New 3D tech in The Hobbit risks backlash as film debut nears

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J.R.R. Tolkien fans who head to theaters on December 14 to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey might be in for an unpleasant surprise, thanks to a new 3D format debuting in some theaters.

The new technology, called “High Frame Rate 3D” (HFR 3D), runs at 48 frames per second, which is double the frame rate of traditional movies. It’s meant to reduce the “judder” effect that results from panning and other fast motion in 3D movies, but it has the side effect of making everything smoother—perhaps unusually so.

Some audiences who’ve seen preview footage of the movie in HFR 3D aren’t happy. They claim that the higher frame rate is “too real,” in the sense that it resembles home video or a sports broadcast. As 3D Focus reports, even director Peter Jackson had said that the format takes some getting used to.

Many of the early complaints come from a 10-minute preview shown to audiences at Cinemacon last April. A reporter from one site claimed that the footage has “that soap opera look you get from badly calibrated TVs at Best Buy.” The Los Angeles Times quoted one projectionist who said the format “looked like a made-for-TV movie.”

Earlier this month, the cinema chain Regal Entertainment Group responded to the backlash with a letter on its website, explaining why the film looks the way it does. The letter notes that The Hobbit will be released in other formats, such as 2D, regular 3D and IMAX 3D, and it lists all the U.S. theaters that will show the movie in HFR 3D. As for other movies, the letter notes that the rest of The Hobbit movie trilogy will also be released in HFR 3D, and that James Cameron has announced plans to use the format in future projects.

For a major blockbuster like The Hobbit, the release of a new, controversial 3D video format is a risky move. The hype around 3D as a whole has deflated recently, as 3D theater revenues have plummeted in the United States and consumers have shown little interest in watching 3D content at home. Viewers may not be aware of what they’re getting when they buy HFR 3D tickets, and if they don’t like what they see, they won’t be so eager to pay a premium for 3D in the future.

In any case, the new technology doesn’t even provide a truly real picture. As Mashable reports, video doesn’t truly become life-like until it exceeds 100 or even 150 frames per second. Even then, new projection technology would be needed to take advantage, otherwise more stuttering problems could result.

And at that point, you have to wonder if it’s worth it. Maybe high frame rates do just take some getting used to. But as the backlash to HFR 3D illustrates, maybe people don’t want the most realistic picture; they just want their movies to look like movies.

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