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!"
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.
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.
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.