This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re heading towards movies being shot and projected at high frame rates,” predicted Peter Jackson in 2012 as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first big movie made at 48 frames per second, headed to theaters. A year later, though, with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug due Dec. 13, Hollywood’s interest in high frame rates, or HFR, remains unfocused at best.
For all of Jackson’s proselytizing, at most, 1,000 screens out of the 39,056 screens in the U.S. will be equipped to show his new movie in the eye-popping new process. And while other filmmakers are intrigued, none, so far, has followed Jackson’s example. Bryan Singer, who visited Wellington, New Zealand, for The Hobbit‘s premiere, says he found the look of Jackson’s movie “really stunning.” But for X-Men: Days of Future Past, opening May 23, he stuck with 24 fps because, he says, “I had concerns about how certain sequences would look, and there is also a cost factor in rendering the visual effects.”
Since the 1920s, Hollywood movies have been made at 24 frames per second. A few visionaries — like effects ace Douglas Trumbull, who began developing a 60 fps process called Showscan during the late ’70s and continues to promote the concept of HFR — have tried to move the needle, but it wasn’t until Jackson began his Hobbit trilogy that 48 fps gained traction. Jackson argued that HFR images would have more clarity, reduce camera blur and be easier to watch, especially in 3D. With the support of Warner Bros. — whose New Line unit is producing the Hobbit movies with MGM — Jackson forecasted in April 2011 that the first movie would open on about 10,000 screens in HFR.
The reality proved to be more modest. Theaters need a 48 fps-supported digital cinema projector and a 48 fps-supported “media block,” which can cost about $10,000. Seeing Smaug in HFR 3D costs moviegoers the same as a regular 3D ticket, so theater owners don’t necessarily get a financial bump from luring audiences to HFR over non-HFR 3D. But since the public’s appetite for 3D has been declining — 49 percent of the opening weekend audience for the first Hobbit bought 3D tickets (for a mix of HFR and regular 3D) — HFR is seen as a possible new lure as the novelty of 3D wanes. The first movie appeared on about 600 HFR screens domestically and another 1,000 internationally, reports Warners.
Some reviewers called the new process disconcerting, with THR‘s Todd McCarthy criticizing the “overblown, artificial quality” of the images. Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato conducted his own test of 48 fps and didn’t like the look. “I preferred 24 artistically,” he said.
Others argued that a younger generation, brought up on video, would welcome the new realism. Says Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman, “Exhibitors who put it in were bullish on it, and audiences liked it.” And the postproduction community has applauded Jackson. On Nov. 7, the Hollywood Post Alliance bestowed its Judges Award for Creativity and Innovation in Post Production to Jackson’s Park Road Post.
As he readies his three Avatar sequels, James Cameron has said he’s considering shooting in either 48 fps or the faster 60 fps. Creatively, though, Singer decided HFR wouldn’t be right for his new X-Men outing, which takes place in 1973 and the present. While he did use a Phantom 3D rig to shoot at 3,600 fps for effects sequences involving the super-speedy character of Quicksilver, he declined to use HFR for the bulk of the movie. “In The Hobbit, which takes place in a more fantastic environment, it brings a magic and brightness,” says Singer. “But the same effect that benefits The Hobbit might not benefit the look of the particular movie I’m making. Especially in the 1973 sequences, it might look a little too strange, slightly too vivid.”
Singer never did estimates on the cost of HFR, but it was a concern. Jackson has his own infrastructure, which absorbs some expenses (the trilogy has cost $561 million so far), but working in HFR requires at least double the computing storage and at least double the rendering as 24 fps, which raises budgets.
Still, Warners estimates that this Hobbit installment will appear on about 400 more screens domestically than the first one. And, says Fellman of HFR: “I think it’s getting better and better. While it certainly was a slow starter, it’s going to be a game-changer.”