Out of the Shire, into the Uncanny Valley
Can a movie be too real?
Some hate it. Some love it. Still, many are calling it the future of cinema: high frame rate films—most recently demonstrated in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Traditionally, an average movie is filmed at 24 frames per second; for every second that passes 24 still images are exposed to the audience, giving the appearance of a continuous motion similar to real life. Jackson filmed The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, allowing for the inclusion of twice as much visual information and detail.
Most viewers are content to assume that the new high frame rate simply takes some “getting used to.” But these supporters fail to consider the fundamental biological rule that may permanently prevent us from ever fully accepting this novel film technique. Hypothesized by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley” principle states that as the appearance of an image is made more human, a human observer’s emotional response to that image will become increasingly accepting, but only until a certain point is reached. Beyond that point, the human brain becomes uncomfortably suspicious of the image’s imitation of reality and rejects it.
So how does this apply to film? A pair of human eyes relays 66 frames per second to the brain—far more detail than what Jackson included. However, the brain efficiently reduces this visual information into a collection of roughly 40 “moments” processed per second. Now, a film that plays at 24 frames per second is significantly less detailed than what our brain is used to seeing. Because of this, our subconscious knows that the image is fake and thus is comfortable with suspending its disbelief and engaging in the story.
Director James Kerwin emphasizes, “It’s psychological: we need suspension of disbelief [to enjoy works of fiction], and suspension of disbelief comes from the lower frame rate. The lower frame rate allows our brains to say, Okay — I’m only perceiving 24, or 30, and therefore this is not real and I can accept the artificial conventions of the acting and the lighting and the props. It’s the way we accept cinema.”
However, it would seem that 48 frames per second is so hyper-realistic that our brain, knowing the film to be fake, rejects its attempt to mimic reality and thus becomes oversensitive— it analyses each frame for errors in an attempt to maintain a coherently distinction between the real world and the false one.
“We’re always going to associate high frame rates with something that’s not acted,” Kerwin maintains, “It’s not learned behavior. It’s an inherent part of the way our brains see things.”
It’s something I’d encourage each of you to test for yourself, because a lot of it is subjective. We’ve never seen a battlefield of orcs in real life so, because we have nothing to compare it to, we are able to accept this particular scene even at 48 frames per second. But after logging countless hours in Starbucks, when we see Bilbo sip a cup of tea our brains perk up and scream, “Fake!” Of course, I’ve never seen an albino orc with a hook for an arm, but I didn’t exactly accept that one either…