The Hobbit’s Frame-Rate Experiment Is the Way of the Future. Get Used to It.

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Dec. 13 2012 6:44 PM

You and Your Precious 24 fps

In defense of The Hobbit’s increased frame rate.

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Warner Bros.

Way, way back in April 2011, before the critics started spewing insults in their snooty, elvish way, director Peter Jackson posted a note to his Facebook page under the heading "48 Frames Per Second." He wanted us to know why he’d used a special format in the filming of The Hobbit. It was a way of "future-proofing" the production, he explained. The 24 fps standard was selected somewhat arbitrarily in the 1920s, so that everybody’s films could accommodate a soundtrack. But with digital production and projection, it’s gotten very easy to shoot more frames and show more frames, and thus eliminate the strobe and blur that have been a part of film for almost a century. That’s the way that film is going, he advised. Sure, some "film purists" might complain, as purists like to do. But simple, moviegoing Shire-folk will adapt to it without a fuss. Don’t worry, hobbit friends, "it will look terrific!"

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

I’ve just seen the film, which opens Friday, and I’m prepared to take a stand for this technology, on behalf of Peter Jackson if not for all of Middlebrow Earth. I know this quest requires courage: Reviewers have panned the use of 48 fps, almost to an elf, carping that the higher definition only serves to call attention to the shoddy sets and makeup. They’ve sneered that The Hobbit looks like an episode of Teletubbies or Dancing With the Stars. They’ve denounced the film for seeming like a high-end home movie or an oddly theatrical production that comes off less as fantasy than tatty summer-stock, a mega-budget version of I, Claudius. But don’t let these snobs from Rivendell bewitch you with their highfalutin criticisms. The 48 fps version of The Hobbit is weird, that’s true. It’s distracting as hell, yes yes yes. Yet it’s also something that you’ve never seen before, and is, in its way, amazing. Taken all together, and without the prejudice of film-buffery, Jackson’s experiment is not a flop. It’s a strange, unsettling success.

I’ll admit it took me at least an hour to get accustomed to the format. (Jackson has suggested this would take 10 minutes.) Until that happened, the crowd scenes and interiors did indeed resemble teleplays on the BBC. But as the story progressed, the spectacle at first outpaced and then escaped its negative comparisons. Where were the storm giants in the cast of Teletubbies? Did Claudius ever turn his enemies to stone? Who brought this horde of orcs to Glimmerglass? Once the story of The Hobbit gets going—which isn’t for a while—that stagy feeling has started to subside. By the time that Gollum* pops up in the rocky basement of a goblin lair, it may be the last thing on your mind.

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So how bad is that first hour of the film, before your eyes get accustomed to its queer and vivid look? It’s awful, but that’s less a product of the fancy format than the shoddy content. The fact is, the introduction to The Hobbit would be wretched at any frame rate whatsoever, just as it would be an eyesore in both 3-D and 2-D, a snooze in 70 mm or 35 mm, a crapfest in color or a bore in black-and-white. Film purists take note: The best way to watch this footage is at a rate of precisely zero frames per second—to ignore it altogether, and read LOTR fan-fiction on your smartphone until it’s over.

An interminable sequence in Bilbo’s hutch culminates in a dorky, dwarven drinking song, performed alongside animated plates and spoons. (Hobbit food’s delicious. Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes.) I’d rather watch this toxic sequence at 24 fps, but only so as to mitigate my exposure by half. Jackson makes it worse by indulging in some handheld camerawork, which only accentuates the video effect, since it’s during these tilts and shifts that the lack of motion blur is most apparent.

Critics point to how the higher frame rate highlights insufficiencies in the makeup and the set design. (Slate’s Dana Stevens says that Gandalf’s staff now looks like "a cast-resin prop you might order from a Wiccan supply house.") I concede the point, at least at the movie’s outset, but once again I think it’s wrong to blame the doubled resolution. If a dwarf looks silly in his rubber nose, then it’s time to make a better rubber nose. These scenes aren’t lousy because of 48 fps; they’re lousy because the props and makeup crews are now behind the times.

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