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Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Frame Rate

January 6, 2013

In my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I intentionally left out any mention of the biggest buzz surrounding the film: Jackson’s use of “high frame rate” (HFR) cinematography.

Now, many of you may be unsure of what I mean. Indeed, there are fewer than two thousand theaters in the world equipped to show any sort of HFR projection, and The Hobbit opened in over four thousand theaters in the United States alone. Even if you saw the movie, you might not have seen the HFR version, and you might not have even been able to if you’d wanted to.

So the quick and dirty version is this: movies, as you probably know, are composed of a sequence of still images flashed very quickly so that the brain is tricked into seeing motion. The standard for most movies is to show 24 frames every second — for 3-D movies they show 48: one set of 24 for each eye — which is generally enough to get the illusion to work.

The catch is that when the camera moves it starts to break the illusion. The details are big and messy and have to do with all sorts of things from the lighting to the lenses used, but the upshot is that if you move any camera too fast the image seems to stutter and loses its smooth flow. The effect seems to be even more pronounced in stereo cinematography, where each eye has to maintain its own coherent sense of motion.

Jackson’s answer is to up the frame rate; instead of 24 frames per eye per second, his cameras are shooting 48 fps and the projectors display 96 fps total. This is not itself that big a deal; most new home televisions have refresh rates of 120 Hz — updating the displayed image 120 times every second — and it’s not hard to find them with 240. It’s a little harder to do it in 4K projection — a resolution roughly equivalent to two HDTV screens high and two wide — and with a machine intended to run for around twelve hours a day, but that’s really all that’s going on.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, it turns out that upping the frame rate has an incredible effect on the quality of the projected image. And by “quality” I mean “what does the picture look like” rather than a linear bad-to-good scale. HFR projection just plain looks different.

And this is not unexpected. As I noted above, televisions have for a long time been displaying their images at 120 Hz, which is five times faster than the film standard. Does this mean that TV is shown at 120 fps? no! In fact, the National Television System Committee (NTSC) video standard used in North America, Japan, and a few other places has long used an effective rate of 30 fps[1]. And the result? stuff shot “on video” looks seriously different from stuff shot “on film”. For an example, compare two episodes from the second season of The Twilight Zone: “The Obsolete Man”, which was shot on film, and “The Whole Truth”, which was shot on video, as were five others that season in a short-lived experiment.

But why am I so sure that this is the frame rate and not some other artifact of the two recording technologies? Because TV manufacturers have been “helping out” lately, with a setting that’s usually enabled by default that resamples 24fps movies to 30fps, which is seriously easy if you’re refreshing at 120Hz. The first time I noticed it was watching Cat People on TCM. I hadn’t seen it before and I knew it was sort of low-budget, so my immediate reaction was to think they’d actually shot it on video and transferred it to film for distribution. But then I saw The Philadelphia Story on that same television and it, too, looked like video. Indeed, I could turn off that setting and watch the image snap back into the familiar look of film.

So it looks different, but what does this mean in terms of quality (this time on a bad-to-good scale)? Well, I’m not really sure. See, I’ve basically been trained to see stuff shot on video at 30fps differently than stuff shot on film at 24fps. Film is movies, from highbrow, small-budget art to lowbrow, big-budget action; video is the evening news and soap operas. Single-camera sitcoms with high production values shoot on film; multi-camera sitcoms slapped together on a soundstage shoot on video. These are generalizations, of course, but they’re a deeply-ingrained part of how I respond to moving images. And using visual character to affect how an image is received is obviously important, or Instagram would never have become popular enough to be worth a billion dollars to anyone.

Jackson touts his HFR cinematography’s ability to make the images in The Hobbit look more realistic than ever, and in a way he’s absolutely right: it renders an image on the screen that looks more like it was actually shot, on a set, with makeup and costumes and actors and cameras. There’s one shot I’m very familiar with from the trailer, of Thorin Oakenshield turning over his shoulder towards the camera, looking as magisterial as a dwarf possibly can. When I came to that shot in the film itself, it felt much smaller than it should have. On a certain level, the “unrealism” of 24fps helps create another space where these stories can actually take place.

And then there’s a sense in which the whole thing actually looks less realistic, which is almost certainly a trick of psychology. The company crosses a mountain with more gorgeous New Zealand peaks in the background, and I’m reasonably certain Jackson actually shot it from a helicopter circling the actors. But even though I know that as I’m watching the scene, I can’t shake the sense that it looks like it was green-screened. “This looks like video,” my brain tells me, “and that means cheaper production values and cut corners.”

But I must, in fairness, come back to where I started: camera motion. Here, the HFR technique is an unqualified success. The camera sinks and spins through the goblin lair with nary a blip in my peripheral vision. I have yet to see the film in 24fps, but I’m confident it doesn’t look nearly so good when things start moving and the camera starts turning like that.

So I come back to parallel my thoughts on the way Jackson and company adapt the story of The Hobbit: I have some serious complaints about HFR cinematography, but I recognize that a lot of that might be bound up with my own background. The coming generation of kids raised on 48fps movies may not agree with me at all. This much I can objectively state: HFR cinematography is more useful and shows much more potential as a tool than stereography does, but the technology surrounding it — the overhaul of makeup costume and set design and special effects techniques that will have to be made to compensate for such a radical change in image-rendering — is simply not there yet. If you’re curious about the bleeding edge of cinema technology, by all means seek out the HFR version of The Hobbit and its sequels. If you just want to watch the movie, find a standard (or maybe a 3-D) version and wait for it to get better.

[1] Really it’s 60 refreshes per second, but each refresh only “draws” every other line on the screen. Seriously fascinating AV geek territory.

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