4k vs. 2k vs. HD (part 3 of 3)

April 3, 2012

More Art than Science

There is more to watching a movie than being presented with a clear picture of fully-lit objects and people in perfect focus. The audience’s involvement in the story has to be more important than any of these technical considerations.

I think there’s an audience psychology to consider. The film plays, and the story lives in the audience’s consciousness, sub-conscious and imagination. The audience participates in the film when they are left guessing. The audience is doing the “mental math” to connect the pieces together. For example:

We see a shot of a man at his desk. We hear a noise of a glass breaking. The man looks up. Next shot: a closeup of a woman at the door, horrified. She looks down at something on the ground. Next shot:  the man gets up from his desk and approaches the camera. Next shot: a wider shot of the woman and someone walks into frame…but it is not the man we have seen at the desk, it is a midget in a clown suit. Wide shot: the woman and the man in the clown suit both bend down to the ground to inspect a bloodstain on the ground. Wide shot of the man who was formerly at his desk approaches a bookshelf – he goes to a radio. We hear another sound of glass breaking. Closeup: He adjust the volume knob on the radio, and the sound of glass breaking increasing in volume.

What was happening in the above sequence is that we were making connections in our mind between the man at the desk and the woman in the doorway. Inside our mind there was a connection, although they were filmed separately, perhaps at different times, in different countries. We heard the sound of a glass breaking and we thought we were going to see that the woman had dropped a glass on the ground. We were expecting to see a broken glass. It existed in our mind but not on film. Then we realized that the man and the woman weren’t even in the same room – she’s in a room with a clown, and he’s in a room by himself. We were involved. We were making the story in our mind.

There’s something to be said for leaving things out. Whenever we filmmakers can possibly leave somthing to the audience’s imagination, we give them a chance to participate. Black and white photos are an abstraction, and engage the imagination as our mind fills in color. The grainy dark images of a horror film strain our senses, and that stress translates into involvement in what we’re seeing.

The same effect happens between every frame of film shot at 24 or 25 frames per second. We fill in the blanks. We just do it very, very unconsciously, but it means that when we watch a film, the creative center of our brain is always involved. We are fully occupied assembling strobing lights into a continuous moving image. When we double the frame rate we require half as much work from the brain. We are more “immersed” but less “involved.”

I think this might explain why there’s a big contingent of audiences that prefer traditional 2D to 3D movies. 3D is more immersive but traditional 2D requires audiences to use their imagination to perceive depth in the image. Less immersive, but more involving.

We audiences have a lifetime of psychological conditioning. When we watch the smooth motion of 60i or 50i video, we interpret everything we see as “news,” “sports” or “daytime soap opera.” When we watch the jittery motion of 24p, 25p or even 30p, we are reoriented psychologically to become receptive to a story. We are gathered around the warm glow of the flickering campfire.

I’m interested to see how audiences react when the Hobbit is released (supposedly shot at 48 frames per second). Will we even like watching a piece of fiction at the same frame rate we normally associate with basketball? Will 48fps or 50fps meet with the same audience reservations as 3D?

Alexei Berteig

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