Unless you’ve been hiding out in a hobbit-hole or held captive by a cave troll, you’re undoubtedly aware that director Peter Jackson’s long-awaited return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is opening next week. And you’re probably also aware that Jackson shot the film in a new format, 48 frames per second, which has kicked up a fair bit of fuss among early reviewers, not all of it positive. But what does 48 frames per second even mean? Is it actually a better way to experience the film? Here are five things you should know before buying your ticket.
1. It’s double the traditional frame rate for a film. For more than 80 years, the standard frame rate — that is, the speed at which consecutive individual frames of a film are projected — has been 24 frames per second. That’s been the frame rate for every film you’ve ever seen in a movie theater, and odds are you’ve never sat there thinking to yourself, “If only these images were being flashed in front of my eyeballs at a faster rate!” Until recent advances in digital filmmaking came along, though, it was a non-issue — the technology to shoot and project a wide-release film at a higher frame rate simply didn’t exist. Now that it does, Jackson feels strongly that the film industry should embrace it: “We’ve got less people coming to the movies, especially young people,” he says. “Why should we be holding up an 80-year-old technical system as being the flagship when we’ve got audiences falling away? Why should we celebrate artifacts that were foisted on us in 1927? We should be doing everything we can with the technology we’ve got to bring people back to enjoy movies on the big screen.”
2. Advocates of higher frame rates say it results in less motion blur and a sharper image. From early in the history of film, there’s been debate over what the optimal frame rate should be for a motion picture; Thomas Edison himself argued that anything less than 46 frames per second “will strain the eye.” Boosters like Jackson contend that a higher frame rate produces a clearer, more immersive image and smoother motion. “Forty-eight frames makes everything look a little sharper because you just don’t have so much blur,” Jackson says. “Your brain reads the details as being sharper because you’re not seeing that very subtle smudging between the frames. It looks like you’re looking through a window into a real world rather than through the glass of an artificial world.” Other filmmakers are also excited about the prospects of adopting a higher frame rate: After seeing The Hobbit, director Bryan Singer tweeted that he was feeling “some serious frame-rate envy,” and James Cameron is exploring the possibility of shooting the Avatar sequels at a high frame rate, saying, “If there is acceptance of 48 [fps], then that will pave the way for Avatar to take advantage of it.”
3. It takes some getting used to. Remember the first time you saw a high-definition TV? Or, if you’re an oldster like me, remember the first time you heard a CD? Those new formats may have struck you as off-putting at first — distractingly sharp, overly detailed — and it may have taken a little time for your brain to adjust and get on board. As even Jackson acknowledges, there’s a similar learning curve to 48 fps. “You have to get used to it,” he says. “It’s certainly very different from what you’re used to seeing. But after a relatively short time, you settle into it. Every time I watch a normal film now, I’m so aware of the strobing and the blur on the screen when people are panning — it kind of judders its way across the screen. My brain has already flipped into the 48 frame world.”
4. Your mileage may vary. Watching a film, like listening to music or looking at a painting, is highly subjective. Some early reviewers have found the experience of watching The Hobbit in 48 frames unappealing, saying it took them out of the film and made them more aware of the things like the actors’ makeup, sets, and so on. Others have enjoyed it, saying it swept them up in Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s world. As Jackson says, a lot of it comes down to personal taste and expectations: “Some of the really ardent film guys — I think the artificial quality is what they like, and they want to retain it.” If you want to get a sense of the difference between frame rates and which you might prefer, check out this cool interactive web site.
5. You will have a choice. The Hobbit will be released in a variety of formats: 48 fps in 3-D, 24 fps in 3-D, and old-fashioned 24 fps in 2-D. The 48 fps version of The Hobbit will only be shown in 3-D and will be limited to roughly 450 hand-picked theaters nationwide. (This web site has a list of theaters equipped to show the film at the high frame rate, but check your local listings.) “Because this is the first mainstream feature film ever to come out at a higher frame rate, there’s a potential for confusing audiences and for the format to become the point,” Jackson says. “We didn’t want anyone to feel like they didn’t have a choice. We’re introducing audiences to another way of looking at a film and we want the introduction to be a gentle one, not something that’s being rammed down anyone’s throats.”
So what do you think? Are you eager to see what all the 48-frame fuss is about? Or are you planning to skip the newfangled format and experience The Hobbit in old-fashioned 24 frames per second?
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