The Hobbit: An Unexpectedly High Frame Rate

Audiences around the world are already purchasing tickets for the premiere of Peter Jackson’s vision of the predecessor to J.R.R. Tolkien’ the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In a departure from the single-volume original, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will also be a trilogy, but perhaps more noteworthy is Jackson’s decision to shoot these films in 48 fps HFR (High Frame Rate) 3D. Specifically, Jackson is using high-resolution RED Epic cameras running at 48 frames per second with 5120-by-2700-pixel resolution. While Peter Jackson defends the format, critics worry that that instead of being a cinematic visual treat, the films will have the familiar look of a TV soap opera.

According to Jackson in a Facebook interview, “We live in a rapidly advancing digital age. Technology is being continually developed that can enhance and enrich the cinema-going experience. High Frame Rate shooting for a mainstream feature film has only become viable in the last year or two, and yet we live in an age of increasing home entertainment. I started shooting The Hobbit films in HFR because I wanted film audiences to experience just how remarkably immersive the theatrical cinema experience can be.”

“In 1927, when sound came along, the industry needed to agree on a motor-driven, constant camera speed. 35mm film stock is very expensive, so it needs to be as slow as possible. However, the early optical soundtrack required a minimum speed to achieve fidelity of the sound. 24 fps was decided on, and became the industry standard for over 80 years, with cinemas all around the world installing mechanical projectors only capable of projecting at 24 fps. 24 fps was a commercial decision — the cheapest speed to provide basic quality — but it produces movement artifacts, like strobing, flicker and motion blur.”

Further explaining his interest in the technology, he continues, “Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55 fps. Therefore, shooting at 48 fps gives you much more of an illusion of real life. The reduced motion blur on each frame increases sharpness and gives the movie the look of having been shot in 65mm or IMAX. One of the biggest advantages is the fact that your eye is seeing twice the number of images each second, giving the movie a wonderful immersive quality. It makes the 3D experience much more gentle and hugely reduces eyestrain. Much of what makes 3D viewing uncomfortable for some people is the fact that each eye is processing a lot of strobing, blur and flicker. This all but disappears in HFR 3D.”

Depending on how well this film is received, James Cameron has said he will use 48 HFR for the next film in the Avatar series: "If there is acceptance of 48, then that will pave the way for Avatar (sequels) to take advantage of it. We charged out ahead on 3D with Avatar, now Peter (Jackson) is doing it with The Hobbit. It takes that kind of bold move to make change."

Viewers saw a sample clip of the new film, before color corrections and final enhancements, and many reviewers have stated that the look of 48 HFR is similar to what soap operas look like, or live theatrical performances, shot on video. You lose some of the smooth, dreamlike quality of film, and are left with a very sharp and realistic, yet cold and harsh look.  What does Jackson say about this?

“HFR 3D is “different” — it won’t feel like the movies you’re used to seeing, in much the same way as the first CDs didn’t sound like vinyl records. We live in an age when cinemas are competing with iPads and home entertainment systems. I think it’s critical that filmmakers employ current technology to increase the immersive, spectacular experience that cinema should provide. It’s an exciting time to be going to the movies.”  

Relatively few theaters are capable of showing films at 48 fps. For an up-to-date listing of compatible theaters, check out 48fpsmovies.com. Currently, only about 450 of the 4,000 theaters nationwide are slated to show The Hobbit at 48 fps.

For now, I’m still on the fence about the format. I’ve seen some of these high-resolution formats and that “soap opera” look can be quite disturbing. I had the same feeling back in 1996 when I first saw HD TV. I plan on seeing The Hobbit in this format and will report back afterwards. But first, let us know what you think. Will you seek out theaters capable of it? And if so, what did you think? Your opinion might help determine the future of cinema technology.

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