Most critics have weighed in with their thoughts about director Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (read our review), with the reactions varying accordingly. However, the most commonly-derided aspect is the film's appearance when projected in its native format: 48 frames per second (fps) 3D, which is twice the standard for theater showings. The issue has hounded An Unexpected Journey since Jackson premiered footage in 48 fps at CinemaCon 2012; lately, he seems to be spending more time discussing the format (or, rather, defending it) than other film elements, thematic and technical alike.
Warner Bros. is noticeably concerned about blowback, as evidenced by the limited rollout and lack of surcharge for 48 fps Hobbit screenings. Jackson is ready to embrace it as a new storytelling tool but for studios, the jury's still out on whether 48 fps is the next 'big thing' (see: 3D and/or IMAX) or the latest in a line of failed attempts to shake up the viewing experience (Smell-o-vision, anyone?) - and by that we mean, something that audiences will pay for.
What the higher frame-rate does is remove that thin layer of graininess that allows viewers to distinguish between images projected on a theater screen (something artificial) and their surroundings in the real world, purely on the basis of sight. This results in camera and actors' movements onscreen appearing faster than normal; not to mention, it makes it all the more obvious when practical effects (be it sets, props, makeup or costumes) and CGI have been manufactured on the cheap.
HD televisions and Blu-rays have a similar impact, revealing the imperfections and flaws in older titles (and newer ones, at that) which were previously masked by the haziness afforded from lower frame-rate projections. Similarly, motion onscreen in general is often perceived as sped-up and therefore blurrier, simply because so many longtime viewers are accustomed to the 'slowdown' effect of the traditional 24 frame-rate screening (going back to the early 20th century, that is).
An Unexpected Journey, by comparison, doesn't suffer so much from those issues because Jackson and his collaborators took added transparency into consideration while shooting at 48 fps; hence, viewers are actually meant to be able to see the finer details. As a result, the fine craftsmanship of film artists who work with their hands, basic machinery or state-of-the-art computers is easier to appreciate; not to mention, scenes where human and CGI players interact seem more believable (as both now look equally "real").
Of course, this presents a philosophical dilemma: Should these things look "real?" Middle-earth, as presented in The Hobbit, is the sort of fairytale kingdom that one might conjure up from their imagination (as J.R.R. Tolkien did so many years ago). When you reduce artificiality and instill a heightened sense of realism, it dwindles the sensation of peering into a dreamworld; worse, it leaves some people with the same (bad) impression as a low-budget recording of a stage performance. That's why some have dismissed Jackson's Hobbit 'experiment' as misguided at best, a gimmick with little artistic merit at worst.
Andrew Lesnie's cinematography throughout An Unexpected Journey uses 3D to its advantage, combing subtle (but constant) camera motion with sweeping crane and aerial shots to generate an immersive visual design. Moreover, when viewed with the 48 fps format, the grandiose shots of environments both real (the New Zealand landscape) and fake (tunnels and mines in the Lonely Mountain) end up bearing a stronger resemblance to a model; that holds true for the individuals that populate them, be they computer-generated or genuine.
Again, this quality can be a distraction and jarring for those not prepared. However, it (arguably) allows cinematic visuals to better imitate what the real world looks like to the human eye, when perceived from either a great height or up close. This also makes the 3D viewing experience smoother and less cumbersome (ie. higher fps = fewer headaches). Moreover, it seems to reduce the frequency of 3D images that take on a pop-up book appearance and benefits certain camera techniques (like changing the depth of field). Indeed, that makes 3D and 48 fps a natural fit.
Jackson's intention with these technical choices is quite apparent: the more real various components of Middle-earth look, the more moviegoers will feel as though they've been transported there (in theory). It's not meant to distract from key storytelling elements (narrative structure, pacing); rather, it's meant to enhance. Whether or not it inadvertently ends up serving the former rather that latter and intended purpose, is the basis for continuing debates about the subject.
Interestingly enough, the 48 fps format might be best-suited for films that aren't reliant on heavy amounts of digital shots or big-budget panache; that is, smaller projects aiming for something closer to cinéma vérité would benefit more from the crystal-clear visual presentation. On the other hand (as mentioned before), that format does reduce physical stress from 3D viewing and helps to seamlessly blend practical/CGI components. Its storytelling value is flexible, depending on what the director is going for (similar to the partial use of IMAX in such films as The Dark Knight Rises).
Jackson perhaps put it best himself when he clarified that increased frame-rate projection is not meant to be an industry game-changer (a la color, sound, 3D). To quote:
“The big thing to realize is that it’s not an attempt to change the film industry. It’s another choice. The projectors that can run at 48 frames can run at 24 frames – it doesn’t have to be one thing or another. You can shoot a movie at 24 frames and have sequences at 48 or 60 frames within the body of the film. You can still do all the shutter-angle and strobing effects. It doesn’t necessarily change how films are going to be made. It’s just another choice that filmmakers have got and for me, it gives that sense of reality that I love in cinema.”
Here is the official trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is now playing in theaters.