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Wednesday, December 25, 2013
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High Frame Rate and Why The Hobbit Films Matter

By Søren Hough

* * *

As the prequel films to the estimable The Lord of the Rings franchise, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films already carry with them a heightened expectation of narrative quality. However, there was more to The Lord of the Rings than its epic story. Every part of the production was groundbreaking; filming all three movies at once in New Zealand alone was an unprecedented move. But perhaps most notable about The Lord of the Rings was Jackson’s and Weta Workshop’s prodigious use of the latest in special effects technology. With The Hobbit movies, Jackson is endeavoring to change the cinematic landscape again. And this time, he’s doing it by embracing High Frame Rate (HFR) filmmaking.

The frame rate of cinema has always been a product technological limitation. At the dawn of film, pioneers of the form found that they could create motion by rapidly alternating sequential photographic images with blank ones. As a product of what is called the persistence of vision, they figured out that the brain would interpolate on those blank screens, mentally creating the connecting image between one image and the next. The result: “movies.”

For this effect to work, early filmmakers determined that the images would need to flash approximately 16 times per second to produce a viable sense of motion. Not all films conformed to 16 fps, but for projectionists who had to crank projectors manually, this number was ideal. It reduced the amount of flicker on-screen, but also kept cranking to a minimum while producing a passably smooth picture.

When talkies began to emerge in the late 20s, 16 frames per second became problematic. To accommodate soundtracks, a higher frame rate had to be found. Enter 24 fps, a standard that has been in vogue ever since; even as the industry mostly jumped from film to digital, 24 fps technology has remained unchanged. That is, until Peter Jackson and his crew decided to challenge status quo.

For the past ninety years, industry standards have found relatively little disturbance. By using high frame rate, Jackson has challenged filmic tradition and upped the ante from 24 to 48 frames per second. But why make the change?

According to The Orange County Chronicle, Bob Birchard of AFI says that HFR should improve the speed with which the persistence of vision phenomenon process takes place. “The increased frame rate will require less mental filling in,” he says, “and give the illusion of a sharper, smoother picture.” Birchard clarifies that 48 fps is “more lifelike in the sense that you’re not perceiving the intervals between frames as much.”

Jackson himself has stood in stalwart defense of HFR. Specifically, Jackson believes that 48 fps helps improve the effect of 3D filmmaking. 3D is important to Jackson; all three of The Hobbit movies were designed from the ground up to be shown in three dimensions, to the point where even the concept art was drawn in stereoscopic 3D. Jackson said in one interview with 3D Focus, “48 frames absolutely helps 3D because suddenly you’re removing a substantial amount of the motion blur that you get at 24 frames.” Jackson feels that 3D is less jarring in HFR, stating, “Your eyes get a much smoother experience.”

Having seen both An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Desolation of Smaug (2013) in HFR and 3D, I can attest to Jackson’s claims. In my screenings, 48 frames per second vastly improved the 3D effect. My experiences with other 3D films have mostly left me nonplussed. In those movies, the 3D was never truly immersive because it felt like characters and objects moved in a planar, unrealistic fashion against the background.

However, HFR managed to change my mind about the format. Although I had previously discarded 3D as a gimmick, with HFR, it suddenly felt like a meaningful (if nonessential) addition. As Jackson’s hobbits, dwarves and elves leapt about the screen, they no longer appeared as the 2D cutouts I had observed in older 3D films. At 48 fps the characters seemed to offer a perceptible sense of depth. Jackson had promised value in the new format, and I was convinced.

Several cinematic titans have voiced their approval, as well. Andy Serkis, Jackson’s frequent motion-capture collaborator, has opened his own studio where he is working on an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1945 classic, Animal Farm. Having seen firsthand how HFR can work successfully in The Hobbit, Serkis has hinted via The Hollywood Reporter that his movie could be shot in the same format.

James Cameron has also jumped onboard the HFR bandwagon. While opinions on his blockbuster film Avatar (2009) varied, most audiences felt that Cameron managed to get the 3D effect “right.” Naturally, Jackson’s comments about how HFR improves 3D caught Cameron’s interest. As a result, although the first movie was filmed at 24 fps, Fox announced that all three of Cameron’s Avatar sequels are set to be shot at 60 fps.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull has long been a champion of high frame rate films. During an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he hinted that he is working on a new science fiction project that will utilize both 3D and a whopping 120 fps. Says Trumbull, “It [sic] it’s successful, the audience will actually be in the movie – not looking at the movie.”

No one can say for sure where HFR technology will fit into the tapestry of cinematic history. Jackson, Serkis, Cameron and Trumbull have all thrown their considerable weight behind the idea, but Hollywood remains in a state of flux; traditionalists once decried the switch from film to digital, and blogs around the web suggest that they’re not any happier about this new format, either.

In an interview cited by The Latino Review, Cameron challenged naysayers: “I remember when CDs came in and there was a nostalgic feeling that the sound of a needle on vinyl was what music should sound like – suddenly you’ve got this pristine clarity and a lot of people were nay-saying it.”

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

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  • Terence Johnson

    I like the 48 fps for big budget 3D movies because it makes the movie and visual effects much more clear. There is some work to be done because the action sequences do sometimes look like they’ve been fast forwarded but I’m excited for the future of it

    • I agree – the “fast-forward” look can be off-putting. But I admit that after re-adjusting to HFR, I tend to forget it’s at a higher frame rate at all. While I still prefer 24 fps for now, I definitely think 48 fps is something I could get used to in the long run.