When you think of all the radical, paradigm-shifting leaps that technology has taken over the last two decades — analog to digital! print to Internet! desktop to mobile! cathode ray tube to liquid crystal display! — the very sound of 48 frames per second has a “New And Improved!” golly-gee I’ll-see-you-and-raise-you-24-frames clunkoid quaintness about it. It doesn’t sound like the future, exactly; it sounds like the past on steroids. Forty-eight frames per second, of course, is how fast the images are going to be shooting through projectors at 450 of the theaters showing Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey starting today. If you see the film at one of those theaters, you’re going to experience the kickoff moment of an up-and-coming film-image revolution. Or so the producers of The Hobbit would have you believe.
How does the movie look? I have to fall in line with those who first saw 10 minutes of The Hobbit at a special presentation at CinemaCon 2012 and found the images to appear almost disconcertingly like high-definition TV. The comparison that immediately leapt to my movie-critic mind was when I first encountered low-budget indie films shot on digital video in the early-to-mid-’90s. The images in those primitive, pioneering DV movies tended to be coarse, sallow, and harshly lit (aesthetically, they literally paled next to the warmth of film), but what was most striking about the early DV films isn’t — as so many wags noted — that they “looked bad.” It’s that the images had a different quality, almost a different time sense, than filmed images. To put it simplistically: Film looks like the past caught on a lavish projector; video looks like the present captured with home-movie immediacy. And that’s what’s a little disconcerting about the 48-frames-per-second images in The Hobbit. They look so sharp and bright and clear and vivid that you feel, at moments, like you’re seeing images of, say, Ian McKellan as Gandalf shot for an on-the-set infotainment-show feature about the making of The Hobbit. If anything, I wanted to add a filter of fantasy haze.
But I shouldn’t be too quick on the draw about my 48-frames-per-second skepticism. For this technology most assuredly has a future. What struck me watching The Hobbit is that Peter Jackson, in his lust to lead audiences to the promised land of a shiny breakthrough in 21st century cinema, may have grown overly attracted to the shininess of that new toy. The trouble with the hyper-sharp, madly focused images of The Hobbit is that they don’t, at heart, mesh with the material, which calls for mist, knotted shadow, and dappled light, for sunbeams melting into the horizon, for a look that conjures the lushly ancient magic of medieval fairy tales. That’s what I think of when I think of J.R.R. Tolkien, and Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in its dark and somber wild-side-of-the-woods way, achieved that mystic visual intensity. The Hobbit looks like the very busy version of a candy-colored kids’ show that’s been overexposed to the light. You see everything, and therefore there’s no mystery.
If you’ve ever spoken to a director about how a film of his looked in the theater, you’ll start to see that filmmakers look at movies — especially their own — in a way that almost no one else does. Their sense of technical detail is almost microscopic. (A print that looks just fine to you or me may be a cruddy scandal to them.) And that’s why a lot of them are always searching for the next big thing, for the visual-technological Breakthrough. (Welcome to what James Cameron’s career has become.) Douglas Trumball, the visionary special-effects wizard of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind who developed an early version of 60-frames-per-second technology he called Showscan, was quoted in an ew.com feature as saying, “Mike Todd shot Around the World in 80 Days in 30 frames a second instead of 24. He was the first guy to consciously realize that 24 frames is not enough if you’re going to do a really big, widescreen spectacle. The wider the screen is, the more displacement there is from one frame to the next.” Now listen, I worship Douglas Trumball, and that quote sounds perfectly reasonable and forward-thinking, until you consider: Why would 24 frames per second not be enough for a vast widescreen spectacle? (The mogul who produced the elephantine, cardboard-picturesque Around the World in 80 Days was the one who discovered this?) Has anyone complained over the years that Lawrence of Arabia or Titanic or 2001 didn’t look grand enough? Or detailed enough? That their images were too “displaced?” Or, indeed, that they were anything less than perfect?
Now, though, we live in a tech-addict society. If you peek in on the debates at certain movie-geek websites about the quality of the film grain on DVD transfers of classic movies (“It looked just great, dude — if your idea of fun is watching Seven Samurai in the middle of a friggin’ grain snowstorm!”), you’ll behold a visual fetishistic obsessiveness that makes the Stanley Kubrick meta-theorists in Room 237 sound well-adjusted. And movie directors, in their de rigueur fussiness, are now often crusaders for magic clarity. They love it when they can shoot things that end up looking just like what they are.
These days, there’s an almost Barnum & Bailey road-show aura to the way that certain movies promise to immerse you in a fearless new techno-image experience. 3-D, for the most part, has abandoned making that claim — the studios must have gotten scared that they’d be sued for false advertising — but I’m thinking of all the hoo-hah over The Master being shot in 70mm (I thought it was a very fine-looking movie, though I’ll be damned if I could say what was in any way unusual or 70mm-ish about it), or, now, The Hobbit being shot at 48 frames per second. If this movie looks like the future, then for the time being, at least, I’ll take the past. But I suspect that it doesn’t. I suspect that if Hollywood really wants to double the number of frames we’re seeing, it will simply take time before directors learn to double their skill at making it work.
So who has seen The Hobbit at 48 frames per second? And what did you think?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman