Aesthetics in Motion: Frame Rate
An incomplete introduction to Frame Rate as an aesthetic tool
Frame Rate, alternatively known as Frames per Second or FPS for short (not to be confused with the common abbreviation for First Person Shooters), is at its most basic is the number still images displayed per second to give the illusion of movement. The arbitrary measurement doesn’t matter — instead it’s the different qualities each standard imbues upon a work’s aesthetic that are useful.
I’ll be using a lot of comparisons to film here, since games doesn’t have established language to talk about the aesthetics of frame rate, and film it is a similar technology focused medium that provides the closest analogues.
Film proper operates at a standard of 24 frames per second, for various reasons relating to sound and flexibility in terms of divisible factors, which is particularly useful for animation. Videogames, with exceptions, target standards of 30 and 60 frames per second, which was defined by the common frequency of electrical power in parts of the world.
These standards provide a certain set of limitations on each medium, and mean frame rate is implemented in fundamentally different ways between film and videogames, though each of them is less relevant today with the increased flexibility of technology and the increasing parity between the two, due to the more widespread use of video over traditional film. If anything, the ubiquity of internet video and built-in cameras used in cell phones has even influenced our relationship with film.
The relationships between frame rate and media endure nonetheless. For better or worse, 24 fps has become part of the established “language” of film. When we see images moving at this speed we understand a work to have a film-like quality. Videogames, by contrast, have long used high frame rates, and have become associated with them.
This is why you might come across bewildering comments online complaining about “low frame rate” CG anime that mimics traditional animation, or why film critics have accused high frame rate experiments in film of “looking like a videogame”. For the former, the viewer expects 3D rendered art to confine to standards of videogames, so low frame rate reads like “bad gameplay”. For the latter, the artificiality of the image is heightened, which distracts them from the film by drawing attention to the image itself. Explaining each of these attitudes is going to require a deeper dive into exactly HOW frame rate imbues these qualities and its history across media.
This script is incomplete and has been published as an effort to wind down from my writing work.