Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit' Should Hit Theaters at 48-Per-Second Frame Rate

Warner Bros.

After Jackson and James Cameron championed higher frame rates as a solution to exhibition problems, projection manufacturers are working to support the move in time for the movie's December 14, 2012 release date.

The cinema technology industry is working to give moviegoers the opportunity to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D projected at 48 frames per second when it hits theaters in December.

The question is, just how many theaters around the world will be able to accommodate this sort of presentation of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy, the first major motion picture to be made at the high frame rate (HFR) of 48 fps.

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It is conceivable that it could be tens of thousands, though most manufacturers—at least publicly—are taking a far more conservative wait-and-see approach, noting that theater upgrades will be driven by studio and exhibitors' demand.

Frame rates are the number of images displayed by a projector within one second. Twenty-four frames per second (fps) has long been the standard in cinema, but industry leaders James Cameron and Peter Jackson are among those who propose high frame rates such as 48 or 60, reducing or eliminating jutter and other motion artifacts.

Digital cinema equipment manufacturers are working on implementing high frame rate support.

There are roughly 13,000 Sony 4K digital cinema projectors shipped worldwide, and “we expect the majority of those screens to have high frame rate support enabled by the time The Hobbit is released,” Sony told The Hollywood Reporter.

Industry leaders explained that Series 2 projectors from Barco, Christie and NEC—all of which used technology from Texas Instruments—would be able to show The Hobbit at a HFR with a currently available software upgrade and a piece of hardware call an “integrated media block” (IMB) with 48 fps support. Such IMBs are being developed by several manufacturers such as Christie, whose IMB is expected to be available in June for roughly $10,000.

Don Shaw, senior director, product management, Christie Entertainment Solutions, estimated that worldwide there are between 40,000 and 50,000 installed Series 2 projectors that are capable of being upgraded.

While many have an eye on The Hobbit’s December release date for an upgrade, some upgrades might be needed even sooner, since there is speculation that a 48 fps trailer for The Hobbit might be released as early as this summer.

HFRs doen't just affect exhibition; it also impacts production. Jackson is shooting his movie in 3D with Red Epic cameras (various digital cinematography cameras including those from Red already support 48 fps) and 3Ality Technica rigs.

Wellington-based Park Road Post Production has developed a 48 fps postproduction process anchored in color grading and postproduction system Mistika, from a Spain-based equipment maker called SGO. Development of the postproduction process began in 2010.

SGO worked closely with Park Road to enhance the system to meet the needs of the production. “We started with one Mistika and rapidly went to around five … Now there are tens of machines,” said Phil Oatley, head of technology at Park Road Post, who explained that the postproduction company also developed proprietary asset management, automation, and an archival system aimed at 48fps support.

The effort also involved Christie and Barco. Park Road is testing projectors from both companies, running beta software to enable the 48fps capabilities.

A huge challenge across the board is the volume of data that is required for HFRs. Oatley reported that for The Hobbit production shoots 6-12TB of camera data per day. And the shooting schedule (for both parts of the two-part film) involves 265 days of principal photography. (There are roughly 50 days to go).

Oatley said a key aim was to keep the filmmaking process “as familiar as possible.” As an example, the film is being edited on an Avid Media Composer at 24 fps in 2D. Park Road has developed a method of taking that edit information into post at 48fps 3D.

With the 48fps system now in place, Oatley said Park Road Post is now prepared to handle future 48 fps productions.

James Cameron, who conducted a high-profile demonstration of the potential of HFRs last year at CinemaCon, has said that he intends to make Avatar 2 and 3 at a HFR.

To support these efforts, standards bodies are looking to add HFRs to digital cinema specifications.