Op-Ed

Should You See The Hobbit at 48 FPS?

I had the good fortune to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the midnight premiere in 48 frames per second. So as a follow-up to Ari’s review of the 2D 24 frames per second version of the film, and to my post from earlier this year about the negative CinemaCon reaction the first screening of the footage, here is a guide to help you decide how you’ll see The Hobbit in theaters.

"Good morning."

“Good morning.”

1. What is 48 frames per second, exactly?

The basic idea is that when a movie is projected onto the silver screen, we see 24 frames (or images) that have been recorded in a single second, alternating with blank frames. Feature-length films, up until this point, have been in 24 frames per second since the late 20s (originally because of technical needs at the dawn of the medium, and now because of convention). This format, classic thought it may be, has both its advantages and disadvantages; 24 fps gives the filmic look we all know and love, but because of the way the frames are mixed with blank images, fast camera motion also yields an effect known as “judder” – jerky visuals that can be harsh on the eye.

The director of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Peter Jackson, with the backing of fellow cinema mogul James Cameron, has decided that the industry is ready to move into a higher frame rate. This eliminates judder and gives an overall smoother, more realistic image. Jackson also claims this improves 3D; he compares old 3D to watching the movie through a “window,” and says that now that “window” is removed. Many other forms of audio/visual media, such as video games, are already operating with this technology.

2. What does 48 fps look like?

Exactly as I described in my first article about 48 fps (also known as High Frame Rate, or HFR), the movie feels rather sped-up when you first watch it. Adding every other frame gives a weird smoothing motion to the action that can feel a bit “off.” The fidelity of the image is odd, and certainly feels different than anything you’ve seen before in the movie theater.

3. Does it take getting used to?

Absolutely. Having said that, around 30 minutes or so in the movie, I had to really look for the changes to notice them. After an hour, I wasn’t paying any attention to the frame rate whatsoever.

4. Will HFR make you sick?

I may not be the best judge of this because 3D never makes me feel nauseated, nor does it give me a headache, but I was totally unaffected by this newfangled HFR. I and my moviegoing companions all found the format to be perfectly harmless.

Hobbit holes look a bit odd in HFR, but the dwarves themselves look good

Hobbit holes look a bit odd in HFR, but the dwarves themselves look good.

5. Does HFR make everything look cheap and fake?

Not at all! Some writers around the web have made claims to the contrary, but I didn’t notice a single prosthetic or bit of make-up. The only instance where I felt it may have detracted was in the very beginning in Bag-End, where Bilbo’s Hobbit hole feels more like a set than an actual home (ironic, of course, considering that is one of the few real locations used in the film).

6. Does it improve 3D?

1000%. You’ve never seen 3D look this good (and yes, that includes Cameron’s Avatar). Jackson and his crew did everything from the concept art to set painting with 3D in mind, and it shows. But more importantly, there is a very, very distinct difference between this and any prior 3D film. Where previously 3D always looked like two or three distinct 2D planes moving parallel to one another, here every object in every scene has an incredible sense of filled-in depth.

However, it doesn’t make the film any brighter (I saw it in RealD 3D); the dimness associated with 3D still seems the be an issue, one that I think won’t be alleviated unless the bulb brightness in the projectors themselves is increased.

7. How does it affect CGI?

I’m not sure if it was the dimness, 3D, or HFR, but the computer generated effects looked quite convincing 98% of the time against real objects, characters, and backdrops. I noticed no real advantage or disadvantage to the 48 fps jump in this department.

Having said that, the sense of depth from the 3D, accentuated by the HFR, was certainly instrumental in making everything on-screen feel more real. So in that sense, I suppose there was some small increase in fidelity.

8. 3D aside, does it improve the look of the movie?

This is a hard question to answer as I have not seen the film in 24 fps. However, based on seeing The Lord of the Rings in theaters many years ago, the one thing I can definitely say is that I now have a very great appreciation for the old format. By giving us just 24 frames every second, our brain seems to have time to rest on each image just  bit more before processing the next set of visuals.

Think about it: our brain can focus on each frame for 2/24 of a second in a 24 fps film because we have both the image and blank screen (during which the previous frame remains in our brain) before the next image pops up. In 48 frames, that blank screen is filled by an intermediate image, meaning we can only focus on each frame for 1/24 of a second. That drop causes the sped-up effect, and leads to our inability to focus on any one frame by 200%.

This is especially important in a film that puts so much emphasis on cinematography, effects, costuming, and other aesthetic embellishments. In that way, I feel 48 fps does detract from the experience by “rushing” us past what took so many people so many man hours to accomplish. But as I said earlier, you stop really noticing that it’s at a higher frame rate the longer you watch the film.

http://imageshack.us/a/img31/9239/90604762.jpg

I mean, Gollum still looks great.

9. So should I see it in HFR?

It depends. Do you love 3D, or the idea of fully-realized 3D? If so, HFR can’t be beat. 3D is, as far as I’m concerned, totally uninteresting – so HFR 3D, while a huge step-up from regular 3D, didn’t change my opinion of the format at all. In sum, HFR 3D is the full realization of an idea that I never saw any value in in the first place. I suggest you read this article carefully, and if it sounds interesting to you, have at it!

It's amazing how far technology has come

It’s amazing how far technology has come.

Do you have any other questions? Clarifications? Whatever? Post them below, and I’ll be sure to answer them.

I’ll conclude this piece with a quick thought on the movie itself that I said aloud to my friends as I exited the cinema:

“I love Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and Gandalf is a straight up gangster.”

Happy watching!

~ Søren