Leave it to Peter Jackson to experiment with our ocular health. His latest film, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," was shot in 48 frames per second, or double the standard going rate of 24 frames per second. The goal is pretty clear; by shooting with these high frame rate 3-D cameras, he hoped to deliver a smoother image to the movie-going public. Did it work? Or did it make people nauseous? Perhaps a little of both, but it certainly raises the question: Exactly how many frames per second do we see in on a daily basis? Is "The Hobbit" being too ambitious with its fancy new frame rate? Let's break it down!
The human eye is quite the instrument. Most people can distinguish a whopping ten million colors, and the amount of frames we can see per second is a feat; the estimates range as high as 1000 fps, though naturally "seeing" and "processing with the brain" are a different conversation. Anything above 200 fps seems to be (mostly) lost on a cognitive basis. The exception to that rule? When you're in a fight or flight situation and under a level of duress that causes an adrenaline rush, your eyes pull off a handy trick. They slow everything down by upping the frame rate you're capable of processing. At this point, it's believed that you can see as high as 300 frames per second under stress, which is why humans in a crisis often report, "It felt like it was happening in slow motion." You can read more about the effect here.
But let's get back to our buddy, Peter Jackson. Does his tech improve the visuals for "The Hobbit"? Er, not really. If anything, to an adult acclimated to 24 fps, the 48 fps feels like too much information. Early silent films only came in at 14 frames per second, which is why they appear herky-jerky to the human eye. We've been at 24 fps for quite some time, and though I can only comment on my personal experience with "The Hobbit," the film felt sped up, almost as if I was watching it in 1.5 time. Yes, blur has been reduced, but we're used to seeing some blur in life. Watch your dog run at the park and you don't see every detail; merely wave your hand in front of your face and you'll immediately get blur. As such, when Peter Jackson reduced blur, he also sacrificed "real life" accuracy. By using a technically advanced technique, he lost the realistic sense of the visuals we're all acclimated to processing.
Now, if he can cause a three-hour adrenaline rush while showing us the film, he'll truly be onto something big. Until then, though we're certainly capable of seeing in 48 frames per second, you probably don't want to make a habit of it.
Note: Estimates for the human capability on frame rate run the gamut. I've tried my best to consolidate the latest research, but of course there's plenty of room for disagreement. Don't take it personally if you feel you see at a higher or lower frame rate. We can still be pals.