Mumbai: There are four ways to see Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when it opens on 14 December. You can watch the fantasy adventure in 2D, 3D, IMAX—or the way Jackson meant you to see it, at a higher frame rate (HFR) at 48 frames per second (FPS). According to industry people, the Inox multiplex chain is awaiting approval from distributor Warner Bros to show the film in the cutting-edge HFR format, which has the potential to radically alter the movie-going experience.
Movies are usually made in 24 FPS, but Jackson chose to shoot The Hobbit at 48 FPS to enhance the viewing experience. Think 3D, only many times smoother and richer, if Jackson is to be believed. But like with 3D, the projection will have to keep step with the filming technology. Most cinemas across the world don’t have the capability to show the HFR version, and will stick with showing The Hobbit in 2D, 3D and IMAX. However, there will also be select HFR shows, which in India will be at Inox screens if the multiplex chain convinces the film-makers that its projection equipment has been upgraded to suit the format.
Another cinema that has knocked on Warner Bros’ doors to hold screenings of the HFR version is Sathyam Cinemas in Chennai. The multiplex chains PVR Cinemas and BIG Cinemas will stick with showing the film at 24 FPS in the other three versions, said representatives from both the companies.
Warner Bros didn’t comment on whether Inox or Sathyam will be given the go-ahead. There was also no comment from Inox Leisure, which has 239 screens in 63 multiplexes across India, or Sathyam Cinemas.
Industry sources told Mint that Warner Bros will release 200-odd prints of The Hobbit in India, the bulk of which will be in 3D, some in 2D and IMAX (India has three IMAX screens in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore), and a handful of prints in HFR. The Hobbit will mostly be released and seen as a 3D movie in India, but true-blue geeks will probably seek out HFR shows to find out what the fuss is all about.
Jackson demystifies the concept on his Facebook page: “24 FPS was decided on, and became the industry standard for over 80 years, with cinemas all around the world installing mechanical projectors only capable of projecting at 24 FPS,” he writes. “24 FPS was a commercial decision—the cheapest speed to provide basic quality—but it produces movement artifacts, like strobing, flicker and motion blur. Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55 FPS. Therefore, shooting at 48 FPS gives you much more of an illusion of real life.”
Very simply, says Jackson, “Your eye is seeing twice the number of images each second, giving the movie a wonderful immersive quality.”
If it’s so wonderful, why isn’t every cinema in the world showing the HFR version? Simply because the projection technology will take some time to catch up with the film-making technology, said Ranjit Thakur, chief executive officer of digital projection company Scrabble Entertainment. “When you play back 48 FPS, you are showing more matter on the screen in a split of a second,” Thakur explained. All projection equipment is capable of playing HFR, and what is needed is licensed software that allows the decryption of 48 frames both on the digital server as well as on the projector, he added.
An HFR show needs some babysitting to happen the right way. “Somebody has to go and check the left eye and right eye combination, the technical specs on every projector, the alignment on the lens,” Thakur said. “Only 200-300 screens around the world” are capable of handling the format, he added.
It’s not only the investment in software that is holding back cinemas—Jackson is pernickety about the quality of the HFR screenings, said one industry person. A technical team working under Jackson’s supervision is handling approvals to make sure that quality and uniformity are ensured across the globe. The team is asking cinemas that want to show the HFR version to test a sample sequence and send it back. Inox is undergoing this process at the moment, said the person. The hope is that the technology will be locked into place by the time the next two chapters in the saga get readied for release. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, is scheduled to open on 13 December 2013, while the third chapter, There and Back Again, will come out on 18 July 2014.
The Hobbit is the prequel trilogy to Jackson’s wildly successful and Oscar-lavished The Lord Of The Rings films. Both the trilogies are based on books by J.R.R. Tolkein. The new prequels are based on the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, who has to save the Lonely Mountain from the nefarious designs of the dragon Smaug.
When Jackson shared 10 minutes of footage shot on HFR at the CinemaCon film event in Las Vegas in April, opinions were divided about whether HFR “makes the 3D experience much more gentle and hugely reduces eyestrain” as claimed by the film-maker. Going by early reviews of the movie after a premiere in Wellington in New Zealand on 28 November, where some viewers complained of a feeling akin to motion sickness because of the depth of the images, The Hobbit is truly going to be an unexpected journey for its viewers.