Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is due to debut in theaters on December 14. To be more precise, it will be the first part of The Hobbit, subtitled An Unexpected Journey. Trying to recapture the success of his Lord of the Rings saga, Jackson sparked some controversy with his decision to stretch out the prequel into first two and now three films -- the rest of trilogy will be called The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again. In a production rife with issues from changing directors to union conflicts to shooting delays, just to name a few, one of the more interesting imbroglios has been the debate over the decision to film the movies at 48 frames per second (or 48fps).
The standard for film is 24 frames per second. To explain it in laymen's terms, it's the speed that celluloid runs through a camera and then a projector. The persistance of vision allows the blinking human eye and the human brain to perceive a series of photographic film frames as the illusion of motion. Television and now digital film have a different look and tone -- you know it when you see it. There are processes to take footage not shot the traditional way and convert it into 24fps for that cinematic effect. As an example, if you have a digital video camcorder, it might have a "cinema mode" for recording, which makes whatever you shoot have that motion picture appearance that so many people love. It just looks more natural and "real."
It's a standard that's worked for the past century. Now, however, with the dominence of digital filmmaking tools and techniques, the flaws of 24fps have become more irritating for some of the perfectionist moviemakers out there, such as James Cameron, who like shooting their movies in high definition 3D. Some of the big action scenes that they love so much can't be fully captured in the old way, so to eliminate some of the blur and make the image even more crisp and allegedly realistic, they have to up the speed to 48 frames.
The Hobbit will be the first film to test the waters of the new 48fps technology. The results may take some getting used to, because as you can imagine, it won't look the same as the cinema we've all been accustomed to seeing. At test screenings, most infamously at the last Comic-Con in San Francisco, audiences were distracted by the 48fps footage, claiming it made the subject matter appear artificial and the movement of the people and objects on screen seem a bit "speeded up." The counter-argument by those who have a huge stake in the 48fps investment is that it just takes some getting used to. Folks like Peter Jackson have become quite defensive about the whole matter, arguing that it's a generational bias, that young people won't even notice the difference while only folks who don't like change want to hold on to the older method, flaws and all.
Peter Jackson said, as quoted in Dark Horizons and other sources, "I'm tending to see that anyone under the age of 20 or so doesn't really care and thinks it looks cool, not that they understand it but they often just say that 3D looks really cool. I think 3D at 24 frames is interesting, but it's the 48 that actually allows 3D to almost achieve the potential that it can achieve because it's less eye strain and you have a sharper picture which creates more of the 3-dimensional world."
A good point was raised by CHUD.com in their argument that 48fps should be viewed as just another tool, such as slow motion, and should be used only as the specific scenes might warrant. The point is that it should not be a distraction. If the aim is a heightened sense of realism, then anything that draws attention to itself, from a special effect to a forced three-dimensional field of depth to an accelerated frame speed, defeats the purpose of movies, which is to tell stories and make audiences suspend their disbelief as they watch the dance of light and shadow on the silver screen. It's one of my biggest complaints about 3D technology -- it takes me out of the moment as I'm watching a film.
I consider myself to be a diehard movie buff, a cinephile who has adored flicks since I was a child. I never had a problem with the illusion of depth perception in any movie I saw. I never questioned a blurry action sequence -- if it was filmed well and the story was gripping, I never noticed such things. Even the specks and scratches on celluloid were often ignored, but I certainly appreciate the clarity and beauty of our current age's digital cinematography and projection. Still, I fear that filmmakers, in an effort to try to make the cinematic image too real might in fact be making it more artificial. In a fantasy world like The Hobbit's Middle Earth, that could be the kiss of death.