beyond objective study, unfortunately.

    In fact, the mid-century was the most recent peak before the current period when chick lit, comic books, and monster stories were best-sellers. It's just that they were in comic book or other pulp form.

    That doesn't mean people didn't read them -- quite the opposite, they were more affordable and more widely available, so they were staples of the literary and visual culture.

    And just like today, a good number of people in their 30s were avid consumers of horror comics, butt-kicking babe comics, etc.

    I touched on the trend somewhat in this post:

    But you should really read the book I gathered that picture from -- Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830-1996 by John Springhall. It's a short easy read that also covers similar trends from Victorian England.

    Here's a fun gallery of cover art from mid-century crime comic books. Notice how similar it is to today's man-baby movies and video games, right down to the butt-kicking babe for nerd masturbation.

  5. And that's leaving aside all the schlocky material that people were eating up on radio, which was more of a cultural leader in those days than movies were.

  6. Yeah, I was about to bring that up. The most famous of those "adult comic books" from the '50s was "Tales from the Crypt"(the tv series, from the early-mid 90s, is much better)


  7. Some off-topic links:
    More Americans Are Getting Shot, But The Murder Rate Is Falling Thanks To Better Health Care
    Unfortunately the WSJ graph doesn't go back that far in time.

    Are Mass Shootings Becoming More Common in the United States?
    Short answer: if they are this year, it's not part of a secular trend.


  8. The novelties of 50's cinema were motivated by the rise of tv, which kept audiences at home. The novelties of today are motivated by an attempt to combat internet piracy.

  9. TV does not keep audiences at home. The decline in movie attendance began around the mid-'30s, compared to the Jazz Age when everybody saw at least one movie a week. And that wasn't due to the Depression, since it started too late after 1929, and continued through the economic boom of the '40s and '50s.

    Back in the '80s, we not only had TV but color TV, and a rising number had cable channels as well as the networks. Still, everybody went out to the movies.

    The same was true for video game arcades -- we went out to play video games, as well as play them at home.

    Most of the mid-century trends, other than 3D, began by the mid-'30s, such as the interminably long running times, historical epic plotlines, etc.

    Today's gimmicks cannot reflect internet piracy because they too began before the supposed cause. 3D, CGI, elimination of anamorphic lenses in favor of the Super 35 format, etc.


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