Zeno’s Frame Rate

I was just recalling an animated argument I had with my dad over Winter break that I thought I might use as catalyst for discussion here.

The discussion started when my dad asked me to explain how frame rates work in film versus video, and I explained to him the qualitative difference between 24fps film and 30fps video. I explained that slow motion is achieved by “over-cranking” at a rate like 60fps and then conforming that to 24 or another similar rate. My dad inquired as to the fastest possible frame rate available, which I wasn’t sure of though I know ultra slow motion cameras can shoot at rates up to 1200fps.

My dad didn’t believe there was a difference in perception when viewing 24fps vs 30fps, which I argued was false as all it takes is attentiveness to the quality of motion to notice the varying rate. My dad posed the question “at what frame rate would human perception confuse the projected image (video or film) for actual motion?” By this of course he didn’t mean a return to people fleeing from the arriving train at the early Lumiere screenings – unable to distinguish artifice from reality. Rather in a more theoretical sense, at precisely what frame rate would film or video motion match the quality of motion we experience in human perception, to the point at which the image would somehow mirror the quality of motion experienced when the viewer for example turns and looks at his cat walking into the room. Assumed here of course is that projection apparatus would be projecting at the same rate as the footage: 1200fps at 1200fps. Also assumed is that we all experience motion perceptually in the same manner.

No doubt this is not an easy question – however my response was that it would never be possible for cinema to match our perception of motion precisely because the process of illusion of motion achieved in cinematic motion is generated in an artificial manner: our experience of time and motion is not quantitative and measurable in perception but seamless and can only be measured a posteriori, like the assumption in Zeno’s arrow paradox. When we watch an HD video shot at a 60fps rate, does the motion look any more “real” to us than 24fps? My argument was that we perceive these different frame rates in terms of their respective qualities of motion. We can’t experience quantity when we watch different frame rates, only the resultant quality of motion produced. Thus if it were ever achieved to shoot and project at 10,000 fps, no matter how “real” the image looked, there would always be some sort of nagging qualitative factor that would linger in the image, giving it an unreality. In short, increasing the number of frames-per-second doesn’t necessarily produce more reality of motion.

This seems to me to tie into our discussion of Bergsonian time and movement. It seems to me that my dad – a scientist/mathematician by trade – is concerned with motion and time in the classical conception: quantitative, measurable, spatial. He is not wrong in his logic to suppose that perhaps our experience of motion consists of an infinite quantity of “frames”, but this seems to me the same logical conundrum in Zeno’s paradox: specializing movement and time quantitatively, making them measurable in a way denied to us in our everyday perception and experience. It’s worth nothing that despite varying frame rates, if an event is captured in 20 seconds by three separate cameras, all shooting at the same rate, the footage from all three cameras projected at those same frame rates would synchronize: the object or event would not be staggered – it would only differ in quality of motion. The event would still end at 20 seconds.

I should point out that by asserting cinema’s essential illusory production that I don’t believe cinematic images to be a false quality of motion or time, just a different expression of motion, produced by an alternative generative force than our perception of non-cinematic images in movement.

Any thoughts? I’m sure there are holes in either side, but I thought this might generate discussion or thought…

– Ian


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