‘Hobbit’ director Peter Jackson on 48 frames: you’re ‘gonna have to get used to’ it

SAN DIEGO – When it comes to publicly screening “Hobbit” footage at 48 frames per second, Peter Jackson has learned his lesson.

“Hall H is not the place to do it. …Literally, I’ve seen a lot of 48 frames over the past year and a half, and it’s fantastic. It’s an incredible thing. But I didn’t want to repeat the CinemaCon experience,” said the director at the Comic-Con press conference for his upcoming two-part Tolkien adaptation, which was heavily criticized after footage shot in the accelerated frame rate debuted at the Las Vegas exhibitors’ festival back in April.

“Where literally people see this reel and all they write about is 48 frames a second,” he continued. “I mean, why? That doesn’t do us any good. It doesn’t do 48 frames a second any good. To accurately judge that, you really need to sit down and watch the entire film. And that opportunity is gonna be there in December. I wanted the focus [at Comic-Con] to just be on…the characters, the performances…not the technical stuff.”

Nevertheless, the “technical stuff” took up a pretty good chunk of the 25-minute press-only Q&A, which was also attended by Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Andy Serkis (Golem), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) and screenwriter Philippa Boyens. Whether Jackson likes it or not, the focus on 48 frames isn’t going away anytime soon, and he’ll have to continue justifying its use to a rabid press who tend to foam at the mouth whenever an industry giant such as he starts looking a little wobbly on their feet.

“48 frames a second really takes away the artifacts that we’re used to seeing in cinema, and I think that’s what people are gonna have to get used to,” he said later, responding to a question about how the viewing experience of the audience will be transformed for the better. “And as I say, I find you get used to it pretty quickly when you sit and watch it. We’re used to seeing strobing, we’re used to seeing a panning shot, which is like a series of still frames that kind of shutters its way along. And you don’t get that at 48 frames.

“And yet,” he went on, “it doesn’t impede our ability to color-time the film, to put a really creative grade on the movie. Everything is the same as it normally is…and the fact that you don’t have so much motion blur also makes it feel quite sharp as well. So you get something that to me is much more akin to shooting on 65mm [the widescreen format also known as 70mm that, as Jackson pointed out, has been utilized to brilliant effect by such master directors as David Lean and Stanley Kubrick].”

In a sense, by filming “The Hobbit” not only in 48 frames/second but 3-D as well (the movies will also be screened in IMAX and IMAX 3-D), it’s almost as if Jackson is making up (overcompensating?) for being denied the opportunity to make his trio of “Lord of the Rings” films to the visual specifications he’d originally envisioned.

“Back in about 1998 when we first started working on ‘Lord of the Rings,’ I seriously for awhile tried to convince the studio to shoot in 65mm, cause I really thought that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ should’ve been shot in that format,” said Jackson. “But at the time, the cameras were huge, cumbersome, they were difficult. The negative that we would shoot would have to be sent away to America to be processed, so we couldn’t even see any of the rushes [a.k.a. dailies] from New Zealand that [would] have to be shipped into America and back again, so the whole thing really wasn’t actually possible. So for me, this is now…I finally get to shoot my sort of 65mm quality film.”

Not to mention, it’s all about the children. Right, Sir Ian McKellen?

“It’s astonishing to think, isn’t it, that most people at the presentation [in Hall H] just now have never seen ‘Lord of the Rings’ in the cinema,” the actor chimed in. “I mean, we’ve all got eight, nine, ten year olds who watch ‘Lord of the Rings’ non-stop, or they watch it at home and screen [it in] that size. …I think people who…say ‘Oh, we don’t need 3-D, we’re used to 2-D’…bollocks! I mean, 3-D is life! We’re in 3-D now! And the brilliance about Peter’s 3-D is that it doesn’t come out at you, you go into it. That’s the effect. You enter Middle Earth. You look round the corner! You’re even deeper in, and can you find a way out? That’s the effect of 3-D. And those little kids are gonna be so thrilled!”

Or terrified, judging by that description. But anyhow.

“48 frames a second is way better for 3-D, I’ll tell you now,” said Jackson a moment later. “Because you know, one of the things with 3-D is it does accentuate that strobing, because you’re getting it in two eyes, you’re getting two cameras that are filming, and so once you go to 48, it’s much, much smoother. There’s no eye strain, there’s no headaches.”

So where does this constant striving for more and bigger and better and faster and clearer movies end, anyway? Answer: it doesn’t.

“I mean, the thing that we have to get now are the laser projectors, which are on the horizon, probably next year, where the light levels of 3-D will be radically increased, you know, two or three times the light levels that exist now,” Jackson continued. “And at that point, I think cinema exhibition will be at a place where it’ll be great, it’ll be fantastic.”

Next up: transporting the audience inside the movie for real.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is hitting theaters on December 14, 2012. “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” (which may or may not be split into two parts) is currently scheduled to follow on December 13, 2013.

What do you think of Jackson shooting “The Hobbit” in 48 frames/second? Sound off in the comments!