Reactions to the high-frame-rate version of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have been mixed. A demo at CinemaCon fell flat, with many exhibitors finding the format looked liked television. There is, of course, a reason for that. Film speed is 24 frames-per-second, while television is often projected at 30 fps or higher, depending on if you're watching, say, sports versus a prime-time drama. At last night's 3D, high-frame-rate screening at a Times Square multiplex, my reaction went from negative to neutral, and then cautiously positive. I do think the technology will
be part of the future of filmmaking, but it will take adjustment. History has shown that some naturalistic changes to film form were at first perceived as unnatural. Most famously, Technicolor was reserved for big-budget, showy pictures, while dramas and serious movies stayed with the lower-cost black-and-white format. Perhaps in part because of the genres that used color, seeing a film in color was seen as unnatural. Now, watching a black-and-white movie, it's hard to imagine anyone finding that medium more realistic-looking. Early Technicolor was, in fact, often brighter and more saturated than real life, which may have been part of what audiences were reacting to. Now we don't even think about that. We just think color = more real.
In the opening, brightly lit scenes of The Hobbit, the high frame rate looked wrong. It was either my eyes adjusting, or (if they shot in sequence, which is doubtful), that they were just figuring out the best lighting for the high frame rate. So most likely my eyes just needed a period of time to acclimate, as my mind reconciled watching a frame rate we only see in TV with an epic movie. Because high frame rates show so much detail, they have a tendency to make sets look fake. Again, I think that's something that productions will learn to accommodate. On the flip side, you can see the actor's hair flyaways, the texture of a wool sweater, and other minute details that normally aren't captured by film. Still objects, in particular, look amazingly real. I do feel a bit sorry for the actors who now have every single pore and wrinkle showing. With an almost all-male cast of gruff-looking dwarves, that isn't a problem, but it will definitely be an issue when dealing with romances or anyone supposed to look pretty. Right now, the hazy-light filters Jackson appears to be employing in certain scenes just aren't cutting it.
One problem I often have with movies is when they quickly pan, which can look choppy and feel uncomfortable to the eye under standard frame rates. There have been many times that quick motion and pans have brought me
out of the narrative, and I internally chastised the director for
violating film's laws of motion. With The Hobbit, this isn't an issue.
I admire Peter Jackson for advocating for a new technology by actually doing it himself, and to a series worth billions of dollars, no less. It's not quite as wowing as the 3D in James Cameron's Avatar, but I also think the benefits of high frame rate will be easier to replicate. So many poor 3D movies released in the wake of Avatar, with none worth the extra ticket price. I hope that high frame rate does not command a ticket premium, but makes the theatrical moviegoing experience that much more vivid and distinct from an in-home experience. There are many films that can benefit from high frame rates, so more directors should follow Jackson's path and experiment with providing an even better experience with this technology.