The first movie in Peter Jackson’s newest trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was released Friday, and with it came some extremely interesting filmmaking techniques.
No, I’m not talking about making Sir Ian McKellen appear taller next to the hobbits, but rather the technology that made The Hobbit look different from other movies released this year: the frame rate.
Have you ever wondered why soap operas look slightly cheesy, or how a movie can have an intangible “cinematic” quality? It’s all in the frame rate. The frame rate, or fps (frames per second), is the amount of times that a cell of film is exposed to light in one second. When film moves through a movie camera, light touches it for a specified amount of time and then the film is advanced to the next frame (see GIF). The speed of this process determines the frame rate.
Why Frame Rate Matters
The human eye needs to see around 12 frames per second to understand motion. Adding or subtracting frames per second achieves different effects. Fewer than 12 frames leads to stuttered images, and between 12 and 24fps increases the smoothness.
Traditionally, movies shown in theaters are filmed at 24 frames per second. This means that while the film is being projected on the silver screen, 24 still pictures are shown per second. Our eyes and brains understand this as motion, which results in a moving picture. However, the motion is clearly not as smooth as we perceive the real world, which leads to the “cinematic” feel that we understand in movies and feature films.
Have you ever paused a movie in the middle of an action scene? Chances are, the image onscreen is rather blurry. 24 frames per second lends itself to a significant amount of motion blur in each frame. Even though this is the essence of the cinematic feel, it doesn’t come without drawbacks.
Fast camera pans (moving the camera to the left or right) or quick actions scenes can become disorienting because the subject or setting is never in sharp focus. This leads to directing decisions like extremely slow pans or action scenes that quickly change the angle.
Deviating From Tradition
The technology used in The Hobbit did away with tradition, and turned the “cinematic” feel on its head. Jackson made the decision to film The Hobbit on the RED camera, which allowed him to record the movie and show it in digital theaters at 48fps.
Needless to say, this change in frame rate was immediately noticeable. The opening shot of the movie is a “fly-through” of the hobbit world, and the visuals are much smoother than anything you’re probably used to seeing on screen. The actors’ motion seemed incredibly life-like, and created the illusion of watching a live performance.
To the untrained eye, the first few minutes could seem as though the movie is being played slightly faster than it should be. However, after a short while, the eyes and brain adjust, and it’s easy to get immersed in the world of the film. The increased frame rate also improves the quality and realism of the 3D technology.
The high frame rate style is a hot topic in the movie world today. Directors like Jackson and James Cameron are tired of the limitations of the traditional standard, and want to embrace the new technology. But film purists, most notably Quentin Tarantino, say that it ruins the entire point of film and makes it too lifelike. Films purists are also adamantly opposed to the use of digital movie cameras and projection techniques.
As a fan of movies and the technology behind them, I’m not sure where I stand on the 48fps debate. In the case of The Hobbit, there were parts that I greatly enjoyed and parts that I disliked. The high frame rate shined in action scenes, but fell short in wide-angle shots of landscapes. At one point, the camera did a fly-through of a goblin dungeon and it felt more like a video game than a movie.
The Hobbit was an excellent experiment in high frame rate cinema, and I’m excited to see where technology takes the filmmaking process. I would encourage anyone interested to see the movie in 48fps and experience how different it is.