With The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug hitting cinemas this Friday, December 13, our attention yet again turns to one of the film’s most exciting and divisive aspects: Peter Jackson’s decision to film the entire thing at 48 frames per second (fps), rather than the industry standard of 24 fps.
Just as talkies replaced the silent film, and color has become the norm for feature films, avant garde, influential directors including Peter Jackson and James Cameron are determined to make high-frame-rate (HFR) films, along with 3D, the next big thing in movies. Their crusade took a bit of a step sideways with decidedly mixed reviews for last year’s 48 fps version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Like it or not, though, expect to see more theaters equipped to show HFR movies, from 48 frames per second all the way up to 120 fps, and an increasing number of movies shot at higher frame rates. Jackson himself has been stubbornly defensive about his decision to use 48 fps, with PC Magazine characterizing his response to criticism as “deal with it.”
In technology, where more is almost always better, it is unusual to hear complaints about something getting faster. Some viewers of An Unexpected Journey complained that the scenes were “too real” — the 48 fps recording rendering the action so lifelike that they had trouble remembering that Middle Earth was supposed to be a fantasy. Other viewers missed the languid feel of traditional 24 fps movies. Unconsciously, we’re also used to 30 fps and above content being “made for TV,” and are accustomed to feature films showing at the lower 24 fps rate.
Film look sacrificed for the sake of 3D?
3D is one of the driving forces for HFR movies. By shooting at 48 fps, it’s possible to show 24 fps to each eye through a pair of active glasses, for example. It’s probably no small coincidence that Cameron and Jackson are two of the largest promoters of 3D movies, not only shooting them that way but with Cameron converting his own Titanic to 3D for re-release. Like 3D, proponents of high-frame-rate argue that it just takes time to get used to the more realistic images. Jackson says that once audiences see an entire feature film like his The Hobbit at 48 fps, especially in 3D, they’ll learn to like it. Perhaps fearing more audience backlash, Jackson has decided not to release any 48 fps trailers for the film — saving the faster frame rate for its debut in theaters on December 14.
48 fps also allows for the creation of very smooth slow-motion scenes, simply by double-printing each frame to yield a 24 fps half-speed version. Of course in this case 48 fps could be used just for the scenes which need to be in slo-mo, with the rest of the film recorded in 24 fps. Even for full-speed scenes, 48 fps has advantages. Fast camera moves no longer cause “strobing,” and individual frames are sharper. Action scenes are definitely smoother and more lifelike. These changes may be disconcerting to those used to viewing movies at 24 fps, but new moviegoers could quickly become addicted and not want to go back. Just like the rush to color led to a flurry of colorized versions of black and white classics, we may well see post-production 48 fps renderings of existing movies.
The business of 48 fps
There is another big reason studios and theater chains will be pushing 3D — money. With increasingly capable home theater setups and internet streaming competing with theaters, the movie business needs to differentiate its offerings in any way it can. Upgrading theater projectors to 48 fps, even at a cost of several thousand dollars per screen, may pay for itself if it gives theater goers a premium experience. For An Unexpected Journey, Jackson hoped that over 10,000 theaters will be HFR-capable by the time the movie released. In actuality, as of today, there are only a few thousand cinema screens capable of playing full HFR movies in 3D. As a result, Jackson and Warner Brothers are hedging their bets — The Desolation of Smaug will be released in a variety of different formats: 2D @ 24 fps, 3D @ 24 and 48 fps, and IMAX @ 24 and 48 fps.
High-frame-rate has attracted the attention of camera makers also. Previously confined to specialty, high-end, camera makers like Red, Canon has added support for frame rates up to 60 fps to its upcoming Canon EOS C500 – although the jump from 48 fps to 60 fps is hard to detect, so most HFR movies will likely settle for 48 fps. While still pricey, high-frame-rate tools will increasingly become cost effective even for independent filmmakers wanting to take advantage of the new technology. Even with some well-known filmmakers like Ang Lee being skeptical, the big money and big names behind 48 fps movies mean it’s here to stay, so we’ll all have to hope we can get used to it.