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

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

Peter Jackson
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

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.”