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.”

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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?

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