Peter Jackson: High Frame Rate 3D Look Improved on ‘Smaug’

Peter Jackson
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

"Hobbit" helmer took criticism to heart, toned down "HD-video" look

In 2012, Warner Bros. and Peter Jackson were eager to show the world the latest innovation in filmmaking technology: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in High-Frame-Rate (48 frames per second) 3D. Reaction to the format was mixed, but the picture did over $1 billion at the box office.

This year, HFR 3D is back for part two of the trilogy, and there are 812 screens in the U.S. showing the HFR version of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” — up from 462 for “An Unexpected Journey.” The studio chose not to show the HFR version of “The Desolation of Smaug” to press this year, but Jackson isn’t backing down. He not only says HFR is the best way to see the picture, he’s promising audiences will see a better version of HFR, thanks to lessons learned on part one.

Jackson insists “48 (frames per second) is a way, way better way to look at 3D. It’s so much more comfortable on the eyes.” And it addresses the problems with “strobing,” a.k.a. “judder,” where the image blurs up when the camera moves or there’s fast action onscreen.

“(Strobing) certainly is one of the contributing factors to eyestrain and people having an uncomfortable experience in 3D,” says Jackson.

But he concedes there were lots of objections on the blogosphere and among cinephiles to the super-crisp images of the first installment of “The Hobbit.”

“It was interesting to try to interpret what people’s reaction was,” he says. He concluded the problem was that the image looked like HD video, and was simply sharper than people are used to in cinema.

“So what I did is work that in reverse,” says Jackson. “When I did the color timing this year, the color grading, I spent a lot of time experimenting with ways we could soften the image and make it look a bit more filmic. Not more like 35 mm film necessarily, but just to take the HD quality away from it, which I think I did reasonably successfully.”

“The film speed and the look of the picture are almost, kind of, two different things,” he says.

By tweaking the picture digitally, he says, he was able to keep the advantages of HFR, he says, but tone down the hi-def-video look. “I was experimenting all the time and trying different things. It’s to do with diffusing the image a little but, using what’s called a Pro-Mist; it’s the saturation of the color. Scene by scene I’d make decisions and choices as to which way to go, so it wasn’t really one magic button to press.”

Jackson says he had many “so-called normal” people tell him “An Unexpected Journey” was “the best 3D I’ve ever seen.” But they were really talking about the high frame rate, because the 3D was really the same as anybody else’s 3D.” Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman says the HFR screens “overperformed” on “An Unexpected Journey.”

Fellman says Regal Cinemas had especially good results with HFR. “The consumer liked what they saw and (Regal) decided to expand their footprint,” says Fellman.

But why stick to 24 frames per second for press and critics? “I was part of that decision,” Jackson says. “Last year people felt compelled, for obvious reasons, to write about the frame rate, as well as about the film itself. So we just said any press screenings this year, do it at 24, so at least people will just focus on the movie itself.”

The HFR version is being shown at the film’s various official premieres.

Jackson says that he is certain of one thing: “100 years from now  films are not going to be at 24 frames a second. The technology is going to move in ways we probably can’t even predict now. 100 years ago it was 16 frames a second, black-and-white.  100 years from now it’s going to be different again. At what point does a filmmaker use technology to push things along?

“‘The Desolation of Smaug’ is best seen in high frame rate, that’s all I can suggest to anyone who’s interested in seeing it.”

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  1. Martin says:

    This was my first experience of HFR and I was hugely disappointed. In lighter outdoor scenes it looked terrible, I was constantly struggling to get ‘involved’ in the film, it was so distracting. Darker scenes thankfully were fine, but it greatly hurt the overall experience leaving me feeling like I watched an ‘average film’ that I know was actually damn good really. I also specifically didn’t tell my wife that this was anything different to normal 3D, and the first thing she said afterwards was that the budget must have been much smaller for this one! When I asked why, she said bits of it looked like a cheap TV show. My local theatre didn’t offer a non-HFR 3D version, so I sincerely hope they do next time as this is not an experience we want to repeat.

  2. Richard Tibbetts says:

    Totally agree that HDF looks like TV.
    Good film, but totally distracted by the HD look.
    Peter Jackson, I won’t be seeing anymore movies in this format.

  3. bradastan says:

    Yeah, just watched it, regal had it in three formats, no 3d, 3d and 3dh, they told me the “H” meant it was a higher quality. It looked just like television, I felt like I was watching a sitcom, not a blockbuster movie. It truly felt wrong.

    I’ve got the LOTR trilogy on Blu-ray and that didn’t look like a “made for TV” movie, so why the hobbit?! Definitely not watching anymore “3dh” movies. It just ruined the experience. I was waiting for a commercial break to pop up at any moment.

    • bradastan says:

      I should add, I wondered why the “3dh” showing was so empty, now I know, it looked like I shot the film on my camcorder in my living room. Well maybe not that bad, but it didn’t look nearly as good as LOTR did in the theaters.

  4. Jess says:

    I just watched it and it looked like a bad tv sitcom. Am I the only one whom thought that the HD and 3D looked SO BAD?

    • bradastan says:

      No your not, I just watched it too and it looked like a “made for TV” movie. The coloring was all wrong, things were too close up, pretty much ruined the cinematography.

      I wondered at first why the “3dh” showing was so empty, now I know.

      • Jess says:

        I’m looking forward to watching it for real. haha Also, not to mention that the first 20 minutes and the last 30 minutes were the actual book. The rest I don’t even know.

  5. Satyen says:

    Around the 1920’s RCA ran an experiment. They took a bunch of volunteers, and one by one showed them into a room that had opera music playing through loudspeakers. They presented each subject with two knobs, and asked the subject to adjust the knobs until the music sounded “best”. The results were that half the subjects turned both knobs all the way down, and half the subjects turned both knobs to the midpoint.

    The two knobs were treble and bass control for the music system. The people who adjusted the knobs down were people who listed to opera music at home over AM radio, which were not good at reproducing the highs/lows, so they preferred music with muted highs/lows. The people who adjusted the knobs to the midpoints were people who regularly attended live opera performances and preferred better fidelity.

    The conclusion is that what sounds “best” is relative to what you’re expecting to hear. The reaction to HFR movies is similar to that. People who’ve been watching 24fps their whole life will find HFR looks wrong. On the other hand, 48fps is an inherently superior format, and kids today are growing up playing high frame rate computer games, so HFR bound to catch on, but filmmakers and viewers both need time to adapt.

    • joestemme says:

      Technology has changed exponentially since the 20’s. Not to mention that EVERYBODY has seen HD TV now, so the analogy doesn’t really work, since everybody has the same baseline.

      The discussion about 48FPS misses one critical element – the digital one. 48FPS has been experimented with with film and, by all accounts, looks amazing. Unfortunately, digital itself still has a long way to go in creating a realistic looking image in a movie theater. And, that’s not even getting into the discussion about Digital PROJECTION, which currently is so poor compared to film that it can’t even show true Black.

  6. joestemme says:

    If digital is so great, why are filmmakers constantly trying to make it look more and more like film? Heck, on NEBRASKA they even laid on a phoney layer of “film grain” over the image.
    The problem with current digital is not just that it looks like “HD video”, but, that with its insane amount of “detail” it actually looks less real than film. Your eyes simply don’t pick up that amount of detail on a day to day basis. Jackson doesn’t put it that way, but, basically he is admitting that you have to soften the digital image to make it look more realistic.

  7. Jeff Lackey says:

    Film has been projected at 48 frames per second for decades. Currently the same frame is shown twice consecutively then the film advances to the next frame and so on and so on. I am assuming that the new process shows a new frame each time instead of the same frame twice. can an expert please confirm this?

    • Paul Smith says:

      Not an “Expert” but somebody who can do a simple Google search (and also suggest that you do the same) to know the answer is simply: yes.
      That would be the only way to ‘Smooth out the action” anyway. So a wee bit of logic can also confirm this. ;-)

      • Jeff Lackey says:

        thanks Paul, but I was hoping to hear from someone who could actually confirm for sure. currently in theatres that still use film, the standard is 24 fps with a double shutter which is effectively 48 fps OR 24 fps with a triple shutter which is effectively 72 fps. should have been more clear, but was actually just wanting to know more details about this HFR. the “simple google search” didn’t give me enough info, so that’s why i was hoping to hear from an expert. in hindsight, i should have realized that no “expert” would be reading the “comments” section of a Variety article.

  8. Satyen says:

    Make that 811 screens not 812. Our local AMC (Durham NC) screened the first Hobbit film in HFR, but is sticking with 24fps for the second film. No telling how many other theaters are doing that too.

  9. John Shea says:

    Reality can look unreal on a screen. Many people’s first reaction to TV shots of the World Trade Center collapsing was that the effects were poor! That was before they discovered it wasn’t a fictional movie.

  10. Digital Cinematographer says:

    Mr. Jackson. Please stop trying to make THE movies better. Please just make better movies.

    I saw Part I first in 24fps, non-3D, just as I did LOTR 10 years ago. I was engaged by the story and characters, and didn’t think about the tech.

    A few days later I saw it in HFR 3D. I jumped at the first shot. I was sure there was a technical malfunction. Bilbo, old Bilbo, was moving nearly 1.5x faster than he was in the 24fps version. I thought the software/projector was off. But no. That’s how it was.

    I felt like I was watching a stage play. It was too clear. Too crisp. Like I was there on set. But I don’t go to the movies to see the artifice behind it all. It took me out of the film. Quite the opposite intention of the filmmakers.

    For years camera makers and filmmakers have been working to make video look more like film. HFR is a giant leap backwards.

    • bradastan says:

      Yeah I’ll vote with my wallet, no 3dh movies for me, I’ll watch plain 3d or good old 2d from now on, hobbit 2 in 3dh just plain hurt to watch. I think it could have been good if I wasn’t so distracted thinking a terrible mistake had been made.

    • FriscoKid says:

      I completely agree. And I resent Jackson blaming the audience for “not being used” to his precious format. We have all seen what HD video looks like just as we have all seen behind-the-scenes footage of movie sets. Watching Unexpected Journey in HFR looked exactly like actors standing on sets. It completely took me out of the movie and never felt like I was watching a fantasy of another world. It didn’t even feel like watching a movie, it felt like watching the bonus features on a DVD. (P.S.: The AMC theater in San Francisco that showed Unexpected Journey in HFR has completely ditched it for Smaug.)

      • Paul Smith says:

        But that’s the truth: you AREN’T use to it yet. Back in the day I’m sure some people probably revolted against color films because that wasn’t the “cinematic look” and when HD TV became common, people complained about that. “It just looks fake!” Now, it is painful to watch TV on on old CRT TV. You’ll get over it. You’ll brain will learn a new normal. A better one. Real life doesn’t look stroby. I’m happy we’re finally moving on. Does it look odd to me right now? Of course. But I know it won’t after a couple more films.

      • FriscoKid says:

        I completely agree that it looked like TV. You’ve proven my point.

      • Andrew Wilcox says:

        And I get sore eyes watching a strobing at 24fps, but find 48fps like watching a BBC documentary – breathtaking.
        I’ll bet you everything I own that in 10 years, most people won’t be able to bear 24fps for 3d. The pre-conditioning will be gone, I know you won’t take me up on the offer. I’m sure the arguments were the same 100 years ago with 16fps being “true cinema”.

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