• August 31, 2014

Super-clear format can puncture fantasy of 'The Hobbit'

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Posted: Friday, December 14, 2012 7:30 am | Updated: 8:53 am, Fri Feb 8, 2013.

LOS ANGELES — One thought struck me as I watched the new “Hobbit” movie in the latest super-clear format: “The rain looks fake. It’s not hitting their faces!”

That is just one consequence of filmmaker Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot his epic, three-part “Lord of the Rings” prequel with a frame rate of 48 images per second, double the 24 that cinemagoers have experienced for the past century.

The higher frame rate is supposed to make fast action scenes look smoother, without strobing or other cinematic flaws. But the image is so crystal clear that it can dispel the illusion of the fantasy world.

Jackson used his own money to pursue the new technology, covering the higher production costs involved with adding special effects to twice as many frames.

The studio also backed the format because it creates something new and different that can only be seen in theaters at a time when movie ticket sales in the U.S. are stagnating.

For the time being, the new format isn’t compatible with Blu-ray discs, DVDs or Internet video. Many people will buy movie tickets just to see what it’s like.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first of three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” opens today in the U.S. About 10 percent of U.S. theaters that carry the movie will offer the higher-frame format. U.S. theaters aren’t charging extra, though the format is offered only as part of 3-D screenings, which cost a few dollars more than regular tickets.

In the screening I attended, the higher frame rate did smooth out the staccato effect common in action-packed movies. I thought some scenes using computer-generated images looked more realistic. The format brought out details that might not be noticeable with just an increase in resolution.

These are benefits for fans of the kind of heart-pumping fight scenes that are peppered throughout the movie.

For some people, it is also touted to help ease the eyestrain they experience when watching movies in 3-D, though I didn’t notice any difference on that front.

Sometimes, though, the images can look too good.

In the rainy scene I mentioned, the intense clarity made it look as if actors with wet hair were moving between carefully placed artificial rain-makers instead of suffering through an actual downpour. So-so acting was more noticeable, and swords that were swung too easily looked like props. Flickering flames and other quickly moving objects sometimes appeared to race along in fast forward, even though that wasn’t the intent.

Jackson has said on his Facebook page that the high frame rate version has a “lovely silky look” while also making the traditional 24 frames per second version “very pleasing.”

At a press tour in New York last week, Jackson said it will be up to audiences to decide.

“As an industry, we shouldn’t really assume that we achieved technical perfection with motion pictures back in 1927,” he said. “There are ways to make the theatrical experience more spectacular, more immersive and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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