The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered this Thursday, and alongside Peter Jackson's latest Tolkienian dreams, it's serving as a debut platform for high frame-rate film projection, a newly adopted technology that delivers 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24. Critical consensus has been skeptical bordering on hostile, describing the HFR footage as "almost hallucinatory," "like an 80s-era home video," or, in The Verge's own review, "downright terrible." But 3D tech got the same bad reviews and, for better or worse, it's now a fixture of modern filmmaking. So the question has to be asked: are the audiences going for it?
Thus far, the response has been more even-handed. In New York, The Verge noticed shorter lines for HFR screenings, but most moviegoers who opted for the HFR tickets said they were happy with their choice. "It takes a little getting used to," said a moviegoer named A.J. at AMC's Lincoln Square Theater. "It was definitely annoying with the indoor scenes." As predicted, the effect is particularly alienating for the first ten to twenty minutes. "By the time they got out of the Shire, it started to look better," said another HFR viewer. Reactions on Twitter ranged from "History Channel bad" to "AWSMSAUCE." One common theme was comparing the eerie lack of motion blur to video game footage, which meant HFR felt more natural to viewers during the computer-graphics-heavy action scenes.
"You cannot expect it to look like any movie you've ever seen."
Warner Brothers hasn't released a breakdown of HFR box-office, but their figures have already yielded some bad news. 3D screenings overall only contributed 49 percent of the weekend gross, which Variety called "a much smaller share than expected." All HFR screenings are in 3D, so if HFR was really the best 3D footage audiences had ever seen, you’d expect that percentage to be higher. The opening figures are still impressive — $222 million globally in just three days — but the low 3D figures kept it from being the Avatar-style launch that would earn HFR technology a permanent place in the industry.
There’s still reason to be optimistic about the future of high frame rates. An Unexpected Journey has laid a lot of the technical groundwork and provided the most public proof-of-concept a technology could want. Future projects that want to use HFR won’t have to build their own editing software or convince theaters to buy new projectors. As for convincing audiences to opt for HFR, Jackson has two more Hobbit movies to close the deal.
Reports of Hobbit-induced vomiting seem to have been overblown
Boosters of the technology see time as on their side. "You have to really go into this with an open mind," said Ted Schilowitz, co-founder of RED, which supplied cameras for An Unexpected Journey. "You cannot expect it to look like any movie you've ever seen." And at the very least, reports of Hobbit-induced vomiting seem to have been overblown. One theater manager told The Verge the biggest HFR-related fallout he'd seen so far was that, "a couple of people got dizzy."
Anything the janitor had to worry about? "No, nothing like that yet."
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