Nobody expects movies to make them vomit. At least not because of filmmaking technology. Yet nausea and headaches are some of the side-effects reported by attendees of recent 3D blockbusters. Eliminating the retch response may have been a motivating factor in Peter Jackson‘s decision to film his latest exercise in overindulgence, The Hobbit, with a new approach he hopes will become a cinematic standard: 48fps.
48fps (or frames-per-second) is a higher speed of image capture that Jackson believes disposes of the less-appealing aspects of 3D by offering greater clarity and reducing eyestrain. (Most films throughout history have been shot at 24fps.) It also represents a significant shift in motion picture aesthetic, one that that many viewers find “stagy” — think afternoon soap operas or BBC programs from the 1980s.
The desire to permanently transform an artistic medium is a powerful one, especially for the few creators who have achieved Jackson’s global stature. But what can be a noble pursuit to broaden the experience of audiences can sometimes diminish the intimacy we’ve come to expect from motion picture. Case in point: George Lucas‘ affinity for technology over, say, narrative coherence, dialog and acting.
So is 48fps more like Jar Jar Binks or digital surround sound?
That probably depends on your previous experiences with cinema. If you’re of a generation that has seen nothing but movies in 28fps, you may, like me, think it’s a visual atrocity. If you’re a ten year-old who has grown up on computer-rendered everything, it might look just fine.
Over the years, moviemaking technology has evolved considerably, with each new capability met with some resistance from the moviegoing public (as well as filmmakers and others in the industry). When so-called “talkies” arrived in the late 1920s, there was a period of awkwardness as the studios came to terms with the broadened possibilities. Audiences, too, had to adjust, and not just to the spoken dialogue. A whole new stable of faces replaced the many silent-era actors and actress who had difficulty making the transition to sound.
Still, such shifts are typically embraced fairly quickly. Talkies were the norm within a decade, and subsequent developments, such as color, also became standard in short order. There is certainly a possibility that 48fps will end up defining our cinematic experience for years to come. Champions and early adopters of technology may not always have a grasp of the full potential (or limitations) of any given innovation. Likewise, audiences may need time to acclimate to anything that augments or supplants a time-honored mode of presentation.
That would be the generous view. I never wanted to puke when watching a conventional 3D flick, but The Hobbit made me ill in ways that have nothing to with herky-jerky motion. I’m not a filmmaker, but I have worked on plenty of records. Watching The Hobbit reminded me of listening to a demo versus a fully mixed and mastered recording. It looked unfinished and at points amateurish, the higher frame rate sapping even Jackson’s New Zealand of its immersive majesty. Instead of seeming bucolic and inviting, the Shire scenes felt like a low-rent nature documentary. The film was certainly more crisp and clear. But it was also unforgiving. The computer generated stuff was all that much more obvious, and even the in-camera effects seemed off (Bilbo’s oversized feet looked particularly chintzy). Jackson’s initial forays into Middle Earth meshed established filmmaking techniques with then-cutting edge technology to create a surprisingly credible world populated with fantastical characters. The Hobbit exposes the cinematic magic of The Lord of the Rings to the cruel light of 48fps. The result is far more offensive than the liberties taken with the source material, and serves to diminish the original trilogy in a manner not dissimilar to the Star Wars franchise.
Peter Jackson is not known for his restraint when it comes to new toys. In an earlier era, however, his grand ambitions were tempered somewhat by available technology. Still, he often bit off more than he could chew — witness the over-the-top finale of Heavenly Creatures or the undercooked CGI of The Frighteners. But even an over-reliance on computer graphics doesn’t come close to The Hobbit in 48fps. Jackson is right about once thing: this new approach represents a sea change in how we view films. A sea change that may not make you literally seasick, but is unpleasant nonetheless.
It’s conceivable that 48fps is just something that we’ll have to get used to, like sound or color. Perhaps other filmmakers will find a way to utilize this technology with more grace. And maybe a new generation hard-wired for HD video games won’t even notice. The Hobbit, however, makes 48fps feel like a soon-to-be-forgotten gimmick, like Smell-O-Vision or Percepto.
I’ll be keeping the Pepto by the popcorn, just in case.