While we are used to discussing the pros and cons of a film’s content, direction or acting, the technology of film hasn’t changed much in the last decade. Sure, we have been subjected to 3D, and the many problems that has brought with it, but ultimately given that many people now opt to view films in 2D when given the option, we may be seeing the end of that trend.
When Peter Jackson announced his intention to release The Hobbit in 48 fps, it started a wave of excitement, anxiety and speculation the likes of which the film industry hasn’t seen since Cameron initially decided on 3D for Avatar.
With early reports crying everything from “revolutionary” to “the end of cinema as we know it,” I knew I was just going to have to see this new technology for myself.
This turned out to be a little more difficult than expected as the list of theaters showing the film in HFR3D is pretty limited outside of major metropolitan areas.
Undeterred however, I made the 90 minute drive to the closest theater in an effort to see what all the fuss was about.
Not wanting my first viewing of The Hobbit to be affected by this new technology, I did see the film opening weekend in 2D. With my perception and enjoyment of the film already locked in, I was able to concentrate more on the technology with this second viewing.
I feel this turned out to be a very wise decision.
Before I get into that though I want to address some of the wilder comments I’ve been hearing, namely, the complaints of headaches or motion sickness. I’m going to have to declare that as being largely unfounded. Sure, it’s a different experience, but we’re talking the difference in standard TV to HDTV, which while a huge difference in the picture quality on most TV sets, it doesn’t make television a health hazard.
I suspect that anyone experiencing these issues, likely had the same reaction to Cloverfield, or the sweeping, tracking shots in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and this is not a new phenomenon brought about by the increased frame rate.
That being said, what the 48 fps does bring to the table is a much higher clarity of image. This is both a blessing and a curse, and in the case of The Hobbit, unfortunately tends to fall mainly in the negative.
The real problem with The Hobbit in HFR3D, is that the film relies so heavily on effects work and the increased clarity only serves to show the current limitations of the technology.
While I think the current state of cgi and special effects in general have never been better, those effects are largely created to meet the level of picture quality in the 24 fps standard. In that this level of image quality masks flaws to a certain degree, effects houses have only needed to push a level of realism equal to the detail level of the image.
When you boost the image quality to a much higher level, the effects work needs to be equally boosted to maintain that same level of seamless integration.
Sadly, the effects work in The Hobbit falls short of this level of image quality, which makes the practical effects seem like stage props at times and the cgi like video game cut scenes.
This detracts heavily from a film which relies so much on the believability of the world of Middle Earth. Each instance of cgi becomes distracting and takes you out of the moment, and even small things which should typically go unnoticed suddenly break the illusion.
A good example of this occurs in the film when Bilbo is racing to catch up with the party of adventurers. Bilbo, running through the Shire, passes a farmer who has a very large pumpkin in a wheelbarrow. In the normal picture quality, you probably think nothing more than, “that’s a large pumpkin,” if you give it any thought at all. In the high frame rate however, suddenly that pumpkin is a bit too plastic looking, a bit too orange to be real, and it just looks like a cheap plastic prop.
The other thing you notice is that lighting really plays a much more important role. Of course, that’s kind of an absurd statement, because lighting of a scene is always important, but in the case of 48 fps, it’s doubly so. When the lighting is more tightly controlled, such as in the night scenes, where illumination is provided by fire, or other light sources, the image really takes on a level of quality that is amazing. Scenes with natural lighting, mostly outdoor in daylight, look as real as an image captured on high definition video and thus shatter much of the illusion, again by revealing how fake everything is.
Since so much of what makes a film like this work is being able to be carried away by the illusion, the constant reminders of how fake everything is, just completely pull you out of the story.
For that reason, I highly recommend that you see The Hobbit, in the standard 24 fps. I’d also say that the 3D is kind of unnecessary, but that’s a different argument.
As for the future of 48 fps, I absolutely think there is a place for this. I’d love to see a film that doesn’t rely on so much effects work in this level of detail. Some of those crazy car chases from the 70’s where they relied on stunt drivers and no cgi would just literally blow the doors off our expectations in this format.
A fully animated Pixar movie in 48 fps would also be amazing. Without the distraction of the real vs. cgi, a complete cgi environment in that high level of detail would be a pretty exciting prospect.
In conclusion, I am really glad we have people like Peter Jackson who will continue to push the envelope in the pursuit of improving our cinema experience. Even though I feel as though this shot may have missed the mark, I look forward to seeing where this technology can go given future development.