When Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson set out to film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the intention was to make the movie experience something truly special. Instead of shooting on traditional film stock as previous installments in the series were, Jackson teamed up with digital camera company RED to bring the latest in digital and 3D cinema technology to the screen. The Hobbit is not only the first of the series shot entirely in digital 3D, but Jackson chose to double the traditional frame rate of the movie from 24 frames per second (FPS) to a whopping 48 for what is claimed to be a heightened sense of reality. But the increased frame rate decision has been extremely controversial. Movies have been projected at 24 FPS for almost a century, as opposed to television broadcasts that start at 30 FPS for NTSC and can go as high as 60 FPS for HD news and sports. A higher frame rate is often considered one of the things that differentiates the look of a newscast to that of a cinematic narrative. However, Jackson would like us to believe this is the case purely because we have grown up seeing it that way.
In a note on Facebook, Jackson gives a breakdown for his reasoning of using 48 frames per second.
Looking at 24 frames every second may seem ok — and we’ve all seen thousands of films like this over the last 90 years–but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or ‘strobe.’
The director claims that faster frame rates look better, make the motion appear more natural, and will be the future of cinema. According to him, if we had seen movies at 48 FPS all of our lives, we’d be used to that instead. But not everyone agrees.
A 10-minute clip of footage shown at CinemaCon in Las Vegas last week has apparently failed to impress attendants of the show. The viewers, containing a majority of press and theater owners, mostly placed blame squarely on the frame rate.
Devin Farasi from Badass Digest breaks down some of the main complaints.
The 48fps footage I saw looked terrible. It looked completely non-cinematic. The sets looked like sets. I’ve been on sets of movies on the scale of The Hobbit, and sets don’t even look like sets when you’re on them live… but these looked like sets. The other comparison I kept coming to, as I was watching the footage, was that it all looked like behind the scenes video. The magical illusion of cinema is stripped away completely.
Most of the reports from those that experienced the 48 FPS clip feel the same way, saying that it looks more like a documentary or newscast than a narrative story. Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta tweeted, in regards to the higher frame rate, “I expect to see stronger hate, more so than 3D.”
Why does a higher frame rate make viewers feel this way? Yes, 24 frames per second causes extra motion blur and strobing on fast action. The Borne Ultimatum even made some theater goers feel nauseous and dizzy while watching it. But I think the slower frame rate is what has traditionally helped create the illusion of a surreal world in our minds. We see something that our brain tells us can’t be real, yet when we become lost in the story, our minds fill in the realism and it helps sell the illusion. If you make it too realistic, your audience notices the imperfections, the makeup on your actors, the paint on your sets. It becomes harder to get lost in the magic of the movie because you’re constantly aware of the reality behind it. It’s very possible for the realism of a movie to reach the point of diminishing returns, and that may be what the audience at CinemaCon experienced.
The good news is that since 48 FPS is perfectly divisible by two to get 24, theaters that don’t have the new 48 FPS technology can project the movie in the more traditional format by skipping every other frame. Personally, as excited as I am to experience 3D at 48 FPS, I fear the magic of cinema that I love so much may be lost in it.