Meet the new aesthetic: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was shot at 48fps, a 'High Frame Rate' that supposedly offers greater clarity and more smoothness. Peter Jackson and James Cameron have said HFR is the future, and they're embracing it. But I hated it when I saw it displayed at CinemaCon this year, feeling it made everything look cheap and crummy. Read my initial thoughts here.
Because I hated HFR so much, and because I wanted to give the movie a chance, I saw it at 24fps. Many of my colleagues opted to see it in the intended presentation, though, and so the 48fps screening was packed, while there were about a dozen people at my 24fps screening. After talking to friends who saw the HFR presentation I feel like I made the right choice - I have not yet heard one single unreservedly positive reaction to the new standard.
Last night the embargo on The Hobbit broke, and many of the reviews that were published made mention of the HFR presentation. I went through and found the most interesting thoughts on the technology, which ran the gamut from 'I'm interested in seeing how this evolves' to 'Horrible!' But again, no completely positive reactions. Some, like Jeremy Smith and Drew McWeeny, feel the tech isn't ready yet; I'm not sure what else needs to be done to get it ready, since HFR is simply a faster capture and projection rate*. Our eyes are what's not ready; this is an aesthetic choice aimed directly at 13 year olds who have grown up in a world of motion smoothing TVs and 60fps video games. This is a post-film aesthetic, and it's not for us.
The most positive reaction came from Matt Patches of Hollywood.com:
The film was also screened for press in Jackson's new toy, 48 frames per second, which gave the entire production a strange tangibility, like of that of a BBC TV show or uncalibrated HDTV. In the dialogue scenes, it put the audience in the room with the actors, even making the CG characters look more real. Only in the film's swiftest action moments was there blur. An interesting experiment that mostly works, but perhaps a tad distracting for those who want to sit back and lose themselves in Middle Earth.
As the film sprints through its chaotic prologue, narrative coherence takes a backseat to high-definition visual wizardry; it's a bewildering barrage of footage that looks either spectacular or gallingly fake. But then Jackson's virtual camera plunges deep into the fully-digitized Lonely Mountain to reveal the discovery of the Arkenstone, and suddenly the alleged game-changing promise of AVATAR has finally been realized. What's real and what isn't? I haven't a clue, but it looks amazing. This is the future of event filmmaking, and the possibilities for a director of Jackson's talents to explode it are seemingly endless.
But there are kinks to work out. Many, many kinks. So many that I wonder if Jackson wishes he could've delayed shooting AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY another year while they figured out how to eliminate the occasional and terribly distracting undercranked effect of actors zipping around like coked-up Mack Sennett characters. Also, while the clarity can be awe-inspriring, it has a tendency to make the sets look cheap, the armor chintzy, and the makeup barely worthy of an Asylum production. AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY in high-frame-rate 3D is a deep, vicious pendulum swing between transporting and flat-out unwatchable - and it's impossible to fully adjust to the format because you never know when it's suddenly going to look like a demo reel.
At times, the film looks immaculate. Regular landscapes and normal shots with static digital effects look so beautiful, it’s almost as if you could press pause and step through the screen. However, when there are a lot of effects on screen, or they move quickly (as when animals are present, for example) they look overly digital and obviously inserted. Fortunately, even with this problem, the look of the film never took me out of the story. I left feeling that HFR is a technology with a promising future, but it’s not quite there yet.
The results are interesting and will be much-debated, but an initial comparison of the two formats weighs against the experiment; the print shown at Warner Bros. in what is being called "high frame rate 3D," while striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film a oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home. For its part, the 24 fps 3D version had a softer, noticeably more textured image quality.
The movie's biggest hurdle and the one that's hardest to get past is the decision to shoot the movie in 3D at a higher frame rate of 48 frames per second, twice the normal speed. It's an interesting experiment that makes everything look crisp and clear and in some ways it makes everything look real and present, which would generally help the 3D. This cinematography greatly enhances the picturesque New Zealand landscapes that played such a large part in the scale of the earlier trilogy, but at the same time, the characters walking across those landscapes look like bad CG.
This problem is first noticeable when we meet the dwarves that storm Bilbo's pad in Bagend, raiding his pantry for food, the added clarity making their hair and make-up look fake and not much better than the dwarves in either of this year's Snow White movies.
But as of yet, its effectiveness remains to be seen: while the images are clearer and more stable – especially watching 3D photography – they have an almost super-real clarity that seems too fast, like a DVD player on 1.5x speed or an HDTV with its TruMotion setting amped up to dizzying levels.
I'm half-convinced that there was a projection problem when I saw the film, because I have trouble believing that what I saw reflected the desires of Peter Jackson and his team. Throughout the entire film, there was a strange Benny Hill quality to sequences, with things that appeared to be sped up. It happened in both dialogue and action sequences, and the overall effect was like watching the most beautifully mastered Blu-ray ever played at 1.5x speed. It doesn't make any sense to me that this process, which is supposedly all about clarity and resolution, would create that hyper-speedy quality unless they were doing something wrong in the projection of it. Peter Jackson would see this immediately. The voices are off-pitch, and the pacing of scenes goes to hell when it's played this way. This cannot be the point of 48FPS, and so, despite having seen the film projected in the format, I'm still not sure I've seen a proper demonstration of it.
While we'll address the 48 fps issue in greater length in a later feature, I will say that it certainly looked better than it did atCinemaCon and ultimately didn't bug me as much as I thought it would. Still, it robs a fantasy movie of its escapism by making it feel too "real"; it still looks like broadcast video, making the 48 fps presentation of The Hobbit look like the greatest BBC or PBS production ever. I'm glad I saw it in 48 fps, but more glad that I first saw it in 24 fps. The movie looks just fine in 24 fps -- the format most people will experience The Hobbit in and the one which we've decided to review -- although the 3D in either frame rate simply didn't add enough to justify paying the higher ticket price.
Is 48 fps good? It isn’t a case of good or bad. It’s an aesthetic choice, like Michael Mann’s use of video in ‘Public Enemies.’ I never “got used to it.” In fact, I found it a distraction. When Ian Holm was giving his early exposition, I couldn’t hear a word of it, because everything looked so unusual and that’s what held my attention.
Anything shot in daylight looks like a BBC production from the 1970s. The movement is too smooth. And yet, when the camera moves, too, it looks somewhat jerky.
You really recognize the cuts between exteriors, effects shots and sets. There’s a scene on a cliff where Storm Giants fight that probably looks terrific in the traditional format. Watching it here all I could think about was “oh, that’s them on a set. Oh, that’s an effects shot. That looks like an actual mountain. Ooh that cut brought us back to the set again.” I’ve watched the similar Misty Mountain sequence in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ many times and I never once considered our heroes being on a set – I fully suspended my disbelief and thought they were in peril.
I never adjusted to the look, which makes everything feel more real and closer to you, an effect that's utterly bizarre when seeing giant trolls or goblins or even a band of tiny dwarves. The technological experimentation may have helped Peter Jackson get excited about a smaller-scale return to Middle Earth, but its effect on the movie is harder to gauge; it's fascinating seeing familiar characters like Gollum move with an unbelievable realness, but also nearly impossible to feel as swept away by this journey to an imaginary world.
HD TV did look rather freaky at first, I'll give him that, and there's a shared quality of too much visual information that The Hobbit's 48 fps shares with high-def television. But it didn't take a few minutes of adjusting to get used to it; even two hours and 40 minutes later my brain was rejecting the look of it. It felt like watching daytime soaps in HD, terrible BBC broadcasts, or Faerie Tale Theater circa 1985, only in amazingly sharp clarity and with hobbits.
As it turns out, it's possible for an image to look so clear that it no longer looks real. Or so real that it takes you out of the film. As in: that film set looks like ... a film set. Put it this way: the picture is so clear that in one scene I could see Ian McKellen's contact lenses. I won't claim to be a Tolkien expert, but I am pretty sure Acuvue does not exist in Middle Earth.
What the 48 frame-per-second projection actually means is flat lighting, a plastic-y look, and, worst of all, a strange sped-up effect that makes perfectly normal actions—say, Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins placing a napkin on his lap—look like meth-head hallucinations. Jackson seems enamored of 48 fps, but I can't imagine why. To me, it turned the film into a 166-minute long projectionist's error.
* What has to change is not technology but rather every bit of art design in movies. The HFR makes movie sets look like sets; the illusions that work at 24fps don't work at 48. Production design, set construction, prop making, costume fabrication - all of this will have to change drastically, like the change from black and white to color.