The Hobbit: Video Technology You Can Do at Home

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," Martin Freeman, 2012 Photograph by James Fisher/Warner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection

Filmmaker Peter Jackson’s new installment from Middle Earth has so much sexy technology you’d think reviewers would swoon: 3D; high def; 48 frames per second. Instead, we’re hearing a big yawn. Where did The Hobbit go wrong?

Welcome to the Q Curve. Consumer technology has gotten so good that the professionals we once paid to produce something startling now have difficulty staying ahead. I call this phenomenon the Quality Curve, where the rising quality of what you can produce with the iPhone or Samsung in your hand, if drawn as an upward line, now often surpasses the quality of professional producers. If the excellence of what you or I create rivals that of pros, our demand for their wizardry starts to slip.

Bilbo Baggins is a case in point. Jackson, whose brilliant The Lord of the Rings series won 17 Academy Awards, decided to solve one of film’s biggest flaws with this new preinstallment about the One Ring to Rule Them All—the flickering effect we get from a film speed set 90 years ago. When movies were first produced, film stock was expensive, so the standard rate of celluloid rolling through a camera was set at 24 frames per second. This means, for every second of a movie, 24 images flash rapidly on the screen to create the illusion of motion. The pace was set not for visual smoothness, but rather to conserve film—24 frames per second was the minimally viable option that gave users an acceptable moving image while holding down film costs.

Trouble is, 24 frames per second is still used in movies today, and it doesn’t trick our eyes well when images on screen move quickly. When the camera pans quickly left or right, all the images blur. Jackson decided to use his clout to revolutionize filmmaking in The Hobbit. He moved to film Bilbo at double the traditional film speed.

The result? Yikes. The startling realism makes the stagecraft look transparently fake. Variety’s Peter Debruge says The Hobbit “takes on an overblown, artificial quality.” Slate’s Dana Stevens reports the new speed makes Gandalf’s staff look like “a cast-resin prop you might order online from a Wiccan supply house.” And Bloomberg Businessweek’s Sam Grobart said “there is trouble in film nerd land … on a logical level you are making the image better, but we may not like it all the same.” The 48 frames per second can be so unnerving that reviewers almost neglect to mention you can also see The Hobbit in 3D.

The irony of these reviews is that they castigate The Hobbit for looking like a home movie you would make yourself—which makes sense, because you can.

The video technology Jackson and other professional filmmakers routinely use has been largely matched in the consumer market. Run to the mall and for a few hundred bucks you can grab a GoPro video camera that shoots 60 high-def frames per second—12 more than The Hobbit—and strap the 2.6-ounce contraption to your ski helmet. The 4-ounce iPhone 5 shoots HD video at 30 frames per second, outpacing most Hollywood films, and it’s also a telephone/pocket computer. Use either, and you can watch your stunning home videos later on a high-def TV—86 million U.S. homes now own one—or upload them to YouTube for free.

Movie producers, like most content publishers, keep trying to outpace the Quality Curve chasing them. The threat is real; while U.S. movie ticket revenue is up in recent years, the actual number of tickets sold domestically has slumped 14 percent, from 1.58 billion to 1.35 billion, over the past decade. Hollywood is ahead only by jacking up prices.

One ploy to save the game was 3D, but that has already turned into a yawner. Morgan Stanley reports 3D attendance per film has declined since Avatar. Home 3D television sales have not scaled, likely because we’ve already stuffed our basements with HD flat panels. A measly 2 percent of all TVs in the U.S. can show 3D video, and cable audiences for 3D programming are so tiny Nielsen can’t measure them.

But the real reason we find attempts for big-screen splash boring is, well, we like playing in the content arena ourselves. U.S. sales of video games—not hardware, but the games themselves—now outpace Hollywood’s domestic ticket sales. In August, the photo sharing network Instagram surpassed Twitter in visits by U.S. smartphone users. About 72 hours of user-generated video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. We want to create the images and stories that entertain us.

The truth is we’ve seen this unexpected tech journey before: Consumer blogs helped erode newspaper audiences; consumer digital cameras killed Kodak and Polaroid film; smartphones with built-in cameras are gnawing away at digital SLRs. Video is our next logical step. Despite the hoopla over social media, U.S. consumers remain addicted to video. On average, we watch 4 hours and 18 minutes of live television per day, and another 44 minutes of video games, DVDs, and DVR playback. That’s 35 hours a week digesting video, roughly equal to a second, full-time job.

With screens all around us, creating and sharing our own high-def videos is too tempting to resist. Film editing that once required a huge Avid studio can now be done on your Droid or iPhone with such apps as Magistro, Movie Aid, or Cinefy. Soon app bots will make video editing as easy as a Hipstamatic photo filter. Upload your kids, click the Smaug dragon battle-scene icon, and you’ll be done.

As the Q Curve pits our quality against Peter Jackson’s, our creations can resemble slick Hollywood epics. But rest easy. If you don’t like the look, you could always pay $4.99 for the Filmic Pro iPhone app—it downscales your smartphone movies to 24 frames per second.

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