Seen this way, a higher frame rate doesn’t have to be a liability. It’s a chance to build a more substantive illusion. Visual-effects guru Dennis Muren points out that actors can do more subtle work at 48 fps. "The performances are better at a high frame rate," he said at a recent panel discussion. "You can see more clearly the intent of the actors." That’s true for The Hobbit, where the better players in the cast—the flexi-faced Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis—are at such an advantage that it seems unfair to everybody else. If this extra resolution makes an actor struggle, let’s not describe him as a victim of technology. Let’s say that he’s a victim of his meager talent.
Any innovation of this type will take some getting used to. In the past few years, we’ve had to train ourselves to read on Kindle screens, to watch sitcoms in HD, to see movies in stereoscopic depth. If the frame rate of The Hobbit demands a little more investment—an hour of adjustment, let’s say, instead of several minutes—that’s just because at first it doesn’t seem so new at all. It reminds us of the cheap, old-fashioned video that was shot at 60 fps. In the last 10 or 15 years, TV productions have made a point of shooting at a slower speed. They’ve forced their frame rates down from 60 to 24, adding motion blur and softening up the spatial resolution, so as to mimic what we’re used to seeing at the movie theater.
But it’s wrong to see the move to higher frame rates as a throwback to this early video, or a retro fashion shift. It does not mark the imposition from on high of a newer, better standard—one frame rate to rule them all (and in the darkness bind them). It’s more like a shift away from standards altogether. With the digital projection systems now in place, filmmakers can choose the frame rate that makes most sense for them, from one project to the next. Douglas Trumbull, who started playing around with 60 fps in the 1970s, says this variable can be applied at the level of the scene, or even the character. What looks good at 24 fps can stay at 24 fps, he says. What looks good at 48 fps can be at 48 fps.
Trumbull’s hybrid approach has played out already in the jump from celluloid to digital video and animation. Pixar likes to draw in the shimmering hexagons of a camera lens flare, even though its cameras are only virtual. Some live-action filmmakers add in lens flares for nostalgia, or to distract the viewer from a wonky CG effect. Peter Jackson uses them in The Hobbit as well. For all his future-proofing, he’s just like his colleagues: Directors like to keep some antiques around for show.
Earlier this year, Entertainment Weekly asked Jackson what he thought of the people who hate the 48 fps format. "I can’t say anything," he answered, "just like I can’t say anything to someone who doesn’t like fish. You can’t explain why fish tastes great and why they should enjoy it." I think he’s right. The fish may taste a little odd at first, and you may never grow to love it. But we should all be glad it’s on the menu.
Correction, Dec. 13, 2012: In the original, the character was identified as Golem.