Last year at CinemaCon, James Cameron began his push for the next evolution of cinema — higher framerates. Peter Jackson was the first filmmaker to hear the call to action and shoot a feature film using 48fps. That film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will be released in the holiday season at the end of this yea. It could very well determine the future of how movies look and how films are shot, projected and viewed both theatrically and at home.

A brief primer: Modern films are shot and projected at 24 frames per second. That has been the industry standard for feature films since the mid-1920s after sound motion pictures were introduced. The low frame rate results in a strobing effect when there is moderate camera movement. You have probably accepted this technological artifacting, but it looks artificial and your brain interprets it as such. Raising the framerate makes movement look a lot smoother, and gives the impression of an enhanced resolution. The low framerate is also one of the major factors of why some people experience discomfort while watching 3D movies.

Lets go back in time to last year’s convention. Cameron gave a presentation to a auditorium full of skeptical theater owners/managers (and a few press). And by the end of the presentation, which compared footage shot at 24fps up against the same sequences shot at 48fps and 60fps, most walked away believing they had seen the future of cinema. I was a believer. I wrote:

The footage shot at 48 frames a second looked incredible. The best way to describe it, is to quote Cameron: “If watching a 3D movie is like looking through a window, then [with this] we’ve taken the glass out of the window and we’re staring at reality.”

Cut to one year later: Warner Bros held a presentation which previewed their entire 2012 line-up (you can see my reaction to all the footage in a separate posting). That presentation included over ten minutes of footage from Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit. Buzz was at an all time high to see this footage, which says something when you’re sharing a panel with Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises. Many people I had talked with were expecting to be blown away by the footage, and especially the new, higher, frame rates. Most of us were not.

Please note: I won’t go into the content of the Hobbit footage in this post, as this is not the point of this article. If you want to read scene descriptions, go elsewhere. If you want to hear some of our reactions to some of the footage, watch our video blog elsewhere on the site. This article is about frame rates and the future of cinema technology.

Jackson recorded a video introducing the footage, being very clear that it was unfinished, featured green screens, and early effects. He said that he chose ten minutes of footage because audiences need time to get use to the new frame rate, time to adjust and see it for what it is. He praised the step to 48 frames per second by saying it gave a new clarity to the footage he shot, comparing it to shooting on 65mm film.

The footage opened up with wide expansive shots of people walking on mountains and over rich green landscapes — those awesome shots that became synonymous with the Lord of the Rings series when it began a decade ago. Thee shots looked incredible — almost like something you would see in an IMAX 3D nature documentary — so extremely vivid and breathtaking, and more real than we’ve ever seen these shots before.

This is the future of Cinema… I thought…

But my amazement quickly came to an end as the sizzle reel transitioned from the landscape footage to the character centric. Everything looked so… different. It was jarring.

The change from 24 frames per second to 48 frames per second is HUGE. It completely changes what every image looks like, the movements, the tone, everything is different.

It looked like a made for television BBC movie.

It looked like when you turn your LCD television to the 120 hertz up-conversion setting.

It looked uncompromisingly real — so much so that it looked fake.

More noticeable in the footage was the make-up, the sets, the costumes. Hobbiton and Middle Earth didn’t feel like a different universe, it felt like a special effect, a film set with actors in costumes. It looked like behind the scenes footage.

The movement of the actors looked… strange. Almost as if the performances had been partly sped up. But the dialogue matched the movement of the lips, so it wasn’t an effect of speed-ramping.

It didn’t look cinematic. Not at all, even with a top filmmaker like Peter Jackson at the helm.

“This is the future of cinema,” I wondered?

But it wasn’t just me — almost everyone I talked to, almost every conversation I overheard while leaving the presentation, all centered around how it didn’t look good.

I think it might be too early to completely write off this jump to higher frame rates. I’m trying my best to be as non-sensationalistic as I possibly can.

Could it be that the footage is so unfinished that it just didn’t look right? Miracles can be accomplished in color time and post processing, so who knows?

Could it be that we’ve grown up looking at 24 frames per second and that this newer, presumably better, higher frame rate looks bad only because its something we’re not use to? Possibly? I don’t know. Maybe in 30 years we’ll be looking back at the choppiness of 24fps films and wonder how we could watch something so unrealistic. I really believed this would be possible leaving Cameron’s presentation last year, but this year I’m a lot more doubtful.

I’m a very enthusiastic person, wanting to embrace change. I’m an early adopter of new technology, I welcome improvements whenever I can. 48 frames per second made sense to me, but after seeing real movie footage shot and projected, I couldn’t be more unsure about it.

Vendors claim that a large amount of the digital projectors already in theaters will be easily upgradable to 48fps through a software update (of course, those tech vendors will probably charge for the patch). Warner Bros and Peter Jackson are hoping that most theaters will upgrade before the film comes out in December. Judging from the reaction from theater owners and managers, I’m not sure if that will happen or not. If it does, I do for see that the change to a higher frame rate could be more polarizing than the jump to 3D.  If it looks anything like what was presented today at CinemaCon, I think a lot of people will be angry about this change (when they finally see it for themselves).

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