An Unexpected Frame Rate – The Hobbit's Theatrical Exhibition

Since the era of the silent film, movies have played at a rate that was deemed as close to reality as possible- 24 frames per second. Of course, in that nascent period of filmmaking, when you are moving up the framerate spectrum from 10 and 12fps, 24 would look very realistic given the constraints of the technology at the time; mechanical film cameras, all servos and gears, could only run a finite amount of film through the aperture gate before either the film or the camera itself would break from the high-speed. As the artistry of filmmaking progressed over the years, 24fps became the definitive frame rate for motion pictures, despite the fact that in recent years experiments in shooting and projecting at higher frame rates like the now-defunct Maxivision 48 have quietly been happening for decades, but it took a film juggernaut like The Hobbit and the creative fearlessness of Peter Jackson to foist it onto the business. But is it any good? And does it change anything at all?

If you’ve looked at showtimes for The Hobbit at your local Cineplex, chances are you’ve seen a theater or two list it as “HFR”, meaning high frame rate, meaning that you will be viewing the film as it was shot, it its native 48fps. After three hours in a theater with the new frame rate, it’s probably safe to say that the jury is still out on locking down a new framerate standard. Why? Because for all the hoopla, it gives the film an inconsistent feel and look. The key component that people are up in arms about online –and the technical explanation- is that 24fps creates a sense of heightened or pseudo-reality. This is specifically because there is a juttering or blurring that comes with 24fps that is so subtle, you cannot pick it out of a moving image, but your brain processes it on a subconscious level. It’s something intangible that gives motion pictures that dream-like fantasy quality, even if it happens to be the new gritty urban drama all the critics are raving about. Shooting at a higher frame rate means more frames per second, which inherently means no more jutter or blur, which would all but kill that film-dreaminess that we have come to expect from a feature film.

The change is certainly jarring. There is a 1.5x fast forward option on the Sony Playstation 3 when viewing Blurays and DVDs and the best example I can give is that the first fifteen or twenty minutes looked like a movie viewed at that speed. Movement of objects and actors on screen seem to move much faster than they should in an artificial way. The only other thing I could compare the bizarre sense of motion to is with all the new flat panel TVs that are hoodwinking customers with all of their “high refresh rate” displays. This is essentially a bastardization of a higher frame rate, with the processor inside the TV essentially “creating” what should be seen between the frames that physically exist in the movie itself. The result is weird and gross and is ruining the home viewing experience for millions, but that is an entirely different conversation. This one is dealing with how a film shot in and projected in 48fps looks and feels.

The good news is that bizarre motion feeling burned away after about thirty minutes and general movement on-screen looked and felt like it should. The bad news, is that it never fully and completely dissipated, sadly. For me, whenever that unnatural sense of movement reared its ugly head was during sudden, jerky movements with the camera or with the actors, or a combination of the two. If an actor walking suddenly jumped out of the way and the camera followed the action, all that slippery motion would come to the forefront yet again.

So what’s the verdict? Shitty. Shitty in the realization that it’s too early to tell what the hell good a higher frame rate will do for film, if anything.  The issue here is there is just no definitive new standard for framerate. Who’s to say that 48 is really the new 24? Hell, Jim Cameron has even said that if people don’t completely reject 48 that he will shoot the sequel to Avatar at 60. So where does it end? It doesn’t. Because human beings to see real living, breathing life as a series of frames, so theoretically no number will ever compare to seeing something fo’ reals.

The important thing here is to not shun innovation or experimentation with film. If that was the mentality in years prior, we’d be nowhere even close to where we are today in telling narratives through moving pictures. Establishing a higher frame rate may not be the next evolutionary step, but it’s a step forward and that’s good enough for now.

Images courtesy of James Fisher, Warner Brothers, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

One Comment

  1. I absolutely love the PS3 1.5x setting–I actually watch half of my TV shows and most of my non-3D movies with the PS3 set at 1.5x! (It’s the only way I can keep up with the sheer volume of show I watch!) That’s why I actually prefer digital media over streaming services like Netflix and Hulu because this is not an option. (Overnight I have my PC pull down any unwatched primetime shows from the TiVo, stripping out the commercials so I can just stream those via DLNA at 1.5x the next day.)

    My crazy TV watching aside, I did not have an issue with jerkiness while watching the HFR Hobbit. If anything, films actually seem a bit slow to me when watching them at normal speed! :) The problem I had with HFR was that it looked almost too real–like I was watching an old BBC program or stage play. It just didn’t feel right for this film that was supposed to be set in another world–I felt like I was watching actors in costumes rather than actual characters.

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