Why You Won’t See "The Hobbit" At 48 Frames Per Second

Peter Jackson shot the movie at twice the normal frame rate, but Warner Brothers is already backing away from promises to screen it that way. Why? Because it looks really weird! Here’s a demonstration.

Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit at double the normal frame rate — 48 frames-per-second instead of the usual 24 — in order to make 3D appear less flickery and dim. According to Jackson, it’s just “a more immersive and in 3D a gentler way to see the film.” But Warner Brothers announced this week that most fans won’t get to see it that way. This week, news broke that the 48fps version will be scaled back to an extremely limited release, playing only select locations, and maybe not even in all major cities.

Why are they scaling it back? Because it looks really weird!

The first trickle of 48fps footage screened at Comic-Con, prompting a minor backlash and a lot of fans wondering whether this was a good idea at all. It looked too smooth — like a soap opera, was the common analogy. In fact, interpolated HDTV sets (which refresh at 120Hz or 240Hz rather than the usual 60 and use algorithms to fill in the missing frames) are one of the few places you’ve probably seen this style of footage.

It’s an unsettling effect — almost hyperreal — but it’s hard to describe if you haven’t seen it, so we’ve set up a test case. Here’s some awkward footage of me jumping around the BuzzFeed offices, in both 30 and 60fps to give you some idea of what a faster-than-average framerate looks like. Sadly, Final Cut is allergic to 48fps (just like humans, apparently), but it should give you a sense of the hyperreal weirdness some moviegoers will be dealing with on opening day.

(N.B. My personal awkwardness is separate from the awkwardness of the frame rate.)

It’s worth noting that it was actually really hard to get this on the page. None of the online video sites (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) will mess with framerates higher than 30, and there are all sorts of minor conversion problems that can pop up. That’s another reason Warner Brothers is getting cold feet: as Variety reported, most theater projectors can’t handle the new frame rate without a software or (in some cases) a hardware upgrade.

But that kind of technical difficulty is just a speed bump for a project the size of The Hobbit. The real question is, “Do you actually want to watch a movie this way?” Peter Jackson thinks you do, and he’s got plenty of company, including James Cameron who described it as the most immersive experience possible: “If watching a 3D movie is like looking through a window, then [with 48fps] we’ve taken the glass out of the window and we’re staring at reality.”

But increasingly, Warner Brothers seems to be betting you don’t.

Video by Michael Schmidt.

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