Riddles in the Dark: The Hobbit‘s 48 Frames Per Second Explained

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrives in theaters on Dec. 14 boasting a new film standard called High Frame Rate 3D. Here's a look at what it is, and how it works.

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Warner Bros.

My first encounter with The Hobbit as a movie was that old Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin musical-cartoon (animated by the Studio Ghibli precursor that went on to produce Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). It was probably your first encounter, too, if you were a five-year-old (or thereabouts) in 1977. Orson Bean as Bilbo, John Huston as Gandalf, Glenn Yarbrough crooning “It’s time you stop thinkin’ and wasting the day” at high-throttle vibrato — those were the days, thank you childhood nostalgia-goggles.

The Rankin/Bass film was nominated for a Hugo Award for “Dramatic Presentation,” believe it or not (though in my signed copy of The Annotated Hobbit, Tolkien scholar Douglas Anderson refers to the TV version as “execrable” — perhaps he’s confused it with the 1980 Rankin/Bass Ralph Bakshi followup, The Return of the King, which really was a mess).

The 1997 version of The Hobbit was also broadcast at 30 frames per second (FPS), the analog standard for American television from 1953 until mid-2009 (for color, anyway — black and white came earlier). Believe it or not, that’s actually six frames per second faster than the international standard for cinematic film: 24 FPS.

(MORE: (Reworked) Movie Trailer: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)

We’ve taken 24 FPS for granted as filmgoers since the mid-1920s. In spite of that lower frame rate, it’s what makes movies look, well, like movies.

Why 24 FPS and not 26, 34, 43 or 59? Because film stock was expensive — the slower it moves through the projector, the less you need. Early silent films were shot at frame speeds in the teens, in fact, but when sound was added in 1926, the frame rate had to be fast enough (and continuous) to eliminate audio chop. The speed at which you achieve sufficient audio-visual parity? Twenty-four frames per second.

The trouble with 24 FPS is that it always represented a commercial compromise. While it defines what we think of as a movie today, it has deficiencies like motion blurring or strobing. If you’re filming in 3D they’re even more noticeable. Filmmaker James Cameron talked about this in a Variety interview just before Avatar came out.

For three-fourths of a century of 2-D cinema, we have grown accustomed to the strobing effect produced by the 24 frame per second display rate. When we see the same thing in 3-D, it stands out more, not because it is intrinsically worse, but because all other things have gotten better. Suddenly the image looks so real it’s like you’re standing there in the room with the characters, but when the camera pans, there is this strange motion artifact. It’s like you never saw it before, when in fact it’s been hiding in plain sight the whole time. Some people call it judder, others strobing. I call it annoying. It’s also easily fixed, because the stereo renaissance is enabled by digital cinema, and digital cinema supplies the answer to the strobing problem.

If film stock hadn’t been so expensive, and the standard chosen had been higher, say Thomas Edison’s recommendation that film be at least 46 FPS (“Anything less will strain the eye,” said Edison, according to British filmmaker Kevin Brownlow), the whole history of film might be different. Edison wasn’t alone: According to cinema historian H.A.V. Bulleid, apparently in Edison’s camp, “To obviate [remove] flicker from white light projected on a bright surface requires about 48 obscurations per second.”

Edison and Bulleid have a friend in Cameron. Here he is again, from that 2008 Avatar interview.

…right now, today, we could be shooting 2-D movies at 48 frames and running them at that speed. This alone would make 2-D movies look astonishingly clear and sharp, at very little extra cost, with equipment that’s already installed or being installed … I’ve run tests on 48 frame per second stereo and it is stunning. The cameras can do it, the projectors can (with a small modification) do it. So why aren’t we doing it, as an industry?

We’re about to find out if Edison and Bulleid (and Cameron, and all of 48 FPS’ proponents over the years) were right. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which premieres worldwide next week on Friday, Dec. 14, was filmed with special RED EPIC cameras capable of recording at an incredible 5,120 by 2,700 pixels, using a motion standard known as High Frame Rate, or HFR, referring to a frame rate greater than 24 FPS — or in this case, exactly double it. If you’re a Jackson wonk or just a film-tech connoisseur, you already know the movie will be displayed in select theaters at 48 FPS.

(MORE: The Hobbit: What We Know So Far About Peter Jackson’s Epic Trilogy)

For all the technical ballyhoo, it’s a decision that’s elicited both praise and scorn. Critics claim HFR makes films look interpolated, like a soap opera (if you’ve ever watched a soap opera and wondered why it looks nothing like film, it’s because of the interlaced format, 60i, which conveys the illusion of running at a higher frame rate than 30 FPS).

On the other hand, film critic Roger Ebert described seeing a movie at 48 FPS as “of startling clarity.” Writing about Maxivision 48, inventor Dean Goodhill’s 1999 standard for 48 FPS, 35mm film, Ebert said it “achieves a picture quality better than anything you’ve seen: Four times as good, in fact.”

(If you want to see HFR in action, RED offers an overview of frame rates with comparison videos here.)

Peter Jackson took to Facebook a few weeks ago to defend his decision to film and display his The Hobbit trilogy at 48 FPS.

Now, in the digital age, there’s no reason whatsoever to stick to 24 fps. We didn’t get it perfect in 1927. Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55 fps. Therefore, shooting at 48 fps gives you much more of an illusion of real life. The reduced motion blur on each frame increases sharpness and gives the movie the look of having been shot in 65mm or IMAX. One of the biggest advantages is the fact that your eye is seeing twice the number of images each second, giving the movie a wonderful immersive quality. It makes the 3D experience much more gentle and hugely reduces eyestrain. Much of what makes 3D viewing uncomfortable for some people is the fact that each eye is processing a lot of strobing, blur and flicker. This all but disappears in HFR 3D.

But so far, the response in early reviews of the film, which premiered in New Zealand on Nov. 28, has been less than flattering.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy leans negative, writing “The results are interesting and will be much-debated, but an initial comparison of the two formats [the 24 FPS vs. 48 FPS versions] weighs against the experiment.” For Variety, Peter Debruge says “[Everything] takes on an overblown, artificial quality in which the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious, while well-lit areas bleed into their surroundings, like watching a high-end homemovie.” And Movieline’s Jen Yamato is witheringly critical, writing “It felt like watching daytime soaps in HD, terrible BBC broadcasts, or Faerie Tale Theater circa 1985, only in amazingly sharp clarity and with hobbits.”

(LIST: Top 10 Alternative Places to Film The Hobbit)

TIME’s own Richard Corliss is somewhat more positive about the experience in his review, writing:

The clarity of the image is sometimes magical, occasionally migraine-inducing … At first, in the Smaug battle, I thought I was watching a video game: pellucid pictures of indistinct creatures. After a while my eyes adjusted, as to a new pair of glasses, but it’s still like watching a very expensively mounted live TV show on the world’s largest home-TV screen.

What does 48 FPS look like? It’s hard to say — something you’re left using vague adjectives synonymous with “clarity” to describe. It’s one of those things you know when you see it, even if there’s a sight/explanation translation hangup. I know the — what’s the phrase I’m looking for…”visual intimacy”? — of soap operas always seemed a little weird, conditioned as I was by the time I paid any attention to a soap opera to associate “serious” filmmaking with 24-FPS cinema. I now equate that soap opera “look” with melodramatic visual storytelling, so it’ll probably take some time for my prefrontal cortex to come around.

In any case, most theaters aren’t equipped to show films at 48 FPS, so you’ll only be able to see it at the higher frame rate in select locations. If you want to know which ones, check for the HFR acronym in the billing. I’m not sure it’s possible to see the film in HFR but not 3D, so bear that in mind. Speaking as a guy with disdain for stereoscopic 3D in any medium, regardless of whether The Hobbit‘s a well-made film in terms of the craft, I’m curious to see if HFR changes my opinion about 3D.

What do you think, filmgoers? Planning to see The Hobbit in HFR 3D? Or will you hunt for a theater showing the film in good old-fashioned 24 frames per second?

MORE: The Hobbit: Why Go There and Back Again?

10 comments
rationale01
rationale01

I think the only problem is that film, especially at 24fps, has the equivelent of harmonic noise, which softens and muddles, makin for less detail. This hides the imperfections in a set or in CGI. @48fps, it is much more unforgiving. So what has to happen now is that CGI has to be rendered further and set pieces have to be made to look more real either through digital enhancement or simply better construction. Once the production aspect has caught up to the new frame rate, it will be an experience unlike anything you have ever seen. Though some of you won't adjust, you will be grandpa talking about how much better black and white movies are.

Poppersci
Poppersci

One disadvantage of a critic--and of the audience he represents--is that innovation is not always greeted warmly. People were confused by Bonnie and Clyde and 2001, didn't know what they were seeing, and so I'm sure there were bad reviews (In fact, I think one critic lost his job because of the former). This is different as its technology, so people will have a clearer sense of whether it works or not, but Jackson is staking his considerable reputation and future profitability on it, so if he thought it was the best thing to do, why should we think differently?

SactoMan81
SactoMan81

I think one of the issues with 48 fps--especially recorded digitally--is the fact it looks like a ultra-high definition video recording. For people used to 24 fps film stock, that can be quite unnerving, to say the least.

But 48 fps is here to stay, especially since it will be a digital format, so you don't need gigantic reels of physical film anymore.

Zen_Ronin
Zen_Ronin

Look, 48fps may actually be the wave of the future. I for one would welcome higher definition, more clarity  and less blur in my movie going experiences  BUT at the end of the day Peter Jackson and company are still just making excuses as to why their multi-million dollar movie looks like crap. You would think, if you're going to make a change to one the most basic of film principals you would at the very least screen test it FIRST! For everyone defending 48fps by saying that 24fps is imperfect and flawed, I ask you this; what's more flawed in a movie going experience, something that looks and plays smoothy like every other film in modern history, or one where I'm constantly being taken out of the immersion by how fake, cheap everything looks. 48fps might be the future of film, but I think a little more testing should have been done before rolling it out to the general public. 

KingKoopa
KingKoopa

@Zen_Ronin Yeah, they probably decided to shoot this movie in 48 fps without any research into it and the movie itself was probably the first thing they shot.  They probably didn't shoot any test video in 48 fps to see how it turned out, because it makes sense to dish out a lot more money to something without doing any testing.  In case you didn't catch it, that was sarcasm.  They've obviously done a lot of testing in 48 fps seeing as the technology's been out for years.  They did the testing, and just like you said, the next step is to "roll it out to the general public".  Unless you've seen the movie, I also wouldn't say that it looks like crap.  But what do film legends like Peter Jackson and James Cameron and the most prolific American inventor in history (Thomas Edison) know compared to you?

joelrickenbach
joelrickenbach

There's a huge problem with defenders of the 48fps HFR claiming that we are all accepting something "imperfect" when we watch film or video at 24pfs. That frame rate may have been "imperfect" at the time of its inception, but in the last 100 years it has become what cinema IS. Watching a projected film is an illusion, our brains fill in the gaps between the frames, creating what we have all accepted as the cinematic experience. It's an illusion that has become powerful to storytelling, because it doesn't look like the nightly news broadcasts, or your personal home movies. Between the lighting, lenses, color grading and then presenting the final image at 24fps, our illusion, or escape, is complete. 48fps HFR breaks that illusion, and our escape disappears. Could/will we adjust and get used to HFR, possibly, but who wants to go through that? It will take a whole generation to accept HFR as their illusion, and everyone else will still be jilted for decades. The smoking gun in all of this is 3D, HFR makes 3D better, and the studios see that as some sort of un-pirate-able, more profitable future, and prove once again they don't understand the art form they do business with.

alexanderramos7
alexanderramos7

There is nothing more unreal than 24FPS movies. We are accustomed to it and we like it, but it is simply pure imperfection.

All the story behind 3D is make the movie experience more real and HFR is the next inevitable step. Blurring image is nothing real and pleasant and I pretty sure the our first encounter with this HFR movie will make us disoriented but it could be the closet to experience a virtual reality.

People related HFR with low budget production and home made films, even DSLR users complained a lot because they wanted 24FPS intead 30 or 60FPS just to imitate the film-look. We are too attached to it that we don't even accept to watch anything else. 

srmante
srmante

@alexanderramos7 Of course it's unreal. It SHOULD be. Because what's real, what's actually being fillmed, are actors on a set, which is something that HFR makes obvious.

cheek0
cheek0

It sounds to me like this is an issue with learning to use the technology correctly.  I remember the first days of HD broadcast television.  All the people looked completely fake and made up.  The makeup and set artists developed their craft to compensate for the limits of traditional television, and suddenly all that fakery could be seen in HD.  If I recall there was an excellent story about the Battlestar Galactica crew learning that less is more in HD and it showed in the final product.  Sounds like Hollywood directors just need to learn how to make things look even more awesome leveraging the new technology.

Justin_Stoll
Justin_Stoll

I do not think I would enjoy a movie shot in 48 fps, if it indeed looks similar to a soap opera or a SNL skit.  Although the higher frame rate is intended to better recreate what our eyes perceive temporally and spatially, in my opinion it achieves the opposite effect: the picture actually looks like a recording of a play.  Instead of conveying a better sense of reality, the scenery looks "phony," as the above quoted review points out, and it appears as if the actors are on a stage.  Perhaps this is the result of simply being accustomed to 24 fps, and this perception will change if 48 becomes the industry standard.