This weekend, audiences will have the chance to revisit Middle-earth as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arrives in theaters.
Perhaps the most buzzed-about aspect of the new film, however, isn’t the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman), or the band of dwarves he accompanies on a quest to recapture their kingdom. Nor is it the brief appearance by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug.
Rather, it’s the movie's faster frame rate.
Shot and, in some theaters, projected at 48 frames per second — as opposed to the traditional 24 frames — “The Hobbit” could be a significant turning point for the movie industry, bucking eight decades of tradition.
The standard frame rate — meaning the speed at which the individual frames of a movie are projected onto a screen — has remained essentially unchanged since 1927.
Depending on how audiences respond to the new experience, though, high-frame rates, or HFR as Warner Bros. is calling the new technology, could be the next big thing for Hollywood blockbusters.
Naturally, Jackson himself is completely sold on the new format, which is touted as reducing some of the strobing and blurring effects of slower frame rates, particularly during action scenes.
In an article on Entertainment Weekly titled "Five things you should know about 48 frames per second," the Oscar-winning director is quoted as saying, “48 frames makes everything look a little sharper because you just don’t have so much blur. ... You’re not seeing that very subtle smudging between the frames. It looks like you’re looking through a window into a real world rather than through the glass of an artificial world.”
The discussion about frame rates is nothing new, though. In fact, it goes all the way back to the earliest days of film as a medium.
No less than Thomas Edison himself argued that anything under 46 frames per second “would strain the eye.”
Ultimately, 24 frames was adopted, mostly as a cost-cutting measure, according to CinemaBlend.com. Fewer frames meant less money spent on expensive film reels.
In today’s world of digital projection, of course, that’s no longer an issue, and filmmakers like Jackson see faster frame rates as a long overdue technological step that could help save the declining theater industry.
Speaking with the Huffington Post, the filmmaker said, "The technology exists, so why should we as an industry sit back on our haunches and laurels and say, 'We got it right in 1927'? We should be looking at the dwindling audiences and the fact that kids aren't as excited about going to the cinema as we are or used to be when we were young. And how do we make it feel more exciting for them?”
So far, though, the critical response to the faster frame rate in "The Hobbit" has been extremely mixed.
Geoffrey Macnab of the Independent called the effect “kitsch and alienating,” while others have said the enhanced image is “too real,” making the movie look like an extravagantly filmed soap opera.
As Robbie Collin writes for the Daily Telegraph, “The intention is to make the digital special effects and swoopy landscape shots look smoother, which they do. The unintended side effect is that the extra visual detail gives the entire film a sickly sheen of fakeness: the props look embarrassingly proppy and the rubber noses look a great deal more rubbery than nosey.”
Likewise, Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post says, “Most of the scenes that take place outdoors look fantastic, but indoors it was difficult to stop being conscious of the fact that we were staring at a movie set.”
In fact, in one scene, Ryan adds, the image was so crisp that he couldn’t help getting distracted by Gandalf’s contact lenses.
Other critics have been more positive. “After a minute or two of adjusting,” writes Ethan Sacks of the New York Daily News, “the higher resolution is eye-popping, similar to discovering HD television for the first time.”
And Wired’s Hugh Hart says, “Middle-earth in 3-D looks so crisp it’s like stepping into the foreground of an insanely gorgeous diorama.”
As with any new technology, some backlash is natural.
Speaking with the Telegraph, Jackson said, “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 naysaying it."
Whether or not 48 frames per second — or even 60, as some filmmakers have suggested — becomes the new standard will depend on how audiences react.
Other filmmakers, though, have already expressed interest in the new format — among them, James Cameron, whose 2010 film “Avatar” was met with similar criticism for its pioneering use of 3-D technology.
Speaking to the West Australian at the New Zealand premiere of "The Hobbit," Cameron said, "We charged out ahead on 3-D with ‘Avatar,’ now Peter’s doing it with ‘The Hobbit.’ It takes that kind of bold move to make change."
He also added that, "If there is acceptance of 48, then that will pave the way for 'Avatar' to take advantage of it.”
However, not everyone will have the chance to see “The Hobbit” in the higher frame rate.
Only around 450 theaters nationwide will offer the option of 48 frames per second, including six in Utah.
For a list of all the theaters showing the new format, moviegoers can visit 48fpsmovies.com.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.