“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a fantasy film, but when it opens on Friday, audiences at selected venues may find it unexpectedly realistic. Those venues, including Wehrenberg’s Chesterfield Galaxy and Ronnies cinemas, will be screening the film with High Frame Rate projectors. “The Hobbit” is the first feature film to use HFR technology, which doubles the number of frames per second from 24 to 48 and produces a sharper image, particularly in 3-D.
“This is the way of the future,” said Kelly Hoskins, vice president of marketing and advertising for Wehrenberg. Hoskins said Warner Bros., the distributor of “The Hobbit,” wants to limit the number of HFR venues and that Wehrenberg has been working for two months to ready a pair of auditoriums for the upgrade.
Harman Moseley of St. Louis Cinemas said he hopes to have HFR projectors installed at his new MX Cinema when it opens downtown later this month. He added that he will be able to screen the HFR version of “The Hobbit” in two of the auditoriums at his Galleria Cinema when he completes a software upgrade.
“Technology is changing so fast,” he said. “The newest projectors are compatible, but some digital projectors I purchased in 2010 cannot be upgraded, and projectors from 2008 are simply obsolete. We constantly have to invest to stay competitive.”
Cash-strapped theater owners are not the only ones with mixed feelings about the HFR technology.
When “Hobbit” director Peter Jackson previewed some footage at the CinemaCon exhibitors’ convention in April, traditionalists thought the images were too vivid, like watching a soap opera on a movie screen.
But Jackson said at a press conference in New York on Wednesday that the young target audience for the planned “Hobbit” trilogy is accustomed to technological change. “Anyone under 20 doesn’t care (about the controversy) and thinks it looks cool.”
Jackson compared it to the generational divide when the Beatles’ albums were re-released on CD and older fans such as himself had to let it be.
Yet the first experiments with high-speed film projection pre-date CDs or digital cinema. In the 1970s, special-effects wiz Douglas Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) developed a system called ShowScan, but it required so much celluloid that it was cost-prohibitive.
In 2010, Jackson made a short digital HFR companion to his “King Kong” movie for a theme-park ride at Universal Studios-Hollywood. But applying the technology to a feature film was a leap of faith.
“On our first day of shooting (‘The Hobbit’), we knew that not a single cinema in the world was equipped to handle it.”
Yet Jackson also knew that most theaters had converted from 24-frame analog to 24-frame digital after the success of the 3-D “Avatar,” and he felt that adding HFR capability was the next step for an immersive experience. (“Avatar” director James Cameron agrees and plans to shoot two sequels to that box-office record breaker at 60 frames per second.)
Jackson said that HFR is especially well-suited for 3-D films such as “The Hobbit” because it reduces eye strain and motion blur. HFR allowed him to open a dimensional gateway into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth that was merely a myth when Jackson took aim at the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy 12 years ago.
Since then the director has explored other cutting-edge technologies, most notably performance capture (with Andy Serkis transformed into Gollum). And Jackson is excited about another tool on the horizon: theater-grade laser projectors, which promise a brighter picture than conventional bulbs. He said they are all weapons in his quest to tear down the barriers between the audience and an imaginary world.
“For me, fantasy should be as real as possible.”