'Hobbit' SFX Master Joe Letteri: 48 FPS Enhances 3-D, But 'It's A Choice'

Hobbit 48 fps

The camps are entrenched, the battle lines drawn, and the barbs and quips are flying like cannon shot across the divide. But as the debate rages on Movieline -- and on other sites across the web -- over Peter Jackson's directorial decision to film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 frames per second (as opposed to the more traditional 24), no single quip seems to draw the ire of the "traditionalists" more than this one, aimed square in the chest of the old timers: Resisting 48 frames is like resisting color.

As if an argument over aesthetic choice could be so absurdly reduced. Right, four time Academy Award winning legendary SFX master and Hobbit visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri?

"If you grew up seeing films in black and white and suddenly start seeing films in color, some people are going to have the reaction 'Wow, that's great!' and other people are going to have the reaction, 'That's not moviemaking! Films should be made in black and white! You're losing the mystery of how to deal with tonality, you're sacrificing that to deal with color!'" Letteri told Movieline in an exclusive one-on-one chat.

"But if you grew up with only seeing color, you don't know that. Just talking to the people that have seen it so far, and obviously that's been a very limited audience, the younger ones that I've spoken with don't really have an issue with it because they're not so ingrained with what 24 frames mean. To them they're just watching a movie."

A movie that doesn't actually look like a movie, opponents might counter, since one of the effects of shooting at 48 fps — which projects 48 individual static shots every second — is to give your brain twice as much visual information as compared to 24 fps. In turn, this extra visual information translates to a more immediate and "real" experience for viewers, lifting at least partly the screen's veil (think of the look of many American soap operas). It's a more visceral experience. But is it an equally cinematic one?

'It's a choice," Letteri insisted. "You have time to adjust. [Then you can ask] Do I want this or do I not want this?"

According to Letteri, it's a choice that may be driven in the future more in tandem with the choice to go 3-D, or "stereo," as Letteri refers to the process, than it is from a narrative compulsion, in large part because of how the human brain interprets three-dimensional filmmaking. In all films, objects not in focus or that are moving very fast will have blurriness (or "motion blur" in the case of quick moving objects). In 3-D, however, this same blurriness can cause your brain distress since it naturally wants to interpret the image as it does the real world, Letteri explained.

"I think it's beneficial with stereo," Letteri said of the high frame rate process. "One of the artifacts of stereo — for example, if you look at something that's out of focus, maybe an over the shoulder shot, this is where stereo differs from the real world. In the real world, wherever your eye focuses that object snaps to focus. So if you're looking at a big screen and your eye wanders to something that is out of focus, your eye expects it to go into focus. It can't. So you're sitting there focusing on an out of focus object. That's one of the things that causes your brain [to fritz]."

"The same thing also happens temporally," he continued. "If you've got an object moving across the screen in the real world your eye wants to be able to track that and your eye wants to see it in focus. But because you've already photographed that with this motion blur, your eye cannot focus on something in space that's blurry. Again, in the real world you never see that. It's one of those other things that in 3-D your brain says something's not right here. Well, if you go to high frame right, it is in focus. Your eye can focus on these fast moving objects or even slow moving ones and the details always there. So your brain can make sense of it."

Of course, if 48 fps can reduce blur, enhance 3-D, and make for a more absorbing experience, then why stop at just 48 frames per second? For those who don't like the process, it may be time to batten down the hatches. They aren't.

"Oh no, Jim [Cameron] is considering 60 fps [for Avatar 2]," Letteri, who won an Oscar for his groundbreaking work on the original Avatar said. "That's closer to where persistence of vision almost disappears. In fact, these discussions came out of when we noticed the effect of that in Avatar. And we were brainstorming with Jim on how to fix it — well, this is inherent in the photography and the only thing you can do is go shorter shutter, butt that introduces strobing, or you can go higher frame rate. We started experimenting with higher frame rate [from a standpoint of] how do we solve the problem?"

"It looks," he added, sending up either the victory flag or the white flag, depending on your opinion of the movie-like quality of movies, "like something happening live."

More on The Hobbit's 48 FPS Frame Rate:

WATCH: At 'Hobbit' Premiere, Robinov Says Warner Is Taking Wait-And-See Approach To 48 FPS

'The Hobbit' At 48 FPS: A High Frame Rate Fiasco?

'The Hobbit' 3-D Early Review: Back Again, But Not Quite There

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  • badblokebob says:

    "the younger ones that I've spoken with don't really have an issue with it because they're not so ingrained with what 24 frames mean. To them they're just watching a movie."

    Or, in other words, ignorance is bliss.

  • JJ Smith says:

    You can't legitimately say "That's not moviemaking." Edison's first camera and viewer ran at 48fps.

  • Frankly, this is one of the silliest arguments I've seen in years. The European television frame rate standard is 50Hz; the U.S. standard is 60Hz (actually, 59.97Hz.) How is 48Hz perceptually different in any significant way from 50Hz? But, if Jackson had shot "The Hobbit" in 50Hz, people would have complained that "it looks like video." The effects that people are complaining about when watching "The Hobbit" are no different from what people who normally watch television in 59.97Hz see when they watch 50Hz video, with the added nausea- and headache-inducing factor of 3D.

  • Lydia says:

    "the only thing you can do is go shorter shutter, butt that introduces strobing"
    "butt that introduces strobing"

  • Peter Farrow says:

    For god sake, make it 50fps at least then it can be enjoyed on TV.. 24FPS was always rubbish, and was invented to be "just enough" for smooth motion, cinematographers had to carefully choreograph movements and pans to avoid the dreaded judder. To claim 24fps has artistic value due its crapyness, is like saying VHS recordings have artistic greatness because of their lack of detail and poor noise performance. In the telecine days at the BBC 24fps films were always run at 25fps (adding 4%) so they could be broadcast. as Len Feldman states above this is so close to 50fps, just bite the bullet, dump the 24fps legacy and go for 50fps.

    This is bunch of cinematic loveys trying to be technical, while the rest of us who do actually know just look and smile inside.

    • Steve Greene says:

      It seems ridiculous to me to suggest that those who dislike the change of frame rate uses in cinema are just cinematic "loveys" that don't know the technical aspects and that you and your collective "rest of us" just smile at their ignorance. First of all, anyone who has worked in digital video knows the difference in refresh rates and frame rates, and that there is a difference between the effect of watching different frame rates, hertz cycles, stereoscopics, shutter speeds, on the psychology of the viewer. And much as some filmmakers who were not exclusionaries, like Tarkovsky, Von Trier, the Coen Bros., etc. discovered the continued uses of black and white as well as color, you would think it would be clear that there is no one way to do anything, especially in film, and especially in an artistic medium. There are likely uses for high frame rates as well as 3D, but suggesting that 24fps or methods that attempt a familiar cinematic effect comes across as intensely uninformed. Letteri has valid points about the uses of the higher frame rates, but the artifacts of 35mm and 24fps and yes even VHS can be artistically appealing to many, myself included, and so can higher frame rates and HD video.

      It should also be noted that video, particularly in TV, runs at 29.97 (30) fps, not 50 or 60, which is the hertz measurement of the refresh rate of the scan. And most American and BBC shows currently are filmed at 24fps and viewed as 24 in 30, meaning they treat motion like traditional cinema as we think of it at 24fps.

      Also, if you've seen The Hobbit in 48fps, and you don't think has a different effect on you, try seeing it both at 24 and in HFR, and then tell me, regardless of technical artifacts, how each made you respond psychologically.

  • daniel clements says:

    im not sure if my problem is just with the 3d or with the 48fps. For me it just made the lovely new zealand background look fake at times. Not all the time i hasten to add. The place where it looked worse was Bag End...It made the special effects of people being the same size look wrong and theres a couple of Ian Holm bits where he is speeded up like Benny Hill.

  • PJ Sherris says:

    Everyone knew this argument would come up. I saw The Hobbit in an Exhibitors' screening and was sworn to secrecy until after the film came out. When the projector ... projected ... I understood why. Not only was the frame rate new, but they were also showing it to us in 3D. Visually that's a lot to adjust to from behind the glasses: and, I didn't.

    Here I sit awaiting an opportunity to see The Hobbit in Digital 2D for I cannot tell whether it is a film I would recommend for having missed the storytelling/narrative while strange images/objects were thrown at me from the screen.

    For me, the question is the use of technology. In the LOTRs trilogy everyone exclaimed the amazing CGI work which drove the story onward and upward, it was masterful. Even the subsequent extended versions, which altered the story line were masterfully done. So what happened to mess up The Hobbit? Was it the rushing it to the screen after the delay caused by MGM's bankruptcy, which did not allow for the same level of post production work as LOTR had time for. Was it shoehorning every bit of technology onto the screen whether it was necessary to the story or not?. How can you pay attention to the story line, and the WETA artistry and imagery (so dearly loved in the LOTR trilogy), if you aren't' allowed to experience it because someone's teeth are flying at you off the screen?

    There is a place for all the old and new technologies, so I am not going to debate which is better. However I will say this, just because you can, doesn't mean you should. (Paraphrasing Dr. Malcolm/Jurassic Park, just in case someone wishes to call me on it.) If the technology does not enhance or move the story forward, then don't use it (Film 101). I might have liked the effects of 48 frames/sec if I had not been distracted by the 3D; and, I firmly believe 3D was used inappropriately in The Hobbit.

    Lucas having had only one amazing story to tell, descended into a hole and there became film-making's Gollum: remastering and retelling his own master work for he had/has nothing new to offer. When he combined with Sony, they became the dark lords of film-making destroying film and the cinematic experience by dictating and forcing their visions of how the moving picture should be produced and seen at the exclusion of all other mediums available. And, like sheep we march to the slaughter with oohs and aahs because sometimes it works.

    The minute a technology inappropriately applied to a film and takes the viewer out of the reality of the film, it destroys the experience. Producers, in the name of almighty currency and profit, have stopped doing their job as the audiences' advocates. I could have guaranteed The Hobbit a massive profit, if the necessary time had been taken in post production, and if the film were not in 3D, which didn't enhance it and indeed destroyed it as a work: The Hobbit is not a thrill ride: it is an adventure. I may have liked the 48 frames per second, I may never know.

    The story telling was so powerful in the Fellowship that when it faded out to Directed by Peter Jackson, I burst out, "No! What? They can't do this! I want more." When The Hobbit cut to black and Directed by Peter Jackson came up, I sat thorough credits, as I always do (a respect thing for all the people who worked on the film), while confusedly thinking to myself, "What?"

    So debate the technologies all you want. They are not the problem, this was human error in not knowing when to and not to use it.

    • Blue Canary says:

      "So debate the technologies all you want. They are not the problem, this was human error in not knowing when to and not to use it."

      As an opinion, that's all perfectly fair, of course. Saying the technology was "the problem" and an "error" is opinion, too, but for myself - and for the group with whom I watched the film (twice - once 2D, 24 fps, once 3D 48fps, audience group ages 25-64), this was no problem/error at all, and technology only brought us into the magic of the film all the more. I found both the clarity and the sense of reality to be mesmerizing. Bad CGI has certainly interfered with my enjoyment of many a film, but hfr decidedly enhanced this whole experience for me. It was the nearest to "being there" I have ever felt at the cinema, and to be able to say that of a fantasy film is, to me, delightful. If the nearest hfr theater were not two hours away, I would certainly go back to experience that version once again.

      I do understand how, for those who simply could not adjust, the hfr might be distracting: in the same way, many will never care for 3D, even when used at its best. That in no way means the filmmakers were ill-advised to choose it. For me, there was no distraction whatever, beyond an initial, "oh!" and about five minutes of mentally noting differences. After that, it was simply a strikingly beautiful and engaging format for a film I thoroughly enjoyed.

    • arden says:

      Thank you for helping me understand why the movie at times felt more like a video game fight than an adventure with Bilbo. I love technology, but the 3D did not help to bring me into the story. Another reason I was disappointed with the film was the film narrative construction. The back stories took up way too much space, and I simply wanted to go on an adventure with bilbo.

  • r dale orcutt says:

    And speaking of COLOR...saw The Hobbit in 3D HFR (48FPS) on opening day --unfortunately no ATMOS to experience along with it. Not certain what to expect from the high frame rate, I approached the film with open-anticipation, a mind mainly colored by Peter Jackson's Production Vid-Blogs and pre-release on-line pr. There may have been some clarity of moving imagery, but what struck me was the color --or rather, lack of it-- everything seemed quite muted or washed out from what I had seen on-line. Bilbo's RED jacket was, for me, the touchstone...and it simply wasn't there in HFR format. Due to the circumstance of a visit from my daughter's friend, who really wanted to see the film, I made a return trip the following evening...but this time in 3D at the standard 24 FPS, and although in a different theater, I was seated in the same central-stategic point...and this time, THE COLOR CAME THROUGH. So, I determined it was not the 3D --cameras, technology, etc.-- that made the difference, but the frame rate!

  • Who says:

    I saw the hobbit in 48fps, the landscapes and much of the cg were stunning. Simply put in many ways it was the most detailed and beautiful movie I have ever seen. However, from the start of the movie I immediately noticed the difference. Everything looked sped up and I could tell what was a prop from what was cg sometimes. It was similar to watching a play, except that it was the highest production play in the world.
    That being said, some of the cg looked absolutely fake, which I think is very odd. In many ways it took the viewer out of the realm of magic and made me think two things at once: This looks like someone took a camera in their hand and is videotaping this live, or..Okay, this looks totally staged and the illusion has been broken.
    Still it was a great movie, and again it was a very new experience.

    • Who says:

      I think everyone should at least watch it in 48fps to make a fair judgement on it. One last thing, the 3D was never blurry, never made me dizzy, and all of the colors still popped instead of being dulled down.

  • janegaelr says:

    PJ Sherris wrote an excellent account of what she saw and felt. This movie is extremely dependent upon your visual system (eyes and brain) to process at this speed. If that doesn't work perfectly for you then it is not a pleasant experience. I'm one of the lucky ones for whom it works and this is the 3D experience I've been waiting for. I've seen the film 4 times now, once in IMAX 3D and 3 times in 48fps. Each time I see something new, some bit of action or costume or set dressing that I missed. It just gets more and more magical even though it has it's flaws and things that don't quite work. The sharpness of the image, so bright I can actually see instead of muddied by the 3D glasses and inferior lighting, the crisp action and the beauty of the scenery, not to mention the marvelous actors -- makes the film a joy to watch.

  • Sue Forsee says:

    I have now seen "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in 2D, 3D, 3D HFR (supposedly, but I saw no difference between this showing and "regular" 3D) and IMAX 3D HFR and I am a Senior (well over 60) ticket buyer. I am not a fan of 3D and I feel that as of now, I'll see most movies in 2D. However, the IMAX 3D HFR is magnificent!! I had alredy seen the movie three times, once in 3D and twice in 2D when I went to the IMAX showing nearby; it was like seeing the movie on an HDTV compared to a black and white tv!!! Everything was much clearer, brighter and somehow more engaging. I had no problems with "nausa" or" blur" and I recomend paying the vastly higher cost at least once. If you don't like it stick with another format, but I am a convert.

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