Hobbit To Receive Only A “Select” Release At 48FPS, And That’s A Bad Thing

There’s a shocking amount of misinformation and misunderstanding out there regarding ‘high frame rate cinema,’ such as the 48 frames per second format of The Hobbit or the projected 60 frames per second frame rate of the Avatar sequels.

Let’s clear up one bit of nonsense right away: you’ve almost certainly never seen anything shot and projected in one of those higher frame rates. If you’ve seen something in 48fps or 60fps on TV then what you saw was something played back at that frame rate but not produced at that frame rate. That’s a different thing entirely. Entirely. That involves artificial frames filling in the gaps between the ones that were actually recorded, and these “junk” frames don’t make for a good experience.

So, don’t think that The Hobbit is going to look like some crappy, overly shiny football game you saw one time. Because it isn’t.

If you have taken a trip on the Peter Jackson produced King Kong ride at Universal, or the old Back to the Future ride, the footage used to create those attractions’ effects was shot at high frame rates. For most people, this will have been their only chance to see such footage.

Here in the UK, the BBC have been demonstrating 120 fps video of certain Olympic events at ticketed screenings, and the reception there has actually been very positive. Audiences have a sentimental attachment to “film look” that didn’t get in the way when they were watching sporting events, and they instead commented on the amazing motion and sense of reality

At 24fps there’s typically a streaking effect on each frame, and a kind of softening of the image. Those are familiar components of “film look.” It’s not an inherently good style for cinema, but it is the one we’re used to.

But high frame rate filmmaking offers all kinds of advantages. Bruce Lee demonstrated one of them brilliantly when he executed his one-inch punch on film. The movement was so fast that it actually hardly registered on the film print at all.

If Bruce Lee had been filmed on Peter Jackson’s set up from The Hobbit, you’d have seen his fist move. Very quickly, and almost imperceptibly, but it would have been recorded, and projected, before your eyes. The experience would have been significantly closer to seeing Lee do his thing in real life than 24fps filmmaking can allow.

A preview of some 48fps footage from Jackson’s first Hobbit film was played at CinemaCon in April, and there was a lot of loud dissent. People said that it looked “cheap” – which is to say, it lacked some of those markers that tell you you’re watching film, rather than video. It’s not so much that it looked like a crappy video recording, it’s that it didn’t look like a film.

But audiences could very soon get used to looking at high frame rate images, I’m sure. There’s nothing actually wrong with this footage, it’s just different. And because high frame rates offer better visual information to the viewer, solve certain blurring and distortion problems with tracking shots and camera movement, assist with 3D clarity and do an awful lot more else besides, I’m all for the change.

And I was definitely looking forward to seeing The Hobbit roll out in 48fps 3D this December. Now, though it seems less like it’s going to roll anywhere than just trickle a little.

Variety report:

The HFR version will go out to only select locations, perhaps not even into all major cities… the studio still wants to protect the format by going into a limited release for the HFR version, hoping to test the marketplace and expand the HFR release for the second and third installments — provided auds are enthusiastic. As of now, there are still no theaters ready for HFR projection, though some require only a software upgrade that will be ready in September.

There’s also a bit of spin with unnamed sources saying the film looks better now than it did in April.

It’s obvious why they’d say that, but it’s also largely irrelevant. What most were complaining about in the CinemaCon footage was the surprising clarity and lack of aesthetic familiarities (ie. artefacts that have blighted 24fps for decades, but just seem “normal” to audiences). They were complaining because of what you can achieve when shooting at high frame rates. That’s not going to change with a bit of colour correction.

I know Warner Bros. are just looking to protect their investment here, and they don’t want droves of punters asking for their money back because the film doesn’t look “normal,” but they’ve just compromised Peter Jackson’s artistic vision in not only some, not only many, but what would seem to be the overwhelming majority of its public engagements.

What a terrible shame. Here’s hoping people have the sense to embrace this advance and show Warner Bros. that they’ve made a mistake.

EDIT: For clarification, the high frame rate footage I’ve seen includes the two theme park attractions listed above, some demonstrations with sporting footage – not the BBC Olympics material I mention, at least not yet – and most of a demonstration reel of Douglas Trumbull’s Showscan system, largely showing actors trapped behind a screen and a sleigh ride.

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