Technical shift may present conundrum for New Line

Peter Jackson’s plans to shoot “The Hobbit” at 48 frames per second — twice the current rate — marks the beginning of a technical shift in moviemaking that’s as significant as 3D, color, or even sound.

But the world’s first 48p feature also presents a serious hurdle for New Line, as retrofitting the quickened print to play in analog projectors, which still operate at the majority of screens, is not so simple.

Jackson posted on Facebook on Tuesday that he is shooting the “Lord of the Rings” prequels to make his movie look “much more lifelike, and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3D.”

James Cameron, who has verbally committed to shooting his “Avatar” prequels at 48p or higher, touted the new tech at CinemaCon last month as the next leap forward in 3D storytelling. “If the 3D puts you into the picture,” Cameron said at the conference, “the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window.”

Though production on “The Hobbit” has only just begun in New Zealand, Jackson was quick to convert to Cameron’s vision for smoother action and crisper 3D visuals .

“We’ve been watching ‘Hobbit’ tests and dailies at 48 fps now for several months, and we often sit through two hours worth of footage without getting any eyestrain from the 3D,” he said. “It looks great, and we’ve actually become used to it now, to the point that other film experiences look a little primitive.”

The nation’s nearly 16,000 digital projectors — about half 3D-equipped — are capable of handling the higher frame rate. But the majority of movie theaters in the U.S., more than 23,000 in 2010, still take film prints, for which 24p is standard.

Making “The Hobbit” compatible for those screens isn’t as easy as taking out every other frame, which would create a jerky image. Instead, it’s necessary to combine pairs of consecutive frames to a single image in post-production.

Warner and New Line have not addressed their plans for film prints for “The Hobbit,” and did not respond to requests for comment. Exhibitors were also not available for comment.

Jackson said that while there may be as many as 10,000 screens worldwide capable of showing his movie at 48p by the time the pic is released, that figure isn’t certain. “I see it as a way of future-proofing ‘The Hobbit,'” he said. “Take it from me — if we do release in 48 fps, those are the cinemas you should watch the movie in.”

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