Don't Fear “The Hobbit” at 48 Frames-Per-Second

The 'Lord of the Rings' prequel uses cutting-edge technology -- but has some viewers feeling woozy

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", the upcoming prequel to "The Lord of the Rings," is being shown in a new format that has some fans feeling a bit off -- even though medical science and 40 years of experience say it should be just fine.

For decades, the standard has been for films to be shot and shown in 24 frames-per-second (fps), but director Peter Jackson decided that he wanted to shoot the Hobbit in 48 fps, citing the heightened clarity the format provides. The movie will be released Dec. 14.

"For me it gave it more of that reality, that immersive-ness," Jackson said in a press conference this week. "It makes it feel like you're leaving the cinema seat and becoming a part of the adventure."

There's no question that watching "The Hobbit" in 3D at 48 fps is a totally new experience, one you notice immediately. Everything from the fluidity of motion to the smallest detail is hyper-articulated. At times you can feel like you're there with Bilbo and the dwarves, rather than watching a film, which can be a bit disconcerting.

Early reports out of New Zealand say viewers have been complaining of nausea. Jackson says he's been "fascinated by the reactions," and argues that a 3D film in 48 fps should actually cause viewers fewer headaches than traditional 3D.

"With 3D, your left and right eye are seeing two different pictures," Jackson said. "And with 24 frames you're getting strobing and motion blur, your brain is trying to put this stuff together… your brain is struggling to resolve those two images. And 48 frames reduces those artifacts and makes for a smoother picture."

As someone who's seen dozens of 3D films, and suffered headaches and eyestrain on more than one occasion, I found this format much easier on the eyes.

Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a visual neurophysiologist and Harvard professor, says the science supports Jackson's theory: a higher frame rate should make for a better experience. She draws an analogy between frame rates and the varying hertz -- flicker speed -- of light bulbs.

"There are people who complain that they can see the flicker in fluorescent lights, especially in their periphery, and they find that disturbing," she said. "They like tungsten illumination better because it smooths out the flicker. Making the flicker faster should be better."

Livingstone is confident that what these people are experiencing is just good old fashioned motion sickness, brought on by the 3D, not the frame rate -- there's no physiological reason for the frame rate to cause problems, she said.

"Stereo and motion are processed by the same system," Livingstone said. "You're sitting still in a chair but you're getting strong motion/depth signals that aren’t consistent with what your inner ear is telling you is going on."

Douglas Trumbull, an Oscar-winning filmmaker whose credits include "2001" and "Blade Runner" who shoots short films at 120 fps, suspects that the 48 fps is simply exacerbating the discomfort that 3D can cause.

"It's because (viewers) are more immersed than they would have been otherwise," Trumbull said. "When you go to 48 or higher... it makes it much easier for your brain and visual nervous system to ingest a movie. But if there's an action sequence, it will be more powerful, kinda of like a theme park ride."

Jackson, who notes that most of the complaints he's heard have come from people over 20, thinks the issue comes down to something as simple as comfort level.

"As human beings we always have resistance to things that are different," said Jackson. "I remember reading something that the Beatles said that they would never have their albums on CD because it was too clear and all the bad notes would be exposed. So you're never going to hear a Beatles tune on CD. There was all this hysteria."

Trumbull expects films to be projected at variable frame rates in the future, with some scenes shown at 24 and others at 48, or even higher.

"You have to apply this hyper frame rate very judiciously to certain kinds of things," he said. "You use it like seasoning in a movie. I don’t think you apply it across the board, because some people, some scenes look terrific, but perhaps some of the close-ups look awkward because it tends to be like television."

If the whole thing sounds off-putting, there are plenty of options: The film will only be showing in 3D/48 fps in select theaters. On most screens, it will be in either traditional 3D, 2D or IMAX.

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