LOS ANGELES -- One thought struck me as I watched thhe new "Hobbit" movie in the latest super-clear format: "The rain looks fake. It's not hitting their faces!"
That is just one consequence of filmmaker Peter Jackson's decision to shoot his epic, three-part "Lord of the Rings" prequel with a frame rate of 48 images per second, double the 24 that cinemagoers have experienced for the past century.
The higher frame rate is supposed to make fast action scenes look smoother, without strobing or other cinematic flaws. But the image is so crystal clear that it can dispel the illusion of the fantasy world.
Jackson used his own money to pursue the new technology, covering the higher production costs involved with adding special effects to twice as many frames.
The studio also backed the format because it creates something new and different that can only be seen in theaters at a time when movie ticket sales in the U.S. are stagnating. For the time being, the new format isn't compatible with Blu-ray discs, DVDs or Internet video. Many people will buy movie tickets just to see what it's like.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," opens around the world starting Wednesday and in the U.S. on Dec. 14. About 10 percent of U.S. theaters that carry the movie will offer the higher-frame format. U.S. theaters aren't charging extra, though the format is offered only as part of 3-D screenings, which cost a few dollars more than regular tickets.
In the screening I attended, the higher frame rate did smooth out the staccato effect common in action-packed movies. I thought some scenes using computer-generated images looked more realistic. The format brought out details that might not be noticeable with just an increase in resolution.
These are benefits for fans of the kind of heart-pumping fight scenes that are peppered throughout the movie. For some people, it is also touted to help ease the eyestrain they experience when watching movies in 3-D, though I didn't notice any difference on that front.
Sometimes, though, the images can look too good.
In the rainy scene I mentioned, the intense clarity made it look as if actors with wet hair were moving between carefully placed artificial rain-makers instead of suffering through an actual downpour. So-so acting was more noticeable, and swords that were swung too easily looked like props. Flickering flames and other quickly moving objects sometimes appeared to race along in fast forward, even though that wasn't the intent.
Several people who have seen "The Hobbit" in "HFR 3D" have concluded that 48 frames per second is not for them, even those who wanted to fall in love with the technology.
"When I actually was watching it, I was trying to convince myself it was great," said Chris Pirrotta, co-founder of the Tolkien fan site, TheOneRing.net, who reviewed the movie under the pseudonym Calisuri. "Eventually I realized I kept being taken out of the story. ... The realism of the environment really took me out."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy said the high frame rates appeared to him like "ultra-vivid television video." The Associated Press' David Germain said the extra detail "brings out the fakery of movies." Variety's Peter Debruge said the benefits of high frame rates come at "too great a cost," adding that "the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious."
That's not a great reception for a technology that has the potential to change the movie-going experience. "Avatar" director James Cameron is among those who are eyeing the format.
Since the advent of the "talkies" in the 1920s, 24 frames per second has been the standard, picked because it was the lowest frame rate that would allow for acceptable sound fidelity. Higher frame rates have always been possible but at the cost of using more film.
Moving to 48 frames per second has become easier in the digital age. Most high-end digital video cameras can shoot at the rate with the flick of a switch, and the vast majority of digital projectors now sold to theaters need only modest software or hardware upgrades to show such movies.
High frame rates aren't completely new to audiences. Digital TV broadcasts in the U.S. have been transmitted at higher frame rates for years, said Peter Lude, president of the standards-setting body, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. TV images look very clear because they're refreshed 60 times per second, even though only half the image hits the screen each time.
By contrast, movies shot at 24 frames per second are blurrier. That's because movie cameras' shutters are open longer at slower frame rates. As people or cars in a scene move, more of that motion is captured in a single frame, resulting in blur. Many people describe this as a "film look" that is "soft" or "cinematic."
It also means that some details remain too blurry to be seen, helping hide imperfections and making life in the movies appear somehow better than reality.
The traditional frame rate also leaves in some so-called "artifacts" that most people nowadays subconsciously accept as part of the movie experience, Lude said. Credits can seem to roll up the screen in dozens of little hops, and quick pans of a restaurant can seem staggered. It's one reason why filmmakers focus on passing waiters in such shots, so we're not distracted by these flaws, he said.
"What (Jackson) did was eliminate an artifact that has been present in all movies since the 1920s," Lude said. "Now it looks more real. Some people say, 'I don't want it to look more real.'"
Jackson compensated for some of the increased clarity by purposely leaving the shutter open longer than normal, adding back some of the lost blur. Still, the images are sharper than before.
Jackson has said on his Facebook page that this adjustment gives his high frame rate version a "lovely silky look" while also making the traditional 24 frames per second version "very pleasing."
At a press tour in New York on Thursday, Jackson said it will be up to audiences to decide.
"As an industry, we shouldn't really assume that we achieved technical perfection with motion pictures back in 1927," he said. "There are ways to make the theatrical experience more spectacular, more immersive and that's what we're trying to do."
Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros., which is distributing the movie, is being conservative with the new format, careful not to bet too heavily that audiences will love it.
The studio is releasing higher-frame versions only in 3-D, not 2-D, partly because the perceived benefits are better in 3-D. And it's limiting such screenings to about 450 locations in North America, a little over 10 percent of the footprint of most major wide release movies. About 1,000 screens in the world will show "The Hobbit" in higher-frame 3-D. That's far fewer than the tens of thousands of screens that projector makers Barco Inc. and Christie say are currently capable of showing the format worldwide.
"Nobody wants anyone to feel like this is something being shoved down their throats," said Carolyn Blackwood, an executive producer on the movie and executive vice president of the Warner Bros. division New Line Cinema. "People don't always embrace change."
She said the studio's strategy is to give fans a choice.
"If people are interested and want to see what we're talking about, they'll seek it out and they'll find it and it'll be available," she said. "If they're filmic kind of people, they can go and see it in standard 24 frames per second and be happy."
U.S. theater owners aren't charging extra for it, saying they want to give people a chance to experience something new for free.
"We believe this will deliver great value to our guests," said Ken Thewes, chief marketing officer for Regal Entertainment Group, the largest theater owner in the U.S.
And despite the increased clarity, 48 frames per second is not the limit. Cameron has said he's considering shooting the sequels to "Avatar" at a rate as high as 60 frames per second.
Barco demonstrated for the AP footage of training boxers shot at 120 frames per second. The impact is a stunningly real picture that makes it seem as if you're looking through a giant window onto the real world.
Not all filmmakers will choose to shoot this way, but they'll increasingly have the option to create different moods. Think of how slow-motion scenes can seem more dramatic, or intentional strobing as seen in "Saving Private Ryan" or "Gladiator" can relay a sense of confusion.
"That's where the creatives will have these options and tools at their disposal and decide whether they're going to capture and present at 48, 60 or maybe 120," said Patrick Lee, Barco's vice president of digital cinema.
David Mullen, a cinematographer who has shot movies such as "Jennifer's Body" and "Akeelah and the Bee," said higher frame rates could be better for authentic settings, but could make the artifice of fantasy tales "more obvious rather than more believable."
One solution, he said, is "just do everything better in terms of stage craft and post effects."