The Hobbit in 48FPS, twice as good or twice the anguish?

The world of cinema has been buzzing with news that Peter Jackson’s latest film, The Hobbit, would be screened at 48 frames per second in 3D. For decades, 24 frames per second (fps) has been the film standard, and we have come to sub-consciously associate it with the way films should look. With The Hobbit’s release fast approaching, Warner Bros held a 10 minute screening at CinemaCon, a film industry trade show held in Las Vegas this week, and the response was less than encouraging.

With a normal film displayed at 24fps, you get a visual representation somewhat similar to what your own eyes experience in the real world, so the slightly blurred movement of 24fps film is similar to the way we see motion. For example, waving your hand in front of your face or watching speeding traffic can appear somewhat blurred. But with 48FPS, those movements become much clearer and there is no place to hide anything between the frames, which puts pressure on both actors and special effects. This ‘hyper realism’ draws us deeper into the reality shown in the film itself, with the net result of moving further away from the natural look and feel of our own vision. Those that saw the footage however, likened it to watching a TV movie from the 70s and described it as ‘unsettling’, not a glowing review to be sure. The loss of that cinematic blur and frame rate will take some adjustment and it certainly will not be the best option to tell every story, including The Hobbit, if the accounts are to be believed.

The advantage of doubling the frame rate to 48fps results in a much clearer image, which is ideal for 3D effects. Generally, 3D can place quite a strain on the eyes by forcing them to focus and converge onto one plane in a way that is not natural for the eyes and brain to process. With a higher frame rate and less motion blur, the image will be sharper, smoother and allow the eyes to relax more. This will pave the way for longer and better looking 3D films. In Avatar, for example, the 3D effects were comparatively sedate due to the running time of almost 3 hours.

Director Peter Jackson on the set of ‘The Hobbit’

With the 3D craze finally settling down and tentatively cementing its place in cinemas around the world, it seems like the logical time to start to improve the standard. From the start 3D has been fraught with very vocal criticism but the box office numbers don’t lie, proving that there certainly is an audience out there for it. One can’t help but recall the release of ‘Clash of the Titans 3D’ a few short years ago that was met with resounding cries of ‘My eyes, the goggles do nothing!’ That film however, was converted to 3D in post production and not filmed natively that way. There have also been considerable technological improvements since then and, in general, 3D is fairly good in a high proportion of new films including the latest release, The Avengers.

Currently, this writer is not convinced that 48fps is a misstep on Jackson’s part, and will reserve judgement until viewing the finished film. Jackson did stress that the footage was unfinished and there are still several months untill the release date. Films shot in 48fps may not become the new standard in film, at least not for many years to come, but they may yet find a home in cinema much like 3D has done.

There is rumour that The Hobbit will be screened both in 48 and 24fps to accommodate both cautious fans and cinemas that are unable to upgrade their equipment in time. So like it or not, the option to try something new will be there come December, and it’s  worth giving 48fps a go. If it’s not to your liking then you can always see it the old fashioned way, just like your parents and grandparents did it before you.