This post has been corrected, as detailed below.
Few new filmmaking technologies have fundamentally altered the moviegoing experience.
Sound and color certainly did. “Percepto,” the device that shocked viewers from beneath their seats, did not.
The latest cinematic trick headed for theaters this holiday season is “high frame rate” technology, and director Peter Jackson believes it will be the next big thing at the multiplex.
His new movie, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” was shot at 48 frames per second. That’s double the 24-frame industry standard, which has ruled for more than 80 years.
The picture opens Dec. 14, but Warner Bros. has already screened it dozens of times within the entertainment industry — and the reaction is decidedly mixed.
Some who have seen the film at 48 frames per second marvel at its clarity and high resolution, which is especially dramatic in making dark scenes come to life. But others have complained that it is too realistic, making “The Hobbit” seem less like a film and more like something you might see on a high-definition TV or even a video game.
“Like watching a high-end home movie,” Hollywood trade paper Variety groused.
Jim Vejvoda of the fan site IGN also found it jarring. “The 48 fps presentation of ‘The Hobbit’ looks like the greatest BBC or PBS production ever,” he wrote.
Only about 450 theaters of more than 4,000 in the U.S. and Canada playing “The Hobbit” will use the high frame rate technology; the rest will be at the traditional speed.
In Hollywood, though, most consider 48 FPS a must-see.
“It’s a filmmaker I love cranking up one of the few variables left in film exhibition, so even if I don’t think it’ll be for me, I’m just excited to see what it looks like,” said “Looper” director Rian Johnson.
After attending the movie’s premiere in New Zealand last week, “X-Men” director Bryan Singer tweeted that he had “serious frame rate envy.”
The slower 24 FPS became the standard in the late 1920s. It emerged as a compromise between those who wanted to cut costs — fewer frames per second required less actual film — and those looking for a fast enough speed to create natural sound during the advent of “talkies.”
Over time, 24 frames became ingrained in the psyches of filmmakers and audiences. Anything faster just doesn’t look quite right.
“It clearly takes some getting used to,” said “Hobbit” star Ian McKellen. “Probably a young person who’s not seen many films will immediately accept it and relish it. I think the rest of us may have to get used to it.”
Most new technologies that change the moviegoing experience produced carping before they were ultimately accepted, from sound to color to 3-D — the 1950s fad that came back in style with the success of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in 2009.
But cinematic history is also rife with innovations that never caught on. In addition to Percepto, a gimmick in which electric buzzers were attached to the underside of seats for viewers watching the 1959 horror film “The Tingler,” other failed advances include smell-o-vision and Cinerama, the wide-screen format.
Shooting with more frames per second provides undeniable benefits. It helps eliminate strobing, the flickering effect caused when an object on-screen or the camera itself moves too fast for film to keep up. It can also makes the screen brighter because the projector shutter is closed less often.
“What it should do is address the shortcomings of a frame rate established almost 100 years ago by people who didn’t want to spend more money than they had to,” said producer Jon Landau, who with business partner Cameron is considering shooting the sequel to “Avatar” as fast as 60 FPS.
As a first attempt at 48 FPS, “The Hobbit” is sure to contain flaws that can be addressed in the future. Embracing change means embracing the potential to make mistakes and to learn from them.
“It’s all about learning how to take these new tools and still give a cinematic look and feel,” Landau said.
But it’s not clear whether any directors besides Cameron will follow in Jackson’s path. “Avatar 2” is the only movie beyond “The Hobbit” trilogy for which a high frame rate has been publicly discussed.
“Forty-eight frames has never come up in any of our meetings with major filmmakers as something people are contemplating,” said a senior executive at one studio who requested anonymity for fear of offending Jackson.
Money isn’t an issue, since shooting at 48 FPS on a digital camera doesn’t cost a penny more. The only added expense on “The Hobbit” was several million dollars for special effects that had to be made for twice as many frames (a relatively modest amount in a $250-million-plus production).
And it’s very unlikely to affect the movie’s box office. Surveys indicate “The Hobbit” should be a huge hit, whether ticket buyers opt for 48 or 24 FPS, in 3-D or 2-D, on Imax or regular-sized screens.
Nonetheless, audiences’ reactions to high frame rate will matter greatly to those behind the picture.
Jackson has staked much of his credibility with fans on the new technology, proclaiming that he has “absolute belief and faith” in it. And Warner’s head of distribution, Dan Fellman, has predicted that after the first “Hobbit” helps audiences warm up to the format, next year’s sequel “The Desolation of Smaug” will play at 48 FPS in thousands of theaters.
Whether audiences and the industry end up feeling that high frame rate immerses them in Middle-earth or turns the multiplex into HDTV, Jackson has already succeeded in one mission: An entire industry is debating a question that, for 80 years, nobody had thought to ask.
“As filmmakers, we have to keep using the technology available to us,” the director said. “Rather than say, ‘You know what? We peaked in 1930 so let’s not change anything.’”
[For the record, Dec. 10, 12:45 a.m.: “The Hobbit”: In a Dec. 8 Section A article about Peter Jackson shooting the “Lord of the Rings” prequel at 48 frames per second for greater clarity, a quote by “Looper” director Rian Johnson about Jackson should have read “It’s a filmmaker I love cranking up one of the few variables left in film exhibition, so even if I don’t think it’ll be for me, I’m just excited to see what it looks like,” not “As a filmmaker I love cranking up one of the few variables left in film exhibition, so even if I don’t think it’ll be for me, I’m just excited to see what it looks like.”]
– Ben Fritz
Times staff writers John Horn and Gina McIntyre contributed to this report.
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