The Hobbit and High Frame Rate Projection

The night of Christmas Day I went to the movies with the girlfriend and her family. Naturally I insisted that, if we were to see Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we had to see it at 48 frames-per-second. My reasoning was simple: none of us could ever reproduce the experience at home, so why not try it out? No one cared, so they humored me.

I’ve heard all the complaints and defenses of high frame rate (HFR) projection. It looks like a soap opera! It’s the future! There has been so much cheering and hand-wringing and confusion surrounding the format, I simply had to try it out for myself.

Make no mistake: the shift to 48 fps is a jarring one, especially considering that Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth is already a familiar place. Gone is the gauzy, smeary look of cinematic motion. In its place is a look that I can only describe as hyper-real, so real that the world of the film barely feels like a film at all anymore. Rather it feels like live action unfurling before the viewer’s eyes; it feels like the characters are in the room with you, bludgeoning orcs and outwitting trolls. It feels, in a word, spectacular.

Now there are a few reasons why the 48 fps picture crackles with what I perceive as “live action.” It looks very similar to live broadcast television. A good, recent, analogue would be to compare the look of an episode 30 Rock, normally shot on lush 35mm film, to one of the live broadcasts the series did in its fifth and sixth seasons.1 In part I’m conditioned to equate that “video” look with “live action.” It means I’m watching football or the Oscars or the news.

The harshest critics of the high frame format hang onto the “TV look” of The Hobbit as though it’s inherently a step backwards. I can see that. I’m not yet ready to say that the digital formats that have revolutionized visual storytelling are equal to the look of film; they’re simply not. However, I can try to accept them for what they are: new and exciting leaps forward.

So going into the HFR screening, I tried my damndest to let my love of that ineffable film look fall to the wayside. Jackson isn’t trying to ape film, he’s trying something new.

HFR isn’t perfect, and it’s far from appropriate for many sorts of stories. The Hobbit, in fact, feels an odd fit for the format. The harsh edges and sharp movement seem out of place in what was once an ephemeral landscape. The scale seems off too, reducing what I presume are actual sweeping New Zealand vistas to a miniature countryside, something akin to a model train set. Optically I haven’t a clue why this would happen, but it feels similar to the effect a tilt-shift lens has on a large-scale environment.

Peter Jackson’s roving camera is sometimes a nuisance, pushing my own eyes to their optical limits. At 48fps the picture remains almost too crisp for handheld motion; my eye simply couldn’t take in all of the visual information as the camera would bob and weave, even through simpler, less kinetic scenes.

All of that said, the format is still an absolute wonder. The digital characters blended seamlessly with their human counterparts in ways I never imagined possible. The old Gollum was good, this one is better. Thousands of goblins and orcs felt more weighty than in films past. A pack of forest trolls look stunning. They feel like something cooked up in a Jim Henson studio, and feel as weighty and physically present as those puppets to boot.

I am on the 48fps train. For all of Jackson’s indulgences and stubbornness, this is clearly a format that opens up a whole new set of tools to storytellers. It’s so easy to discount the look of the format, but don’t be fooled, this is as much of a visual revolution as the advent of digital characters. I can’t wait to see where things are headed next.

  1. Another example: The 1997 live episode of ER↩︎