‘The Hobbit’ Is Changing the Way You Watch Movies, So How Should You See Peter Jackson’s Prequel?

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may be set in a mythical ancient past, but the new movie presents viewers with a 21st-century, cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technological dilemma.

If you’re planning to see the fantasy epic when it opens on Dec. 14, you may be faced with as many as six different 2D and 3D formats to choose from, thanks to director Peter Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot in a new format that truly alters the way we see movies, with results that you may find visually dazzling, dizzying, or disorienting.

HFR, 48 FPS, HFR IMAX 3D — if all this alphabet soup just looks like Elvish runes to you, then read on for our consumer guide to the six formats The Hobbit is screening in, from the familiar to the strange and brand new, along with the pros and cons of each viewing option.

What Is HFR?
If you read the movie listings this weekend to find The Hobbit at your multiplex, you may notice those three initials. They stand for High Frame Rate. It’s a new format for commercial film, resulting from Jackson’s decision to shoot the movie at 48 frames per second (FPS), or twice the rate of 24 FPS that’s been the standard in movies for 85 years, since the beginning of the sound era.

With HFR, twice as many frames means twice as much visual information stuffed into each second of the movie. It also means more fluid depiction of movement, nearly eliminating the strobe effect that’s more perceptible at 24 FPS. And it means sharper, clearer images, with less of the painterly grain that characterized celluloid film (and that digitally-shot movies often mimic).

Reviews of the new format have been mixed. To some viewers, HFR more fully immerses them into Jackson’s fantasy world; to others. the format takes them out of that world because it can’t help but call attention to itself. (After all, we’ve all been watching 24 FPS movies our whole lives.) Some liken the new look to that of videotape or videogames, and some liken it to seeing a stage play, where there’s more immediacy but also more apparent artifice in the sets, costumes, and makeup.

Complicating matters is the fact that not all digital projectors are programmed to play the movie in HFR; in fact, most will be playing it at 24 FPS, so you’ll have to seek out screening rooms that are HFR-ready if you want to experience the new format. Add to that the combinations made possible with 3D and IMAX, and you wind up with six possible formats vying for your ticket dollars. They are:

Standard: The usual 24 FPS, 2D screening method.
Pros: It’s what you’re used to. It’s also the only option where you won’t pay an enhanced-format surcharge.
Cons: You’re literally missing half the picture Jackson shot.

3D: The now-familiar stereoscopic format, requiring rental glasses.
Pros: Well, Jackson did shoot the movie in 3D, so you’re getting closer to his immersive vision.
Cons: You’re still seeing the movie at 24 FPS and not getting the full HFR effect.

IMAX: The large-screen format — in 2D, at the normal frame rate.
Pros: Bigger is better, right?
Cons: Not always. True IMAX screens aren’t just larger; they’re also a different shape, more squarish than regular screens, and many stories taller, so that they completely fill your field of vision. At your multiplex, however, you may be getting a slightly larger screen than usual but not necessarily a taller screen or one that’s the right shape. America’s movie theaters are full of such retrofitted “LieMAX” screens offering faux-IMAX that’s scarcely different from the standard 35MM projection in the room next door, even though you’re paying an extra $5 per ticket for it. For a fuller explanation of the vast differences between real and fake IMAX, as well as a relatively up-to-date list of true IMAX theaters nationwide, read this Slashfilm article.

IMAX 3D: Up until now, perhaps the ultimate immersive movie experience.
Pros: Even in a LieMAX theater, digital 3D is still a richer experience than 3D on a standard screen.
Cons: It’s the most expensive option for ticketbuyers — unless theaters start charging even more for HFR IMAX 3D (see below).

HFR 3D: The new format pioneered by Jackson’s Hobbit, running at 48 FPS, twice the old standard frame rate.
Pros: This is how Jackson meant viewers to see the film. Touted advantages included improved fluidity of motion, picture clarity, and visual intimacy, as discussed above.
Cons: The new format takes some getting used to and calls attention to itself, in ways that may take you out of the experience instead of plunging you deeper into Middle-earth, as discussed above. Also, if you were hoping for a 2D HFR experience, you’re out of luck, at least on this movie.

HFR IMAX 3D: The large-screen version of HFR 3D.
Pros: This ought to be the ultimate way to see the movie, right?
Cons: Not necessarily. Whether you’re seeing it in true IMAX or LieMAX, you’re not seeing it in the aspect ration Jackson shot in, so some of the picture will inevitably be cropped. The visual intimacy complaints that some critics have with HFR — that it reveals all the fantasy-world artifice of Jackson’s Middle-earth as blatantly fake — ought to be even more glaring and literally in-your-face. And of course, it’ll be the most expensive ticket, equal to or maybe even costlier than low frame rate IMAX 3D.

Have we helped you understand the difference between all of the film formats? Let us know how you will be watching The Hobbit in the comments below!

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