By Hugh Hart
THE HOBBIT: Director Peter Jackson goes over a scene with Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.
When Peter Jackson’s 48 frames per second vision materializes on screens later this year with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the New Zealand director believes audiences will savor the chance to experience Middle Earth’s 3-D vistas with unprecedented clarity. And with it, Jackson could be ushering in a new dimension in filmmaking.
To follow up his epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson pushed hard to make Hollywood’s first 48 FPS feature, and he’s not the only heavyweight who sees fast frame format as the next evolutionary step in 3-D. James Cameron says he plans to shoot his Avatar sequels at 48 or 60 frames per second. “With 3-D, you’re looking through a window, and with the high frame rate, you’re taking the glass out of the window,” Cameron said in an interview last year. “It gives you this sense of immediacy and personal involvement in the narrative.”
Although a first, brief sampling of The Hobbit’s 48 FPS footage generated mixed reviews at CinemaCon last April, fast frame remains a tantalizing prospect for directors working in 3-D. “48 frames absolutely helps 3-D because suddenly you’re removing a substantial amount of the motion blur that you get at 24 frames,” says Jackson. “Your eyes get a much smoother experience.”
Likening the advent of fast frame to the introduction of CinemaScope in the 1950s, Jackson sees the technology as a new opportunity to dazzle audiences with epic-scale entertainment. “Frame rate is a very similar thing to CinemaScope. It’s a choice. It opens up another toolbox for film-makers.”
Jackson’s own choice is rooted in an epiphany he had about 20 years ago while watching a travelogue film. “I couldn’t believe how immersive it was,” Jackson recalls. “It felt like the real world, and I thought ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’” That footage was projected at 60 frames per second using Douglas Trumbull’s Showscan technology. “Showscan was fantastic,” Jackson says, “but it wasn’t viable to make a feature film at a high frame rate when every single theater in the world had a mechanical projector that could only run at 24 frames per second.
MAKING IT REAL: Peter Jackson says 48 FPS “opens up another toolbox for filmmakers.”
After making his landmark visual effects contributions to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Trumbull had hoped to break down the fourth wall between audience and screen by using his patented system to shoot hallucination sequences at 60 frames per second when he directed Brainstorm (1983). Instead, he got stuck in a studios vs. exhibitors stalemate. “Theater owners said we’re not going to put in new projectors unless all the movies are made that way, and the studio said we’re not going to make the first movie in this weird process unless there’s thousands of theaters equipped with these special projectors,” recalls Trumbull. “It was an unbreakable catch-22, which has now been broken.”
The mechanical limitations no longer apply thanks to the post-Avatar generation of Series 2 digital cinema systems that can accommodate either 24 or 48 frames per second projection with the flip of a switch. Betting that a critical mass of theaters would embrace high-speed projection systems to accommodate his likely blockbuster, Jackson, in late 2010 began conducting fast frame tests during pre-production for The Hobbit. Warner Bros. executives became committed to the fast frame process as Jackson spent the next 18 months filming back-to-back Hobbit movies with RED EPIC cameras set to 48 FPS capture rates.
But Jackson encountered unexpected blowback when the studio screened 10 minutes of unfinished footage of The Hobbit at CinemaCon in Las Vegas. Bloggers criticized the clips for looking too much like high-def video. Jackson shrugs off the critiques. “I have no concern whatsoever about the viability of 48 frames, but there were journalists there who didn’t like the fact that it didn’t look like 24 frames,” he says. “Sometimes people equate different with being a negative. But of course, different, if you give it a chance, can also be a positive as well.”
Following CinemaCon, Jackson and his team color-corrected The Hobbit to yield a more textured visual quality. “The whites were being clipped, and we weren’t getting the dips and the shadows, which were giving it a slightly electronic sort of video look,” says Jackson. “We’ve completely re-designed the way we convert the data from the camera into the image. The highlights and shadows roll off more, giving it a much more filmic look.”
It remains to be seen precisely how many theaters will present the first of Jackson’s three Hobbit films at 48 FPS, but Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres, which operates nearly 700 screens, began its preparations for The Hobbit last fall. Marcus’ president Bruce J. Olson says, “When we converted our circuit in September 2011, we selected digital cinema systems that are able to present movies with advanced frame rates in anticipation of the sharper action scenes and the ultra-realism this technology can bring to our screens. We’re excited about the potential that 48 FPS can bring to the motion picture experience.”
Trumbull, who continues to explore fast frame cinema by shooting 120 fps tests in partnership with Christie Digital Systems, expects The Hobbit to exert a major impact on both audiences and filmmakers. “My prediction is that once people get over the initial shock of seeing something that looks substantially more realistic, they’ll see how superior it is compared to 24 frames, and that’s going to open the door toward a more immersive and spectacular cinematic form.”
Cameron similarly sees fast frame as an obvious enhancement for stereoscopic storytelling and the remedy to a common 3-D complaint. “[When] audience members say they’re having eye strain and even a sense of nausea, it’s the brain shutting down when edges of the images are strobing or juddering too much across the screen, and that’s related to frame rate.”
While advanced frame rate promises delivery of a smoother motion picture experience, it’s not for everyone—at least not yet. TRON: Legacy (2010) director Joseph Kosinski, for example, conducted fast frame tests for his upcoming 2-D sci-fi film Oblivion and chose to stick with standard 24 FPS, filmed in the high resolution 4K format. “Certainly motion is rendered better and you could say fast frame is a more realistic format, so for some things, it could make a lot of sense,” says Kosinski. “It’s one thing to watch something like a nature documentary, where the more realism, the better. But when it comes to something dramatic, it’s a different mode. My visceral reaction was that it just didn’t feel right for our story.”
For Jackson, however, fast frame cinema dovetails perfectly with his filmmaking aesthetic. “Even though I’ve made a lot of fantasy films, I’ve always tried to make them as realistic as possible,” he explains. “As a director, I use wide-angle lenses to move the camera around because I like the way it allows audiences to leave their seats and sort of go into the film. For my natural directing style, 48 frames is an absolute godsend. It’s a way of immersing an audience into a film even more.”