‘The Hobbit’ – An Unexpected Controversy

Has Peter Jackson made a terrible, terrible mistake? I mean, of course, a new mistake. Anyone who’s seen ‘The Lovely Bones’ or his ‘King Kong’ remake knows that the director has made terrible mistakes in the past. Yet, until now, fans have still eagerly anticipated his two-part adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’, perhaps under the assumption that, despite his misguided overreach in those last two projects, Jackson still knows what he’s doing when it comes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ universe. However, a recent test screening of ten minutes of footage from the first part, called ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’, suddenly has the internet aflame with worry about, of all things, his photographic choices for the movie prequel. Is 48 frames-per-second photography a great innovation and the future of cinema, or a disastrous boondoggle?

What’s all this controversy about, anyway? In short, theatrical movies have been photographed and projected at a standardized frame rate of 24 fps since the introduction of “talkies” and the end of the silent era. This was determined to be the minimum acceptable capture rate to achieve convincing motion with synchronized sound. The 24 fps format was never perfect, though. For example, it’s prone to motion stutter, most noticeable during horizontal pans. While most audiences will never notice this, some members of the filmmaking community have pushed for a transition to higher capture rates and projection speeds, which would offer a smoother and more “realistic” sense of motion. Douglas Trumbull was a big proponent of this, and built an experimental format called Showscan that utilized 60 fps photography and projection. Showscan was said to deliver a stunning result.

Unfortunately, one big drawback of shooting at high frame rates in the film era was, simply, that it used a lot more film, and thus was correspondingly more expensive. It also required new projection equipment in theaters capable of running at the proper speed. Showscan never caught on, and was used only in a handful of theme park attractions.

More recently, both James Cameron and Peter Jackson have revived the push for higher frame rates. Digital photography largely allays the concerns about film cost (now the issue is more of data storage), and modern digital cinema projectors can be retrofitted for compatibility with the proper speeds. About a year ago, Cameron announced that he plans to shoot his two ‘Avatar’ sequels at 48 fps. Beating him to the punch, Jackson began production of his first ‘Hobbit’ movie at that new frame rate as well. Since this news first broke, fans have been anxious to see the results.

Well, now some have, and the reaction was not what Peter Jackson may have hoped. You see, it turns out that, for the past hundred years of cinema, viewers have been conditioned to like the look of 24 fps photography. That looks like a movie to us. The smoother motion of higher frame rate photography looks more like video, which we associate with cheapness (even though, ironically, it’s more expensive to shoot at 48 fps). If you’ve ever watched an HDTV with a frame interpolation feature (sometimes called MotionFlow, SmoothMotion, Ultra Motion Plus, etc.) turned on, you’ve already experienced the so-called “soap opera effect” that occurs when normal movies are converted in real-time to high frame rates. The content suddenly starts to look less like a feature film and more like behind-the-scenes footage shot on the set of that film. If possible, the smoothed-out motion is too “realistic,” to the point that it’s distracting, even disturbing.

It was hoped that photography captured natively at 48 fps and projected at that same rate would not suffer the same “soap opera effect” as artificial conversions. Attendees of last week’s CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas were some of the first to find out, when Warner Bros. screened ten minutes of footage from ‘The Hobbit’. Many of the reactions afterward were unimpressed, if not outright horrified.

Here’s IGN‘s take:

So what does 48fps movie footage look like as opposed to your usual 24fps theatrical movie experience? In this reporter’s opinion, it looks like live television or hi-def video. And it didn’t look particularly good. Yes, this is shocking, but I was actually let down by the Hobbit footage, as were a number of the other journalists that I spoke with afterward.

It looked like an old Doctor Who episode, or a videotaped BBC TV production. It was as shocking as when The Twilight Zone made the boneheaded decision to switch from film to tape one season, and where perfectly good stories were ruined by that aesthetic.

Bad Ass Digest:

Here’s what The Hobbit looked like to me: a hi-def version of the 1970s I, Claudius. It is drenched in a TV-like – specifically 70s era BBC – video look. People on Twitter have asked if it has that soap opera look you get from badly calibrated TVs at Best Buy, and the answer is an emphatic YES.

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.


It looked like a made for television BBC movie.

It looked like when you turn your LCD television to the 120 hertz up-conversion setting.

It looked uncompromisingly real — so much so that it looked fake.

More noticeable in the footage was the make-up, the sets, the costumes. Hobbiton and Middle Earth didn’t feel like a different universe, it felt like a special effect, a film set with actors in costumes. It looked like behind the scenes footage.

The movement of the actors looked… strange. Almost as if the performances had been partly sped up. But the dialogue matched the movement of the lips, so it wasn’t an effect of speed-ramping.

It didn’t look cinematic. Not at all, even with a top filmmaker like Peter Jackson at the helm.

Not everyone who saw the footage was so negative, however. Rebecca Murray from About.com thought it looked “gorgeous”:

It was, simply put, mind-blowing to see in 48 frames per second. It’s literally like being on the set next to the actors as they’re performing… Once audiences get to see The Hobbit screened at the 48 frames per second rate when it’s released in theaters on December 14, 2012, I can guarantee moviegoers are going to demand all films be presented at 48 fps.

Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere concurs:

Forget the windowpane. You’re right there and it’s breathtaking — no strobing, no flickering, pure fluidity and much more density of information. This makes the action scenes seem more realistic because it looks too real to be tricked up, and the CG stuff looks astonishing for the same reason… In a manner of speaking I was creaming in my pants this morning. This is almost too good, I was half-telling myself. It’s the best 3D I’ve ever seen and probably ever will see in my life. 48 fps 3D is so much easier on your eyes than 24 fps 3D. It was like being on a strange new planet, watching this process.

(I feel the need to point out that Wells has a reputation as a contrarian.)

A couple of notes: The footage presented was acknowledged to be in unfinished form, with incomplete visual effects and visible green screens. It’s conceivable that further color grading and post-production work may refine the final appearance and lessen the “video” feeling. Also, several of the articles about this screening have conceded the possibility that it may simply take more than ten minutes for a viewer to settle in and get accustomed to the 48 fps look.

By the end of a three-hour run-time, could perhaps even some of these skeptics be won over? Peter Jackson believes so. Addressing the controversy, the director responded:

Nobody is going to stop. This technology is going to keep evolving. At first it’s unusual because you’ve never seen a movie like this before. It’s literally a new experience, but you know, that doesn’t last the entire experience of the film; not by any stretch, after 10 minutes or so. That’s a different experience than if you see a fast-cutting montage at a technical presentation.

There can only ever be a real reaction, a truthful reaction when people actually have a chance to see a complete narrative on a particular film.

A couple of the more negative commenters from CinemaCon said that in the Gollum and Bilbo scene [which took place later in the presentation] they didn’t mind it and got used to that. That was the same 48 frames the rest of the reel was. I just wonder if it they were getting into the dialogue, the characters and the story. That’s what happens in the movie. You settle into it.

At the root of this issue are some even bigger questions: Are our expectations for what a proper “movie” is supposed to look like dictated solely by tradition and past experience? Are we witnessing the dawn of a brand new era in cinema, where our conception of the “film” look is ready to be tossed aside? Will younger viewers raised on mixed media content from the internet have these same prejudices against the high frame rate appearance?

On the other side of that coin, is the 48 fps format doomed to be regarded as a gimmick and a failed experiment, rarely to be used again? At the very least, will it be designated as only appropriate for certain kinds of content, such as travelogues, nature documentaries and theme park attractions (like Showscan was), but not narrative features?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, and I don’t know whether one movie can possibly resolve them. Only time will tell whether 48 fps photography will catch on or be embraced by viewers. Since I was not fortunate enough to attend CinemaCon for this screening, I’ll try my best to reserve judgment until the finalized version of ‘The Hobbit’ is released to theaters this fall.

Two More Points
  1. Not all theaters will be equipped to project ‘The Hobbit’ at 48 fps when it’s released. Reportedly, upgrading a D-Cinema projector costs upwards of $10,000. On many screens, the movie will be downgraded to a standard 24 fps rate. I’m not sure if this will eliminate the “video” look issue, however. Soap operas shot on video still look like video even if you frame-rate convert them to 24 fps. Also, a 48 fps source converted to 24 fps may exhibit strobing artifacts, since each photographed frame was exposed to light for half the usual amount of time, with less of the natural blurring between them that blend normal 24 fps frames. (Then again, the trailer looked fine enough, so maybe the conversion will be the way to go.)
  2. When the time comes for ‘The Hobbit’ to hit Blu-ray, it will most likely only be released in standard 1080p/24-fps form. No Blu-ray players are currently equipped to play back 48 fps content. Even if your HDTV or projector runs at a refresh rate such as 96 Hz or 240 Hz that’s an even multiple of 48, few existing displays are designed to accept a 48 fps input signal. A revision to the Blu-ray spec, new Blu-ray players, and new HD displays will all be needed to accommodate this.


  1. I certainly don’t like watching movies on a TV with the “TruMotion” or whatever the 120/240 Hz setting turned on, because all the stuff I’ve seen I want to continue to see in its original frame rate, be it a movie or a TV show that was filmed with, well, FILM. However, if 48 fps was the original rate determined by the filmmakers, I will reserve judgement until I’ve seen it properly. I really do enjoy the film look, so I’m not sure how much I’ll like The Hobbit when displayed natively…

    Time will tell. Though I am all for Hollywood making things look better, and I hope the technology gets better in the damned theaters, giving me a reason to spend all that money and deal with other people. What’s the point of spending so many millions on content when the presentations keep sucking?

  2. I don’t think it’s an issue with the new frame rate as much as it is an issue with Jackson still using design, makeup, etc. intended for movies that are shot on film at a 24fps. rate.

    Remember when HD first came along and actors/newsanchors/etc. were still using standard-def makeup? How glaringly obvious it looked? This is what I fear THE HOBBIT is going to look like.

    • Well, if anyone would bear that in mind while filming in that high rate, it would be both Jackson and James Cameron. They are sticklers for detail and wouldn’t overlook something like that. (One would hope!)

      • JM

        When ‘The Hobbit’ trailer released, the dwarves looked ‘Wizard Of Oz’-y.

        Way too artificial. But I would blame the design, not the technology.

        LOTR had quite a few bad makeup jobs, which shooting on film didn’t hide.

        Maybe converting 48fps to 24fps makes things look even more incorrect, and there will never be a home version of ‘The Hobbit’ that is true to the director’s original vision.

        Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ will only exist in select megaplexs for 4 weeks, and then will be lost forever.

        Just like live theater. i.e. Al Pacino’s performance in ‘American Buffalo.’

        I’m just glad this 48fps experiment is being performed on a movie I don’t care about. The story structure of ‘The Hobbit’ is 10x more flawed than the RED cameras used to shoot it.

        48fps will just amplify the backlash that was going to manifest anyway.

  3. JM

    ‘Game Of Thrones’ is shot with Arri Alexa digital cameras, 2160p at 60fps.

    Does HBO broadcast 1080p at 60fps?

    Is the ‘Game Of Thrones’ blu-ray converted to 24fps?

    How many TV shows that look cinematic have we been watching at 60fps for years?

    • Josh Zyber

      HBO broadcasts in 1080i at 60 Hz, which is 24 fps with 3:2 Pulldown applied. Aside from the extra judder due to the 3:2 Pulldown, this has the same basic “look” as 24 fps. The Game of Thrones Blu-rays are encoded at 1080p/24fps.

      What’s your source for Game of Thrones being shot at 60 fps? The Alexa camera is capable of shooting up to 120 fps, but those faster speeds are used for slow-motion shots. They’d be played back at standard 24 fps.

      Here’s an interview with the show’s cinematographers. They mention nothing about shooting at high frame rates:


      • JM

        If HBO broadcasts in 1080i/60 Hz, why not shoot it 1080p/60 fps, to skip the 3:2 Pulldown for a cleaner conversion?

        • Josh Zyber

          1080i/60 is 60 interlaced fields per second, equivalent to 30 frames per second. Game of Thrones isn’t shot at 30 fps because 30 fps looks like “video,” and HBO doesn’t want its $300 million TV series to look like it was shot with a $99 handycam.

          Peter Jackson, apparently, doesn’t mind so much.

          • 30 FPS would not make a filmed sequence look like it was shot with a $99 handycam. You should know better than to spout hyperbole like that Josh.

            Most of the people complaining about this have NEVER seen 48FPS or higher properly done EVER! And most people have been comparing it to their crappy 120Hz or 240Hz TV’s, yes those TV’s are more expensive than some but the fact is that feature is BS and shouldn’t even be there. And almost all of those people don’t understand framerate much less what they are seeing when they turn on stupidmotion or flovomit or whatever TV manufacturers are calling it today.

            Comparing the Production values of the Hobbit being filmed with RED Digital cameras, to the cheap computer interpolation that these TV’s do is like comparing your 8 MM home movies, to a brand new 70MM Print of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s ridiculous and these people are sorely in need of an education. The Movie industry has survived Frame rate changes before, ever watched a Keystone Cops short?

            This will be a non issue after the premier of the Hobbit. However some people never accept change and so there will always be complainers.

  4. Barsoom Bob

    I’ll leave the Tech specs to Josh, but I’m pretty sure broadcast HBO, at least on our TW cable, tops out at 1080i. and I’m not sure but I think the equivalant of frame rate on TV is 30FPS which is much closer to the cinematic 24FPS than 60FPS.

    Though your argument is still true, that it does look rich and gloriously movie like, when viewed.

    Josh, I’m curious about what version of the trailer that you saw, 2D, Real 3D or Imax 3D ?
    I saw the Imax version and it did not look right to me. It looked over bright and something was off about it, it did not look like it fit with the cinematography of the original trilogy. I wrote it off at the time to a non Imax film blown up to Imax size, but now I don’t know.

  5. Oscar

    What a non-controversy.

    Worse case scenario, if people really do run screaming from the theaters due to the higher frame rate, they just start showing it at 24fps.

    The most likely outcome is that the vast majority of theater goers will have no idea that there’s anything revolutionary going on.

  6. Barsoom Bob

    That doesn’t really do the trick. The frame rate has the effect of changing the shutter speed at which each individual frame is captured at, this is what really produces the sharper image. Like high speed sports photography, less blur more frozen in time effect. I think if you remove every other frame to bring it back to 24FPS, you have a larger gap between frames with less blur to smooth the transition.

  7. motorheadache

    Provided the 24fps conversion looks more like standard film, that’s the one I’m going for the first time I see this. I love the LotR films, and I want to enjoy The Hobbit simply as a film.

    Then I’ll see it again in 3D 48fps to see what I think of it. I just don’t want the new technology to be my focus when I’m watching the movie for the first time.

  8. Oscar

    The average person can’t even tell when the aspect ratio is out of whack. Do we really think they’re going to notice a change in frame rate?!

    • EM

      Good point. On the other hand, it’s possible that some people will be able to tell that something is better, worse, or at least different without actually putting their finger on why.

      • Jon D

        That’s what I would guess. Like Josh said, people are used to how 24fps looks in theaters, with all the strobing and motion blur that it comes with. When the Hobbit comes out and someone sees it in 48fps, they will likely be aware of something being ‘off’ about the image.

        I reserve judgement on whether it’s a good thing or not, but this whole thing tacks on another bullet point in the ‘traditional film is dying’ argument.

    • R

      The stupidest idea ever!? Seriously????? That’s potentially one of the stupidest comments ever.

      personally, I always found the flicker and stutter (especially during wide pans) to be pretty off putting. I’m looking forward to seeing the 48fps with my own eyes.

    • Wow dude, just can’t believe you could actually be a fan of this site or even just a casual reader and think something like that.


  9. JM

    “The footage shot at 48 frames a second looked incredible. The best way to describe it, is to quote Cameron: “If watching a 3D movie is like looking through a window, then with this we’ve taken the glass out of the window and we’re staring at reality.”

    – /Film, re: CinemaCon 2011, of JC’s 24-48-60 fps test footage.

  10. Brian H

    According to the legends explaining the inception of revolutionary and gimmicky changes and features for movie goers starting in the 1950’s, the idea was to get people away from tvs and back to the movie theater. Some changes were well received and others too gimmicky difficult, or otherwise left unused. In this high def, home theater era, we now have theaters trying to lure people with features like 3d whilst tv manufactures follow suit.

    In this case, regardless of the “density of information,” the movie going public probably is not going to go out of it’s way to pursue theaters showing movies at 48fps. Especially, if people really attracted to the handicam look already have a similar look on their own televisions. Likewise, if I were managing a theater, I would let Jackson and Cameron market their movies, and then just show them at normal 24fps and save the upgrade costs.
    I kind of joke about how Brad Bird cares more about how Mission Impossible looks on an iPad than a home theater, but I think the 48fps feature for the movie going public will either be like trying to ascertain which Imax projection technology is being used at the local Imax, or it will be obviously unattractive(tech or no, it is an aesthetic choice after all), or even if it is liked, I doubt people will clamor for ticket price hikes to enable it.

  11. Matt

    If The Hobbit duology of films has a different look and feel to the LOTR trilogy, is that really such a bad idea anyway? Anyone who knows the books at all would know that The Hobbit’s feel and tone is completely different to that of LOTR. This could have been a concious decision to not only move forward with technology in film making, but to seperate the movies slightly with look and feel just as the books are.

    Going from the trailer, I had not problem with the look of the film at all, though it was not shown in 48fps. I really do not think that the general movie going public is really going to notice. And as Jackson said, once settled into the movie and eyes have adjusted, people will be taken away with whats happening on screen rather that how it looks.

  12. August Lehe

    MY QUESTION: Why didn’t they try the original TODD-AO 65mm at 30 fps. I’m told it appeared one was watching Bali Hai through a window, instead of 24 fps on a screen. Any truth to that, Josh? I’m not quite old enough to remember. Amyway 30fps was easier to downgrade to 24 fps! How many films were shot in pure TODD-AO 70mm? I’m told less than a half dozen!

  13. JM

    “In animated films, the digital video effect is a non-issue, so Frame Creation can be turned up to max without any worries. Once you’ve seen ‘Ratatouille’ with a robust frame interpolation system, you won’t want to watch it any other way.”

    – Projector Central’s review of the Panasonic AE7000U.

    Maybe 48fps will improve the talking dragon sequences…

    • JM

      M. Enois Duarte owns a Panasonic PT-AE7000.

      Has he ever written about using Frame Creation with animated films?

    • Talk about an oxymoron, Robust frame interpolation.

      It’s creating information that’s not there. It’s not how the creators envisioned that material and while I am probably on the same side as you on the 48 FPS for the Hobbit argument, I’ll never be on your side with regards to artificially inserting information into movies like this. It never looks right and even on 3D animated films like Cars and Ratatouille I would rather watch it at 24FPS just as intended.

  14. Josh Zyber

    “I love high frame rates, because I like to make simulation rides and reality-based experiences that are looking to be as realistic as they possibly can, but 24 frames is what I call the ‘texture’ of feature films. And I don’t think anybody’s really ready to see what you would categorize as a feature film shot at 60. And was one of the tests I did when I was at Showscan; we shot a fully dramatic short film with sets, props, actors, the whole thing at 60 and it was very disturbing. Because it was like live news, or sports, or something.”

    – Douglas Trumbull, inventor of Showscan, quoted in “The Great Framerate Debate,” October 2010


    (Thanks to msgohan at AVSForum for this.)

    • JM

      I find it best to never argue with Douglas Trumbull.

      Perhaps Jackson and Cameron are using so much CGI that they’re fundamentally creating animated films.

      I wonder how Pixar’s ‘Brave’ would look at 48fps…?

      They should shoot the Olympics in 4K/120fps and project it on movie theater screens as a real world test of the technology for sports.

  15. JM

    BBC’s ‘Planet Earth’ shot in 4K/120fps might be a way to make documentaries an epic theatrical experience.

  16. JM

    Douglas Trumbull just explained to EW how Peter Jackson can fix ‘The Hobbit’ with a variable framerate, and why the blu-ray will look great!

    • Barsoom Bob

      Thank you, that was an enlightening and also an encouraging read. He offered the answer to the problem I saw looming with the extra sharp high speed frames being dropped out to step it down to 24FPS. He is one very smart guy.

      It also lead me to the EW piece on Tree of Life for which DT created all that cosmic eye candy. Enjoyed that too.

      • JM

        WB should have had Trumbull do a Q&A at CinemaCon, to preempt the internet bitchfest.