Some of you may remember Showscan, which was developed in the late ’70s by the visionary vfx artist Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The process used 65mm film and was captured at 60 fps, giving the film a smooth yet realistic quality, similar to video. Unfortunately for narrative cinema, audiences didn’t connect to the format on an emotional level so Showscan never really took off.
Director Peter Jackson’s latest film, The Hobbit, is one of the most anticipated prequels in recent times. The desire of fans to see Jackson’s latest endeavor is only rivaled by the sea of controversy surrounding one of the technical aspects of the film. The issue at hand is the film’s use of high frame rates. It’s rare to see the general public debate the technical aspects of film production, but because Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 frames per second as opposed to the industry-standard 24, everyone from moviegoers to cinematographers are up in arms.
With the advent of digital cinema, 24p has been the frame rate of choice because it emulates the look of film, giving digital productions a more cinematic look rather than 30 fps, the standard for NTSC. We’re all familiar with this look, and our eyes and brains are trained for the effect that 24 fps provides. Although 24p is great for 2D, it may be the source of many people’s issue with 3D. Simply, 24p doesn’t track images fast enough, and frames tend to have a high amount of motion blur, making it difficult to have a seamless viewing experience in 3D. The result can look choppy with disjointed images that can confuse the viewer and take them right out of a movie. According to Jackson and his crew on The Hobbit‘s Facebook page, many of the judder and strobe imaging problems can be eliminated by shooting and projecting at 48 fps. Both Jackson and director James Cameron, who are arguably the biggest proponents of 3D cinema, feel that 24 fps is holding back 3D.
The issue erupted at CinemaCon in April of this year when a 10-minute preview screening of The Hobbit outraged journalists and fanboys who quickly went to Twitter and blogs, panning the piece solely on the issue of frame rates. Surprisingly, The Hobbit‘s status as one of the largest prequels since Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace took a backseat to the film’s frame rate. For tech geeks, whether The Hobbit will live up to its predecessor, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has become secondary to whether or not 48 fps will become an industry standard.
Although the anger over the frame rate came to a head in the spring, Jackson has made no secret about how he intended to produce The Hobbit as he revealed on his Facebook page, "Warner Bros. has been very supportive, and allowed us to start shooting The Hobbit at 48 fps, despite there never having been a wide-release feature film filmed at this higher frame rate." Despite the decision for studio executives to back Jackson’s decision, the result of the April screening was sheer outrage. Critics compared the experience to watching Monday Night Football or a soap opera. Jackson seemed to shrug it off, stating that what people saw wasn’t finished, and once audiences see a finished version that’s properly color graded, the reasons why he shot 48 fps would be clear.