What You Need to Know Before You See ‘The Hobbit’

As you probably know — whether out of personal interest, interaction with your favorite geek, or a glance at any delivery device for mass marketing — the first of Peter Jackson’s three-part (!) Lord of the Rings prequel series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is out in theaters this Friday. What may be less clear, at least to the casual observer, is what all this chatter is about “frame rate” and “48 fps” and other blather that have been floating around since the films went into production. So here’s a quick breakdown, to help communicate with the LOTR geek in your life (we’re a service-oriented site, after all!): what is all this talk about “frame rate,” and what does it mean to you?

It begins with simple math. Normally, when you go to the movies, you’re seeing a film that was shot and projected at 24 fps — the fps standing for “frames per second,” i.e., the fluid filmic motion is comprised of 24 individual images every second. For decades, television and video were shot at the slightly faster 30 fps — a few more frames in each second, which is why, say, soap operas and game shows and Uncle Bob’s Christmas 1989 home movies look different from Do the Right Thing, which was released in theaters the same year. (They also look different because Spike Lee’s mise-en-scène is far superior to Uncle Bob’s, I mean, seriously, come on with all that headroom.) And for years, that slight difference in frame rate was the bane of the low-budget filmmaker’s existence; because the eye sees that subtle difference, and ties to it the aforementioned soaps and home movies, filmmakers had to scrape together funds to shoot on the far more expensive 16mm (and 24 fps) film format.

If there’s one reason to be thankful for the Star Wars prequels (and there aren’t many!) it’s that George Lucas decided this was a problem he wanted fixed, and he had the power and financial clout to make it happen. Because of the heavy load of digital effects work in the films, Lucas wanted to eliminate the intermediate step of shooting on film and transferring to digital — but digital video cameras would only shoot at the typical 30 fps. Lucas got Sony to build a camera that would shoot video at 24 fps, and ha, wouldn’t you know it, that video looked an awful lot closer to film than video ever had before. Within a few years, even the cheapest consumer models were shooting at 24 frames per second, while the big kids in Hollywood were shooting with digital HD cameras like the RED that basically replicated the look of traditional 35mm film, with greater ease of control.

Enter Mr. Jackson. Early in pre-production of The Hobbit series, Jackson announced (via Facebook) that he was shooting the 3D series in not 24 fps (or even 30), but 48 fps — so, yes, if you’re bad with math, twice as many frames per second as the average film. “The result looks like normal speed,” he wrote, “but the image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness. Looking at 24 frames every second may seem OK — and we’ve all seen thousands of films like this over the last 90 years — but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or ‘strobe.’ Shooting and projecting at 48 frames/second does a lot to get rid of these issues. It looks much more lifelike and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D.”

That last bit — “it looks much more lifelike” — brings the question of Jackson’s aesthetic decision into focus. Indeed, a faster frame rate does look “much more lifelike”; an old episode of Dr. Who looks more “lifelike” than, say, The Dark Knight Rises. That was the difference (in those pre-HD TV days) between television and cinema — we go to the movies to enter another reality, and over decades of moviegoing, we’ve come to associate (consciously or not) the look of 24 fps with the “reality” of the movies.

What Jackson is doing is something very different, and many of the early reviews have been skeptical. When clips from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were unveiled last April, fans and critics were pronounced in their scorn. Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta wrote, upon viewing that initial “sizzle reel,” “The change from 24 frames per second to 48 frames per second is HUGE. It completely changes what every image looks like, the movements, the tone, everything is different. 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.”

Many of the early reviews share Sciretta’s skepticism. “It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the 48fps format interfered with my ability to get lost in this movie’s story,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens. “It looks like an ’80s-era home video shot by someone who happened to be standing around on set while The Hobbit was being filmed. (Other visual analogues scribbled down in my screening notes include Telletubbies and daytime soap operas.)” Variety’s Peter Debruge concurs: “Everything takes on an overblown, artificial quality in which the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious, while well-lit areas bleed into their surroundings, like watching a high-end home movie.”

“At first,” writes Time’s Richard Corliss, “I thought I was watching a video game: pellucid pictures of indistinct creatures. After a while my eyes adjusted, as to a new pair of glasses, but it’s still like watching a very expensively mounted live TV show on the world’s largest home-TV screen.” Even those who praise the look of the film do so with qualifications: Hugh Hart’s Wired review is headlined with the pronouncement that “The Hobbit is Insanely Gorgeous at 48 Frames per Second,” but inside, he admits, “In delivering the kind of high-def detail by which every wrinkle gets full attention, fast frame takes getting used to. At times, scenes unfold as if part of an extravagantly well-lit, art-directed reality-based series or soap opera.”

So what does this mean for you, the casual viewer? Possibly, nothing. Only a handful of theaters are even equipped to screen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in its director-preferred 48 fps 3D format; the rest will get it in standard (albeit down-converted) 24 fps. But the format’s proponents are so convinced that it’s “the future of movies,” that it may turn out to be just that, whether we like it or not. The loudest advocate of higher frame rates is James Cameron, who says, “The 3D shows you a window into reality; the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window. In fact, it is just reality. It is really stunning.” Cameron will reportedly shoot Avatar 2 and 3 in 48 fps, and lest we forget, it was his enthusiasm for 3D that turned that into the surcharage-added standard for blockbuster releases — along with Avatar’s mind-boggling grosses. Whether audiences will cotton to he and Jackson’s latest technological “advancement” remains to be seen.