Editorial: Despite shaky 48 fps Hobbit preview, high frame rates will take off


Well actually, the Hobbit preview wasn't shaky, it was smooth -- maybe too smooth -- and that's the point. "It does take you a while to get used to," Peter Jackson has admitted, referring to the surprisingly fluid motion of his 48 fps movie footage. But is he right to think audiences will even give it a chance? The launch of high frame-rate (HFR) cinema is surrounded by publicity in the run-up to the Hobbit's debut on December 12th, but it equally has a lot going against it. For starters, the film's 48 fps preview wasn't exactly received warmly. On top of that, the video-style appearance of HFR has a long history of being disliked by movie-goers -- past attempts since the 1970s have all flamed out.

85 years after the first 24 fps movies, the same number of frames are still going stubbornly through the gate (digital or otherwise) each second, so that must be what "filmic" is, right? Or will we look back on 24fps as the bad old days? Read on to see if these new/old-fangled frame speeds might survive, and though a 48 fps Hobbit trailer isn't available, we've provided a couple of clips to help you judge what two-dimensional HFR looks like.

To be sure, if HFR cinema is going to happen, now is the time. The human eye and brain can easily process 48 fps -- or even the 60fps James Cameron will use in future Avatar sequels. In fact, there's no known upper limit since the human eye sees a continuous stream of movement, not individual frames. 60 fps was tried in the 70's by Douglas Trumbull with his 70mm film process called Showscan (see the More Coverage link below for its comeback tour), but studios and theaters of the era couldn't stomach the cost of the celluloid it required and the company went bust. Now cameras like the Red Epic can digitally shoot HFR (up to 120 fps, to be exact) at 5K resolution without blowing budgets, and many cinemas won't have to pay for fast-frame upgrades, so when Hobbit is released the option should be widely available to audiences.


But many who saw the 48 fps Hobbit preview said they would actually skip high frame rates and seek standard 24 fps projection when the film comes out. So what about the motion did they find so objectionable? To get an idea, it helps to see 48 fps back-to-back against 24 fps video. Though YouTube and Vimeo play at a maximum of 30 fps, Viddler can handle the higher speeds, so you can judge for yourself. Since HFR video is hard to find on the web, we used a Canon 7D DSLR to capture 50 fps video (which is close enough to 48 fps), with a mix of action and people, and then downconverted to 25 fps. To give a fairer comparison, we added realistic motion blur to the 25 fps video. Why? Because the faster shutter speed needed to shoot the footage in native 50 fps doesn't translate so well when you halve the frame rate -- it makes the converted video look unnaturally choppy. Here is the 25 fps video (approx. one minute):

Now check out the video at its original capture speed of 50 fps. You could play both at the same time -- it works best to mute the sound from one -- or if that feels like sensory overload, just watch them sequentially. For people shots and pans, the smoother motion of 50 fps looks more like the simulated HFR of TruMotion from newer TVs to us, although we find it to be less noticeable on action shots. But if you go back to the 25 fps video again, you might actually be able to notice strobing from the slower rate, like we did.

With opinion sharply divided on high frame rates, Jackson risking it for Hobbit comes back to the film also being in 3D. The eyestrain and queasiness from 3D is caused in part by 24 fps, and Jackson avowed that he and his crew haven't experienced any of that, even after "thousands of hours" of watching 3D Hobbit footage at 48 fps. Advocates also claim that it's pointless for purists to compare HFR with 24 fps as it's mainly intended for 3D and not regular cinema. Since HFR and 3D have only been together in a handful of IMAX films and theme-park rides, seeing both must have been a shock to CinemaCon viewers, and the rest of us might also need time to adjust -- probably in direct proportion to our film-going experience. As for 2D cinema, filmmakers are likely to avoid HFR like the plague for narrative-style films which don't feature scenic vistas, action or special effects. Jackson himself has said that it's not the best choice for every film, and you'll be able to watch a 24 fps version of Hobbit -- or future HFR films -- in 3D or 2D, if you want.


In the end, it might live and die on a new type of "uncanny valley" effect that CinemaCon viewers, and Douglas Trumbull himself, pointed out. Most Hobbit viewers that disliked the preview were okay with aerial scenic shots, but when actors, costumes and sets appeared the clarity made every pore and flaw visible, breaking the spell of the film. This might have had something to do with the unfinished nature of the preview, but after a 2D Showscan test in the 80's Trumbull said -- based on audience reaction -- he wouldn't use HFR cinema for period or dialogue driven films.

So when Hobbit comes out this December, if you settle into the talky parts with little difficulty, that bodes well for the future of high frame rates. If the extra clarity and absence of motion blur make you wonder if Orlando Bloom's elf ear is crooked or an Ent isn't blowing in the breeze like a tree ought to, then we might get another 90 years of good ol' 24 frames per second. But HFR could solve Hollywood's 3D problem by making it more palatable for audiences, especially younger ones who adapt quickly and are more likely to go to 3D films. Since it's not cost-prohibitive like Showscan was, distributors could get it into theaters and allow us time to adapt to the new format -- just as Peter Jackson has requested. And given that he and James Cameron are firmly behind it -- and have seen more than just about anyone else -- we're ready to think that HFR has a future, even before we see the Hobbit for ourselves.