CinemaCon is kind of like the Hollywood equivalent of E3. It may have only recently enjoyed its second year, but it attracts a large gathering of cinema operators, owners and press from around the globe. It offers attendees an advanced look at all manner of snippets from upcoming films, but one of the most highly anticipated showings was also one of the most disappointing, if online feedback is anything to go by.
10 minutes of The Hobbit footage was showcased at CinemaCon and it was divisive to say the least. This isn’t because writer/director Peter Jackson had nuked the fridge in terms of his storytelling prowess; instead, it was because of how the film was displayed: at 48 frames per second (fps), instead of the standard 24fps. If you believe those attempting a cinema frame-rate revolution—household names such as Peter Jackson and James Cameron—or simply understand the logic behind the push for higher frame rate, 48fps films would result in movies with a whole lot less artefacts, flickering and strobing. In lay terms, more fluid movement and a more lifelike viewing experience. But therein lies the rub.
The general consensus among naysayers is that the footage looks too real, to the point where the film looks too fake. That may read like an oxymoron, but it actually makes sense. Critics are complaining that the vivid lifelike images are removing the magic Hollywood veil and making it easier to spot the fact that dwarves, for instance, aren’t really dwarves, and that they’re actors with a lot of makeup wearing unfamiliar costumes. Hollywood, it seems, is in dire need of advancing its makeup and costuming techniques in this high-definition age; but then, that has been true ever since the ‘dreaded’ release of the powerful Blu-ray/1080p screen combo.
Peter Jackson has officially responded to the vocal critics who are criticising the move from traditional (read: old as hell) 24fps to faster 48fps, and his ultimately unfazed thoughts are well worth the read. Jackson’s bottom line is that cinemagoers will get used to the frame-rate transition quickly; as long as the transition is over the course of a film’s running length. But he also understands that certain people might not like it at all. “I can’t say anything. 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.”
It seems the studio behind The Hobbit isn’t taking any risks with their billion-dollar film franchise, either. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is slated to be released in six different formats: 24fps and 48fps variants of 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D. And even then, the 48fps projection is only possible on projectors that support the new tech. Bear in mind that 24fps has been the cinema standard—something that critics are arguing is part and parcel with making a film look and, thus, feel ‘cinematic’—since the last 1920s.
But while certain critics, Peter Jackson and the studio behind The Hobbit films are worried about how the world will see and receive 48fps cinema after years of ocular indoctrination via 24fps presentation, I have a sneaking suspicion that gamers will take to 48fps like a fish to water.
As per Jackson’s disclaimer, I don’t doubt that there will be an initial jarring feel with 48fps cinema, given the aforementioned history of 24fps cinema as the norm. But I’m expecting it to be positively jarring, like the first time I took my Counter-Strike experience from 30fps to 60fps. Back then, I had no idea of the potential of the difference between the two in gameplay terms, espousing fallacies such as the ‘fact’ that the eye couldn’t even see more than 30 frames per second. Suffice it to say, after an initial round of fast-paced weirdness, I quickly got used to 60fps and my gaming experience improved significantly.
Even though the 30fps vs 60fps debate still rages in regards to console titles (most recently and notably the Modern Warfare 3 versus Battlefield 3 war of 2011) and many a console gamer probably doesn’t know what they’re missing out on in terms of higher frame rate, for PC gamers, at least, frame rate is a big deal. For many of us, 60fps is the bottom line we take for granted. For me, and I’m sure many other PC enthusiasts, I invested thousands of dollars into a computer so that I could ensure a 60fps minimum, all the while enjoying the maximised shiny of whatever a game could throw at me.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that I’m comparing games to movies, and that’s inherently problematic for a couple of reasons. First, developers have been forging 60fps-standard games for many years now and, in turn, gamers have been expecting them ever since. In that respect, a 60fps minimum—or, on PC, the ability to set that as the base value—has become an expected standard and, as previously mentioned, a topic that can cause division in the community when console developers are adamant that 30fps games are just as playable as 60fps titles. Second, while game graphics are ever enhancing and becoming more and more lifelike, they’re still not on par with the real-life recorded images of film.
The 48fps critics have a point if they are being thrown by noticeable makeup and costume detractors under the magnifying glass of a higher frame rate. At the end of the day, though, The Hobbit is treading new cinematic ground that hasn’t been changed in over 80 years. Such a change was always going to be a jolt to the eyes and perceptions of what makes a film cinematic; a term that will, undoubtedly, have to change if (hopefully ‘when’) higher film frame rates become the norm.
It’s important that the 48fps experiment is being showcased in a big way on a highly anticipated release such as The Hobbit. This is the best way to ensure that a wide range of cinemagoers are exposed to its new look and potential. It’ll become even more relevant when James Cameron shoots the next Avatar film in 60fps.
I’d like to believe that my longsuffering gamer eyes have been prepped for Hollywood to start playing catch-up to the games industry in terms of frame rate. Do you believe that yours have been prepped, too?