Will faster frame rate in 'The Hobbit' successfully buck 85 years of tradition?

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13 2012 10:15 a.m. MST

From left, Andy Serkis, Peter Jackson, James Nesbitt, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage and Ian McKellan at the UK premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" at The Odeon Leicester Square,London on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012.

Jon Furniss, Jon Furniss/Invision/AP

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.”

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