Why Frame Rates Are a Bigger Deal Than You Think

Ever watch a classic film and think, “This is how a movie should look. Nice framing, perfect lighting, this feels… right.” And then do you ever watch a soap opera and think, “Yeah, this just feels kind of off, but I can deal with it.” And then more recently did you happen to see a newer movie on your TV and think, “Yeah, this feels really, really weird.”

Well, if you’re anything like me, then you probably said some very similar things to yourself. The reason is not because you and I are the same person, but because film is designed to look and feel a certain way for a reason, and filmmakers achieve this through using a specific frame rate. In this article, I’m going to tackle the industry standard 24 frames/second (fps), 30fps, 60fps, and the new (and slightly weird) 48fps so that you can better understand how to choose the correct frame rate for your project.

What is “Frame Rate,” Anyway?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty opinions and facts, you should know that frame rate is. Frame rate is the number of times a picture flashes on screen in one second. Back in the old days (and occasionally nowadays), you had film reels. On those film reels were thousands individual pictures with gradual changes from one picture to the next. When these pictures were flashed on screen quickly, one after another, it replicated the idea of motion, giving us “motion pictures.”

But in reality, there is no such thing as a moving picture (despite what Harry Potter says). It’s really only a sequential “flipbook” of pictures to make a subject have motion. So, if my frame rate is 24fps, then we are seeing 24 individual pictures in one second, and through rapid successions we get motion. Make sense? Cool.

24fps – The Hollywood Standard

This is what tends to look and feel right for a film. 24fps has been the industry standard for years because of its ability to look aesthetically pleasing while also suspending us from the universe we are watching. Effectively, 24fps makes it feel like a film instead of reality, and most people actually prefer it that way.

The reason 24fps feels right to most people is simple – It’s slower than the rate our eyes naturally perceive things. This is where the most recent debate has sparked. Some filmmakers believe that other frame rates should be used to allow for greater detail intake. While this is true, it’s also not quite how we actually see things with our own eyes.

To understand what I mean, swivel your head left to right really fast. In my case, there is a giant surfboard in front of me on my wall, a giant tiki head, and a TV (I know, sick interior design skills). Now, when I shake my head, everything in between these items and the items themselves have a motion blur. This is the same phenomenon that we see in films. However, when you increase the frame rate,the motion blur fades and the details on screen become more apparent. The images are visually enriched, but in a way that’s unrealistic. Because of this, 24fps has been the standard for film and without this frame rate, a movie just doesn’t quite feel like a movie.

23.98fps – Isn’t that, like, 24fps, man?

I should also mention another common frame rate – 23.98. You may have noticed on certain cameras or video editing tools that there are separate options for 24fps vs. 23.98. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, you can know that 23.98 (23.976 if you want to get extra technical) is a video speed more friendly to broadcast TV. But, the main point here is that 24fps and 23.98 are not the same things.

If you try to sync them up, you’ll notice that 2 frames will be dropped every minute. And after a whole feature, you can imagine how audio, if recorded for a 24fps length, could get way off. The result is similar to bad dubbing you may have seen in old Japanese films. You know, when the guy moves his mouth, we hear nothing, and then a few seconds later we hear an apparition yell something that was supposedly him. To avoid that and other messes in your video productions, be sure to never assume 24 and 23.98 are interchangeable. Pick one, and stay consistent throughout.

30fps – The Industry “Back up”

While 30fps may not be the most recognizable frame rate, it is the most widely used. Reality shows, soap operas, and most other non-cinema footage is shot with this setting. It works well for those forms of media, but it also makes a world of a difference. But Dito, how can adding only 6 frames/second really change that much?

Let’s take a look back at my head swiveling example. Do it again (or just try and remember what you saw the first time). You most closely saw this 30fps frame rate, and that’s the beauty of this setting – it most closely mimics our actual eyesight, which is weird. You would think that something close to how we see it in real life is how we would want film to look, but that’s actually not the case. Taking in less details, even if it’s a difference of only six frames, is what’s needed to suspend us from the world we are watching. In other words, it subconsciously reminds us we’re watching a movie, not real life.

So, when you watch scripted television or film, you’ll see that they usually stick to 24fps. But for reality shows like “The Real World,” or homemade videos, they often use 30fps for the sake of being, well, real. So if you’re looking to capture the reality TV look or even have a Blair Witch Project effect, this might work well for you. Just be careful a film snob doesn’t recognize the seemingly minute difference.

48fps – Let’s Get Weird

For me, “weird” is the best way I can put it. For others, this is a new, innovative vision of film. Take it back to Thomas Edison and he would even agree with those types of people. He believed film needed to be shown with as high of a frame rate as possible. But if you saw The Hobbit, Beowulf, or watched any movie with the “smooth motion” setting on your TV recently, it might have felt like the film was a hybrid between a soap opera and an uncanny horror flick. Video with this many frames per second feels unsettlingly caught somewhere between fiction and reality. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “uncanny valley.”

The uncanny valley is a term to describe when animated characters or robots feel too real. They talk, walk, and act like humans. They even express emotions. But because they lack an actual human identity, they come off feeling creepy to most people. This is similar to the effect of 48fps footage.

So once again, think back to my swivel example. Only this time, try to imagine every detail in between the swivel. Really, you can’t. But that’s what 48fps is trying to do for you – by showing you more pictures per second, motion blur is basically eliminated. The idea behind this is to provide full, vivid detail.

And while this may sound compelling, with most things it just comes off as weird. This might explain why your new TV makes everything feel like you’re watching a soap opera. It’s called smooth motion technology, the goal of which is to give video on your TV more detail. But, more detail means more frames and less realistic blurring. And the result is usually unfavorable. But then again, it may just take some getting used to. Apparently James Cameron thinks it’ll be perfect for some famous sequels he has in the works.

60fps – Woooooooaaaaaaahhhhhhh (say it in a slow motion voice)

Lastly, we come to 60fps. A very practical frame rate for slow motion and high-velocity shots. Whether it’s a Bugatti zooming across the screen or a close-up of someone slicing salmon oh so gracefully, 60fps is perfect to really crank up the slow-mo and bring attention to a moment in time.

At the same time, this setting is really just a pre-set. Even when you shoot something in 60fps, the point of this frame rate is almost always to conform it to either 23.98, 24, or 30fps. The most common use of this technique is in sports. Even though sports are usually shown in 30fps, they shoot them in 60fps to get those sick slow motion replays. If you plan to shoot something fast or slow it down in post production, this is the setting for you.

So, which frame rate should I use?

You can rarely go wrong with 24fps. But ideally, you can choose the frame rate that best fits your specific form of media: 24fps for film, 30fps for “reality” shots, 48fps if you like a weird/futuristic feel, and 60fps for that oh-so-sweet slow-mo. Once you understand those rules, maybe try breaking them. It happens to work from time to time.