Shrugging off the mixed reaction that greeted ten minutes of unfinished footage from The Hobbit, which screened earlier this week at the Cinemacon exhibitors convention in Las Vegas, director Peter Jackson told the Hollywood Reporter, “It wasn’t particularly surprising because it is something new.”
The Oscar-winning director is filming The Hobbit, his two-part 3D prequel to The Lord of the Rings at the higher frame rate of 48 frames per second. Movies have been shot and projected at a standard rate of 24 frames per second since the arrival of talkies, and the new technique results in a dramatically different aesthetic look.
“A lot of the critical response I was reading was people saying it’s different. Well, yes, it certainly is,” Jackson, speaking by phone from New Zealand, said. “But I think, ultimately, it is different in a positive way, especially for 3D, especially for epic films and films that are trying to immerse the viewer in the experience of a story.”
Jackson’s epic, which Warners will release Dec. 14, will be the first major motion picture to be made in 48 fps – a different aesthetic look that Jackson believes can result in smoother, more lifelike pictures.
While many at the crowded showroom at Caesars Palace applauded the depth and detail in the large-scale battle sequences, some found more intimate daylight sequences too crisp and bright, complaining that they looked more like HD video and that the new process sacrificed a traditional “cinematic” feeling.
A number of bloggers, whose opinions quickly ricocheted across the web, found fault with the 48 fps footage. On the popular fanboy web site Aint-It-Cool-News, Moisés Chiullan, writing under the name ”Monty Cristo,” offered a mixed assessment but provided the anti-48 fps forces with a rallying cry when he reported that some “people said that all the brief clips ‘felt’ like the 1970 I, Claudius in HD,” a reference to a 40-year-old British TV series. Devin Faraci of BadAssDigest.com tweeted, “Oh no. Not a fan of 48fps. Oh no no no,” adding that “THE HOBBIT, frankly, did not look cinematic.”
Jackson acknowledged that the short, ten-minute clip package — ranging from action sequences to quieter moments between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins and Andy Serkis‘ Gollum – may have been too brief for viewers to acclimate to the new process.
“It does take you a while to get used to,” he said. “Ten minutes is sort of marginal, it probably needed a little bit more. Another thing that I think is a factor is it’s different to look at a bunch of clips and some were fast-cutting, montage-style clips. This is different experience than watching a character and story unfold.”
Because of that, he isn’t planning to release a 48 fps trailer for the movie. “I personally wouldn’t advocate a 48-frame trailer because the 48 frames is something you should experience with the entire film. A 2 1/2 minute trailer isn’t enough time to adjust to the immersive quality.”
Jackson himself has grown accustomed to watching 48fps imagery. He watches dailies in 48 frames every day, sometimes two hours worth.
“You get used to it reasonably quickly,” he said, commenting that now when he views traditional 24 frames footage, “I’m very aware of the strobing, the flicker and the artifacts.”
“We have obviously seen cuts of our movie at 48 and in a relatively short amount of time you have forgotten (the frame rate change). It is a more immersive and in 3D a gentler way to see the film.”
Jackson also explained the footage presented at Cinemacon would look different once it goes through the post-production process.
Because production is not scheduled to wrap until July, the customary postproduction that affects the overall look of a film has not yet been done, so the clips were unfinished. They were not yet color corrected, nor had the visual effects been completed. (In various scenes the actors were shown performing in front of a greenscreen.)
Jackson explained that his original The Lord of the Rings used various postproduction techniques to create a certain look for the movies, including “extensive” digital color grading, “added texture, and we took out highlights.”
“We’ll do the same with The Hobbit, to make it consistent and give it the feeling of otherworldliness – to get the mood, the tone, the feel of the different scenes,” he said. “We are certainly going to experiment with different finishing techniques to give the 48 frames a look that is more organic. But that work isn’t due to start until we wrap photography in July (both Hobbit films are being shot simultaneously).”
Jackson is also lensing the movie – which is being shot in 3D, a first for the franchise – using Red Epic cameras with 3Ality Technica 3D rigs.
The Red Epic, Jackson explained, allowed him to shoot in 5K resolution. (5K refers to the number of horizontal pixels that compose a frame.) Today, movies are generally lensed and projected at 2K, though the industry is moving in the direction of 4K.
“It is very clean. On a 5K camera you are seeing very crisp pictures,” he said. “Part of the digital grading will give those incredibly sharp pictures a texture and a feeling that we want the film to have. We haven’t done that yet. What you saw [at CinemaCon, in terms of “crispness”] is partly due to the lack of motion blur (from the high frame rate) and partly due to the camera (in terms of resolution).”
While the Cinemacon footage may have suggested the direction in which Jackson is heading, he added, “People haven’t experienced it yet in the way it should be experienced.”
In contrast to the first wave of skeptical tweets, a sampling of reaction from exhibitors, studio executives and producers at Cinemacon found many saying that 48 fps represents the wave of the future.
At one panel, Regal CEO Amy Miles said her circuit is committed to 48 frame rates, and that technological advances are key to a thriving in the exhibition business. “We have to evolve. We want to make sure we can deliver options. At Regal, we will be ready and able to provide that experience,” Miles said.
Producer Neal Moritz (Fast Five, 21 Jump Street) likened the reaction to the 48 fps footage to the first reactions to digital cameras, which wasn’t initially embraced by many filmmakers. “Now, every filmmaker wants digital. It just takes getting used to and this is no different,” he said.
IMAX Filmed Entertainment chairman Greg Foster said it amounts to a generational issue, and that all the kids who have grown up watching digital television find it easy to accept movies projected at 48 fps.
“It’s older people like me who will have a reaction, but there is no doubt it is here. Every filmmaker likes it,” Foster said. “And what a great way to start with The Hobbit.”
Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman Jeff Blake agreed that technological gains such as the move to 48 frame rates “revitalizes” the business.
A year ago at the 2011 edition of CinemaCon, James Cameron argued that higher frame rates offer an “enhanced sense of detail” and “enhanced clarity,” and he demonstrated the potential with test footage that was generally well received. Cameron showed those clips in comparison with the same scenes in 24fps where motion blur and other artifacts were visible.
But Jackson doesn’t believe 48fps is right for every movie, and he even proposed that different frame rates be mixed into a single film. “As another creative tool, I think (high frame rates) is a really important thing,” he said.
He also believes such options are important for exhibition. “As an industry there is a certain amount of trouble that we are in; kids seem to think watching a movie on an iPad is an okay think to do,” he said. “Advocating that we have to stick with what we know [24 fps] I think is a slightly narrow mined way of looking at things when as an industry we are facing declining audiences. We have to find ways to make it more vibrant, more immersive – something that will encourage people to come back to the theaters for that experience.”