The Verdict on High Frame Rate: One Year Later

Last year, the first film of The Hobbit trilogy came out, the first major studio film to be shot and screened in 48 fps. The reviews were decidedly mixed, with some audience members seeing the merits but also acknowledging the need for improvements, and with many others flat-out hating the look. At the time many wondered if Peter Jackson would continue to push for the new high frame rate screenings given the many negative reactions that the new format received. However, given that this year The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug quietly expanded its HFR screenings to 750 screens from the previous film’s 450 screens, it appears that Jackson isn’t giving up his vision for the future of film. 

For those not familiar with the idea of high frame rate, here are the basics. Traditionally, movies have been filmed and displayed in 24 frames per second (fps). This speed allows for fluid motion while also keeping the number of frames displayed every second to a reasonable minimum. In the early days of film, this was an important balance to strike, as film stock was heavy and expensive, and filmmakers wanted to keep their costs to a minimum. However, the development continuing improvement of digital film capture has allowed filmmakers like Peter Jackson to begin experimenting with the frame rate while keeping costs low as well – data storage is much cheaper than doubling the amount of film stock used. Doubling the frame rate to 48 fps creates a much more fluid, crisp and (in theory) immersive film experience, making it seem much more like the viewer is in the world rather than watching it. However, it basically eliminates film blur, a subtle shift, but one that entirely changes the look of a film. In fact, many early audiences who saw the first high frame rate footage felt that it just didn’t look like a real movie to them. Inarguably, the first Hobbit film did leave much room for improvement with the new format.

However, The Desolation of Smaug is a huge improvement over the first film in terms of the HFR. It seems that in the past year the filmmakers have gotten a much better handle on the post-production process involved. The main issue I had with the format of the first film was the way it highlighted the seams in the CGI and the makeup. Many shots just looked obviously computer-generated in a way that the LotR trilogy never did. The goblins in particular almost looked cartoonish at times. This film has almost entirely fixed that problem. The orcs looked far more realistic, as did the dwarves’ makeup. Additionally, Smaug looked incredible in the IMAX HFR 3D. As a viewer, I repeatedly forgot that I was watching an animated creature. Instead, I was never pulled out of the fantasy of the film. While there were two or three shots that the CGI was obvious, most of the film was gorgeous and far more realistic than I’d hoped it to be.

Beyond fixing the problems from An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug showcases just how beautiful that the high frame rate format can actually be. The landscapes were exhilarating – there really is no better way to view Middle Earth. The HFR even added new immediacy to the dramatic and dialogue-driven scenes. As a viewer, I did feel much more involved in the world than in the traditional 24 fps. Another added bonus is the way that the format makes the fight scenes legible. There are no blurry figures that your eye cannot follow. Instead, I had the pleasure of being able to actually follow the movements of the skirmishes between elves, dwarves, and orcs.

Overall, the high frame rate was much more successful on its second run. The CGI finally seems to be catching up to its unforgiving clarity, causing the fantasy realm to be much more believable. The film offers a wonderful balance of depth and clarity, creating a beautiful and detailed world for the characters to explore. I fully believe that HFR could have a real future in cinema, not one just limited to Peter Jackson’s endeavors. I would love to see how the HFR format comes across in a film that doesn’t rely on CGI – how would a high frame rate rom-com come across? Or a thriller? A drama? The possibility for experimentation is limitless at this point.

While HFR may never experience the popularity of 3D, I think there’s a market for it. If audiences can push through the initial adjustment period, we could see an exciting and beautiful movement in the movies.

If you’ve seen a HFR screening, what were your thoughts?

Caitlin Orr

Caitlin Orr

A southern native, I graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in Media Arts. Over the past several years I've had the opportunity to write and shoot a number of short films. My biggest passions are writing and talking about movies with anyone who will sit still long enough to listen - something my family and friends can attest to! Some of my favorite filmmakers include Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, and Wes Anderson. Now located in Nashville, you can usually find me in my off hours hiking, baking, or watching more movies.

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