48 Frames Per So What?: The Big ‘Hobbit’ Framerate Discussion

Now that the embargo’s been lifted, reaction to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has been mostly positive (it stands at 74% on Rotten Tomatoes), with even so-so reviews like Dana Stevens’ from Slate knocking the film (hard) for its high frame rate format. Not helping matters are reports that some viewers at the New Zealand premiere suffered motion sickness and nausea after the seeing the film, (although distributor Warner Brothers and director Peter Jackson were quick to hit back at those claims).

So what’s the big deal? What’s all of the uproar over 24 fps vs. 48 fps?

I honestly have no idea, so I took decided to dig around a bit to find out more.

Typically, when you watch a movie it’s a 24 fps, or as my good friend Jason Gorber of Twitch explains, it’s always “been a kind of accidental, “good enough” standard, more tied to the need for synchronous sound and reduction in celluloid costs than for an ideal aesthetic medium to create moving images.”

It’s what gives film that… well, “film” look, but some complaints about “The Hobbit” have been that it looks too much like video, absent the grain and image blurring that we’re used to in films. That’s because Jackson chose to shoot “The Hobbit” using the ridiculously high definition RED Epic camera, which, according to this piece from PC Mag, records images at 5,120-by-2,700-pixel. That’s an almost absurd amount of detail and Jackson has opted to not only throw it up onto the big screen but push it in 3D.

What’s causing the problem for some viewers, what’s lead some critics like EW’s Anthony Breznican to tear into the this Spring’s CinemaCon presentation of 10 minutes of footage from the film is all of that extra visual data Jackson is giving us, what some are complaining is purely and simply a violation of what our eyes are used to seeing on the big screen. Per Breznican, the footage he saw with 4100 other viewers “looked much more like visiting the set of a film than seeing the textured cinematography of a finished movie,” the result of what Jackson claims is a much easier on the eyes presentation, absent the usual strobing and flickering of 24 fps films during fast camera moves. We’ve become so used to the blur of the modern film image, that our eyes simply can’t process 48 fps easily.

Back to Mr. Gorber again, who argues that this is really more of a conversation about aesthetics than anything else (seriously, read the entire piece–Jason’s an incredibly smart guy able to break down this conversation into bite-sized chunks):

This might be the number one crutch against HFR – most people, even many critics, don’t ever think about the artifacts baked into what they’re watching; we’ve spent much of our lives consuming films in a particular fashion, giving zero mind to 24fps. Throw us something using HFR, and we’re quickly made to notice it, making it slightly offputting and distracting from the other things going on up on the screen.

So it’s the flickery, “good enough” look we’ve all come to know and be comfortable with in film vs. Jackson’s attempt to give us ultra high-resolution in a sweeping fantasy epic. I’m curious how this will end up looking on DVD and Blu-ray, where the latter natively presents video at 30 fps.

So what do you think? Does any of this give you pause about seeing “The Hobbit” this week? Or are you even more excited now about what could potentially be the next leap forward in film?