What does The Hobbit’s 48fps tech mean for cinema?

Peter Jackson’s use of 48 frames-per-second tech in The Hobbit has already sparked controversy. Here, Paul takes a look at what it means for cinema...

April 24. A date that will live in infamy – the day that the battle lines were first drawn in an epic conflict, the resolution of which would be destined to echo through the ages. The setting: Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, where cramped, perspiring journalists, still buzzing off the high gleaned from new Rock Of Ages footage, sit in blissful unawareness, totally unprepared for the ideological nail bomb that the nefarious Peter Jackson is about to detonate in their faces.

Little do they know they are about to witness a piece of video that would act as the catalyst in the Great Frame Rate Wars of 2012 – in ten minutes, nothing would ever be the same ever again. And what’s more, it’ll look all cheap and sit-commy while doing it.

There’s been a lot of histrionics about the CinemaCon presentation of The Hobbit, and for a change it’s actually justified. For one thing, The Hobbit, as a sequel/prequel to one of the most successful film series of all time, is a genuinely huge film, and people are always going to follow its production with interest.

Suddenly, however, the most important thing about The Hobbit is its status as a guinea pig for what is without question the biggest technological advancement in cinema since digital cinematography.

Ad – content continues below

In case you haven’t heard about the incident, here’s a brief overview to get you up to speed – ever since James Cameron announced to the world that Avatar 2 (speaking of huge films) would be shot at 48 or even 60 frames per second, the film world has been abuzz with what this could mean for the future of cinema.

Film as you see it in cinemas today is captured and projected at 24 frames per second – this is to replicate the standard 24 frames per second that were captured by 35mm cameras, and it’s this frame-rate that results in the glossy sheen over footage that we have come to recognize as that ‘film look’.

Cameron argues that 48 fps results in even more realistic images and, by extension, more immersion in the story. What’s more, he has convinced at least one person of the benefits of the format, and it’s a pretty big get for the 48fps lobby: Peter Jackson, a cinematic world-builder par excellence who is perhaps only rivaled in terms of critical and commercial blockbuster success in recent years by Spielberg and Cameron himself.

So CinemaCon saw the debut of footage from Jackson’s new adaptation The Hobbit presented in 48fps, the first chance that journalists had at viewing the new tech in action. The reactions were reported to have been ‘mixed’, which would suggest some people were happy with it; in reality, however, the reactions seem to have been uniformly unsure-to-negative.

All of the complaints say roughly the same thing – 48fps makes things look fake. Rather than heightening reality, as Cameron claims, the detractors argue that really all it does is heighten the reality that you are, in fact, watching actors on a set.

“It looked like a behind-the-scenes featurette,” claimed one theatre owner. “It looked like a made-for-TV movie,” chimed in another. “It looked like a soap opera,” said nearly everyone.

Ad – content continues below

Jackson’s response was to claim he “wasn’t surprised” that the footage got a bad reaction as it “takes a while to get used to.” This is already becoming the standard line for supporters of 48fps – that audiences’ brains are pre-conditioned by 90-plus years of 24fps as the standard, so obviously there will be some teething problems in the tech’s nascent period.

There’s an interesting conflict going on here that some other commenters have likened to a cultural war between those in favour of ‘art’ (an emphasis on storytelling), and those in favour of technology (emphasising state of the art visuals and effects).

This is slightly disingenuous – there’s no reason why 24fps should be the only frame rate that’s worthy of the label ‘art’ – but it’s certainly true that there are many out there who want technological advancement to ultimately take precedent.

The truth is that cinema has always been a remarkable marriage of art and technology; a result of what The Cinema Book describes as “an extraordinary confluence of disciplines in both science (chemistry, physics, engineering optics) and the humanities (writing, painting, philosophy, drama)”.

What’s more, cinema has always been a business – since the development of the technology socio-economic factors have always dictated the direction that cinema has taken, and as a result there has always been an awkward tension and competitions for supremacy between the two disciplines.

It may seem surprising to modern audiences, but in the early days of cinema, technology was firmly on top: people attended early cinemas to see, literally, moving pictures – their content was largely irrelevant. Back then, you came for the technology, and stayed (hopefully) for the story.

Ad – content continues below

However, Train Pulling Away From Station isn’t quite the same thrill ride if you’ve ever seen a film before, and the novelty of the tech eventually wore off. Phenomenally inventive and talented artists all over the world began to see the potential inherent in the cinematic medium, and the balance of power began to shift in favour of the arts, as the money-men began to emphasise the stories being told in cinemas in their marketing and advertising– as a result, soon it was the film itself that became the big selling point in cinema.

So, here we are nearly a century later, and with the recent move towards 3D and this new development in frame rates, the balance looks like it is potentially threatening to shift in favour of technology once more.

Is it because people are tiring of the art of cinema, or storytelling itself? Of course not. But cinema is suffering from some of the most serious threats in its lifetime: television drama is becoming more popular and sophisticated, and widespread illegal torrenting of Hollywood movies is causing a lot of powerful people to panic and do stupid things.

Audiences are declining (although how much this is directly related to the ‘threats’ above is a matter of debate), so the cinema industry has had to react. It has to have a new selling point, something new to offer the jaded consumer – we’ve seen this in recent years with the renaissance of 3D, something that has fiercely divided critics and audiences.

For a new technology to be successful, a need has to be created for it, and this is something the studios managed (kind of) by getting a representative of the ‘art’ side of cinema in writer/director Cameron, and have him enthuse and proselytize the benefits of the new tech, while also in the process making, helpfully, the most successful film of all time.

With 48fps, we have the same thing happening again, with Cameron and Jackson essentially telling audiences “You gotta see this!”

Ad – content continues below

But this is different from 3D. For one thing, the economic implications aren’t as clear – whereas with 3D, the cost of installing expensive new projecting equipment and buying hundreds of sets of 3D glasses results in higher ticket prices, leading to higher total box office figures and happier board meetings (this is the accepted reason why Alice In Wonderland, a film no one likes, made over $1 billion at the global box office).

With 48fps, it’s simply a case of installing a software update. There is no reason for cinemas to increase their prices – they could try, but I think even long-suffering cinema audiences might draw the line at being forced to pay extra for a patch that takes ten minutes to download.

And it’s not a case of having to rush out the technology just because it’s become available – widescreen and colour technologies were developed in the 20s, but didn’t become the norm until the 50s, where they were wheeled out in order to combat the threat studio heads saw posed by the advent of black and white TVs.

Interestingly, there’s a big TV issue with 48fps that has yet to be resolved – the vast majority of HDTVs run at either 60Hz or 120Hz. Running a 48Hz signal through a TV not designed to accept it would result in either juddering, or frame interpolation, which results in very poor image quality. To watch these films without picture loss, you’d have to buy a whole new video format and a whole new televis…ah. I think we might have hit something.

Ultimately, the motion picture business is like any other business, and the opportunity to sell new equipment and re-sell a back catalogue again is too good an opportunity to miss. And while the 48fps tech is inexpensive, it does have one, extremely economically viable side effect: it makes 3D watchable.

A significant number of people (I’m one of them) suffer from headaches and/or nausea when watching 3D film – this has been attributed to the low frame rate, which is said to exacerbate eyestrain. 48fps makes 3D much smoother to watch and, purportedly, reduces these adverse side effects.

Ad – content continues below

So with one fell swoop, a whole swathe of people who had previously stayed away from 3D due to it literally making them feel sick (not talking about Mark Kermode here) are suddenly invited back into the fray, and, the shackles of blurry vision lifted, free at last to buy those ultra-expensive 3D tickets for Alice In Wonderland 2.

So whether you like it or not, 48fps is an economically smart move from the cinema industry – however, we simply won’t know until the release of The Hobbit whether it’s a good move for the ‘artistic’ side of cinema, or a bad one.

If nothing else, it’ll be the first technological advancement in cinema history whose primary selling point is this: it won’t give you a headache.

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter, or for more film-related babble, check out his blog here.

Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here. And be our Facebook chum here.