High frame rate too much reality for audiences

Photo courtesy of MGM

With “The Hobbit” coming out this Friday, fans of the Lord of the Rings series are eagerly waiting to return to Middle Earth. However, like with everything great in life, there is a catch. Critics who have attended early screenings of the film are complaining about the frame rate and its overly clear format.

Films are composed of rapidly flashing frames that create the illusion of motion. Every film released by Hollywood since the 1920s has a frame rate of 24 frames per second, while Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is shot at 48 FPS. That is twice the normal amount. Advocates of the higher frame rates, such as Peter Jackson and James Cameron, praise the sharp and smooth flowing images.

Early reviewers have been complaining about how the frame rate hurts the film more than it helps. Words like “distractingly sharp” and “overly detailed” keep popping up. Critics have pointed out that the clarity of the picture is jarring, making the audience more aware of the makeup, sets and artificiality of the special effects.

One example of this is found in a scene in which the characters are getting rained on. The footage is so crisp and clear that it becomes brutally obvious that the rain isn’t hitting the actors’ faces. There is an apparent contrast of the CGI rain with what is actually shot on camera. If “The Hobbit” was shot at 24 FPS, the produced motion blur would have hidden the imperfections. Films shot at 24 FPS produce the film “look” that people commonly associate with being part of the cinematic experience.

Jackson and Cameron are part of a movement of filmmakers shifting to a hyper-realistic capture of their films. This movement includes shooting their films with Red Epic cameras, 3-D footage captured at 48 FPS and gratuitous amounts of digital effects.  Last year, Cameron said, “When you author and project a movie at 48 or 60, it becomes a different movie. The 3-D shows you a window into reality; the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window. In fact, it is just reality. It is really stunning.”

Unfortunately, “The Hobbit” reviewers have been disagreeing so far. “Eventually, I realized I kept being taken out of the story,” Chris Pirrotta, co-founder of TheOneRing.net said. “The realism of the environment really took me out.”

Jackson defends his choice, saying the audience needs to adjust. When Jackson showed a small clip of “The Hobbit” at CinemaCon, people negatively reacted to the frame rate.  Jackson said, “A lot of the critical response I was reading was people saying it’s different. Well, yes, it certainly is. But I think, ultimately, it is different in a positive way, especially for 3-D, especially for epic films and films that are trying to immerse the viewer in the experience of a story.”

There is good news for those who don’t want to commit to the higher frame rate: people don’t have to see it in 48 FPS. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will be released in three formats: 3-D at 48 FPS, 3-D at 24 FPS and 2-D at 24 FPS. Also, the 48 FPS version of the film will only be in about 450 theaters nationwide.

The 24 FPS version of the film has yet to be commented on, so the best way to judge rather Jackson’s choice to film “The Hobbit” at 48 FPS was good or bad is to go see it in one of those select theaters. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arrives in theaters on Dec. 14.

 

Reach the reporter at tverti@asu.edu