DISCLAIMER: The following review does not contain reflections about the narrative, adherence to the original novel, shot composition, directing, or any other proper review content. I was only interested in The Hobbit for its use of 48fps…
I was excited for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as soon as I learned that it was shot in 48 frames per second (fps); coupled with 3D technology. The media psychologist (in the most formal sense) in me was eager for this experiential evolution in filmmaking. Peter Jackson did not disappoint.
Traditional film is shot in 24fps and digital video is shot in 30fps. Although we are capable of inferring movement between two images flashing as slowly at 2 or 3fps (check out my brother and nephew), the faster the images are presented, the closer the experience comes to reality. At 24fps, we perceive the fantastical and picturesque quality of film, something between reality and a series of beautiful images. Our brains receive 25% more information in digital video at 30fps, making the space between the frames even shorter, and allowing us to perceive more movement. I didn’t understand the experiential difference until soap operas transitioned from film to HD video. This shift was difficult to explain but easy to feel. It was a visceral difference; suddenly, everything was more real. At 48fps, we are receiving twice as much information as traditional film, bringing this film closer to reality than we have ever been able to see in the theater.
Although high speed cameras are often used to capture incredibly fast motion (e.g., hummingbirds in flight, a bullet through an apple, or Jeff Lieberman’s Time Warp on The Discovery Channel), the purpose of this footage is not to make the viewer experience more realistic, but to allow for extremely slow presentation so that we can appreciate movements that are too fast for our brains to perceive. Check out my skydiving video.
For me, 3D films are delightful because of similar increases in reality; regardless of assorted tricks like monsters reaching out of the screen at the audience, the ambient depth of frame tricks my brain into believing that I am looking at a real physical scene, not a flat image presented on a screen. It taps into neurological connections that increase my subconscious suspension of disbelief. The first time I experienced such a deep psychological response to a film was watchingCoraline (2009) in 3D; the movie features scenes where Coraline passes through a wormhole into another dimension. I experienced the greatest visceral feeling during these scenes, wherein I actually felt like I was falling through a wormhole as well; I felt the anxiety in my stomach, the pressure in my chest, the fear and adrenaline in all of my muscles. Independent of conscious narrative suspense, I experience subconscious visceral suspense.
Which brings me to my original discussion: the combined experience of 48fps and 3D in watching The Hobbit. The film begins by taking the audience through the hobbit hole to see Bilbo Baggins at his writing desk, reflecting on a life past; Frodo enters, eating an apple, and begs to know more about what he is writing. This intimate interaction between generations is simple, and yet more real. There is no real value to the 3D or the 48 frames per second during these scenes, but, similar to the shift in soap operas from film to digital video, I suddenly felt like I was in the room with the characters.
As the narrative and the scenes became progressively more dynamic, the effects were increasingly pronounced and the realism of the content onscreen was made more striking because of the rectangular shape of the screen. The combined depth of the frame with the increased frames per second made everything so real that my mind was forced to make sense of the frame, not the content on the screen. Oftentimes, I felt that I was looking through a window into another world; not metaphorically, literally.
The Hobbit is a perfect evolution of of the moviegoing experience; from the original experience of sitting in a darkened theater with a screen that fills your field of vision to surround sound, perfections in 3D technology coupled with increased frames per second affects how our brain interprets images. Much like how the stereoscopic viewer in the early 19th century changed what people expected from a still image, The Hobbit changed what I psychologically expect of films.