Questions & Answers About the DTV Transition

A Cinema Landmark: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in High Frame Rate

by Ellsworth Chou

We've finally seen director Peter Jackson's latest motion picture, and it wasn't that it was the latest installment in J. R. R. Tolkien's "Middle earth" mythology that demanded our going to the theater.

If you live in an area which is still showing the "High Frame Rate 3D" version of the new motion picture "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," you may wish to seek out this landmark experience in cinema history.

While special-venue short films (such as those produced by the Showscan company, and showing in theme parks or motion-simulator rides) have shown productions shot and projected at frame rates of 48 frames per second and higher, "Hobbit" heralds the first feature-length film to be entirely shot AND projected (in selected "HFR 3D" venues) at a frame rate above the 24 frames per second which was established for sound motion pictures eight decades ago.

What does this mean to you? Because "Hobbit" was shot (or rendered, in the case of the many computer-generated elements) with cameras shooting 48 images every second instead of the conventional 24, and can be viewed (in theaters showing "HFR 3D" versions of the movie) on projection systems ALSO running at 48 frames per second, there are two profound effects: the amount of "frame blur" (the smearing of the image when people move while taking a still photo with a slow shutter speed) in each recorded picture is dramatically reduced; and the amount of perceived noise or grain in the final movie is reduced.

Is it better? I'll let you judge for yourself. This is a very subjective experience. We are all to varying degrees culturally-accustomed to the artifacts of how motion pictures have appeared for almost a century. Those of us in the media arts have paid particular attention to these very characteristics of frame blur and grain/noise which will be most profoundly changed by increased frame rate, often exploiting these for artistic or dramatic purposes. For me the change is - putting it mildly - dramatically noticeable. Proponents of higher frame rates may argue that this makes the motion-picture viewing experience "more like reality" - but that also acknowledges that the cinema experience has never been realistic.

The transition to digital projection and installation of so-called "3-D" stereoscopic projection systems have created an infrastructure of exhibition outlets (movie theaters) which has paved the way for this and future releases of higher frame-rate movies (3-D movies presented on systems using a single digital projector, like the RealD system, are actually projecting at 144 frames per second). Expect the next "Avatar" movie to release in a higher frame rate - director James Cameron had hoped to do the first movie at a higher rate, but the distribution infrastructure was not yet in place. "Hobbit's" box-office success (and the likely success of its next two installments) will certainly suggest the viability of higher frame rates for future productions. I won't be surprised to see theatrical movies projected at much higher frame rates in the future.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is being presented in a limited number of theaters across the country at 48fps in showings labeled as "HFR 3D." Here is a list of HFR 3D theaters from "The Hobbit" official website:

For a somewhat longer treatise on current changes in the motion picture viewing experience, here's something I wrote to a friend last year: Is (Motion Picture) Film Dead? The Changing of a Medium

(NOTE:  "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is also being presented in conventional 24 frame per second, and in 24fps 3-D. Only "HFR 3D" showings will be projected at 48fps. There are NOT 2D presentations at 48fps.)

(NOTE: You won't be able to view an HFR version of the movie on a DVD or Blu-ray player. Although it would be possible for a 48fps movie file to be played on a personal computer, it's doubtful that this will be offered.)

All content ©2013 Ellsworth Chou - no reuse of copy or artwork without permission of the author.