Footage from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" screened last week in Las Vegas to movie theater owners and some journalists ... and shockingly, the reaction was not so positive. The sky is falling — but at least it looks incredibly sharp and realistic.
Too realistic, it seems.
The 10-minute clip was the first high-profile look at a movie at 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the standard 24 fps — and publicity turned sour as some reported the footage was so sharp it was distracting to watch.
"It looked like a made-for-TV movie," wrote The Los Angeles Times. "It was too accurate, too clear."
They're entitled to their opinion, but we have proof the criticism is premature — and possibly a moot point.
What does 48 fps actually mean?
When we watch film, we see 24 images each second, flashing before our eyes, just like when we draw pictures in the corner of a book, one each page, and then flip the book to see the images move. Our brain reads the images all together as motion, and for seven decades, the cinema has been showing 24 images per second. It was the best way to present an acceptable image without using too much expensive film stock.
Now in the digital age, Peter Jackson is shooting "The Hobbit" at twice that rate, 48 fps, without film, making the image sharper and taking away the motion blur that can happen at the slower rate. It is much closer to what reality looks like — apparently too close for the audience in Las Vegas.
As of today, theaters can't even show the film the way Jackson shot it. Warner Bros. screened the footage in part to convince theater owners to convert projectors with a software update so they can actually show the film as intended.
So is Jackson crazy to try?
"The first thing we saw in 48fps were gorgeously bright shots of the clouds and mountains of New Zealand, the kind of sweeping aerial photography that made us swoon in ['Lord of the Rings'], thinking again that the country itself was the best piece of casting for Middle-earth. For a breathless moment I felt rather like someone in an audience seeing their first color film after endless years of only black and white photography. Someone had lifted the glass off the windshield and you were looking at something *real* and in three dimensions."
Despite the grumbles, none of the financial partners needed to deliver the film at 48 fps backed away from trying the new technology by December. With support in place, the film will be available in the following formats in December: 3-D, Imax and 2-D — all of them in both Jackson's faster frame rate and the old standard.
I bet some fans will see them all. But more importantly: If the faster frame rate (and its stunning clarity) doesn't suit you, you can see the film the old way.
That's right: All this panic's over an option!
I haven't seen the footage so I can't defend or criticize it. But, it should be stressed that the footage was not finished as part of a motion picture. The color, effects and editing were not final -- so the viewed product wasn't either. Green screens, later used to paint in digital backgrounds, were still visible. This is a film still shooting.
Also worth considering
Peter Jackson and his team know visuals. Weta Digital, fresh from work on "The Avengers," has a bunch of Academy Awards for effects under its collective belt. The people working on these "Hobbit" movies are the industry standard — they look at the films every day including the footage screened in Las Vegas. If it really was terrible, they would be the first to know.
Ultimately, the final answer about this developing technology will come when the theater lights dim and the public judges for itself. I can't blame anybody who decided to see the film old school, but my preference will be to see something new and never seen before.
In the words of the director
Jackson told Entertainment Weekly he can only keep pressing forward.
"Nobody is going to stop," he said. "This technology is going to keep evolving. At first it's unusual because you've never seen a movie like this before. It's literally a new experience, but you know, that doesn't last the entire experience of the film – not by any stretch, [just] 10 minutes or so."
TheOneRing.net veteran Larry D. Curtis is NextMovie's regular "Hobbit" gollumnist, exploring Middle-earth and all things halfling as we gear up for the December 14 release of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" prequel, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Follow The Gollumnist on Twitter!