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.
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
- 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.)
- 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.