Dec 28, 2012

The Hobbit: High Frame Rate Is A High Disappointment

Like any other industry, the film industry loves to get into a fury about everything. And it really makes sense, because Hollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry whose impact is felt through businesses and customers all over the world. And when it's stride has been built and standardized for the better part of a century, change is a big deal. Especially when it concerns a blockbuster like The Hobbit, the cinematic sequel to a multi-billion dollar franchise.

Director Peter Jackson already broke some solid ground with everything about the Lord Of The Rings, and came out very successful in the end. After already converting over to working on a purely digital format (The Lovely Bones was his first digitally-acquired feature), he quickly moved onto 3D- a process a lot of great filmmakers quickly adopted. Audiences, however, have been slow to praise 3D because the picture is eye-straining and the premium on ticket prices make it difficult to believe the experience is that much better. But ticket prices be damned, the theory that a higher framerate in projection can reduce the headache. So after countless press from director James Cameron that 48fps would solve all problems, Jackson was the first feature director to stick his neck out to this new paradigm.

My friend Renn Brown wrote a fantastic article on CHUD about how all of the criticisms and debate of the new format are a fallacy- no one has said all features should be shot this way, and in fact Jackson even said this is a "tool" to tell the story (rather, it's only the brush and not the whole "canvas," as Brown puts it). Digital projectors are able to show a wide range of framerates, so it's perfectly possible for a feature to be 24fps, become 48fps for a particular sequence, and then revert back.

So how does the Hobbit come across in 48fps 3D for a full three hours? In my opinion: not great. And I was bummed about that. I absolutely love new, experimental processes, and that the medium is what we make it. I've never minded 3D (over time, I've concluded it isn't worth the additional 50% premium in price for the ticket). I once had a conversation with a director I worked with on a 16mm short film that had a 60p television sequence that we were both getting a little tired of watching 24fps all the time (this comes after the 24p evolution and HDSLR revolution has made nearly all video we see on television and online 24fps). I first saw the film first in 24fps 2D, and loved it. So when I saw it in 48fps 3D, I was heartbroken how disappointing it was.

I don't want to call it the "disaster" it feels like everyone is describing it, but the fact is I was conscious about it the whole time. And as an audience member, if I don't get lost in the story and characters and only think about how everything looks sped up and cartoony, that's a big problem. Some sequences in the new framerate I thought were fantastic- contrary to Vincent Laforet (whose long article inspired me to write out my opinion), I thought the whole Gollum scene was beautiful. That was one of the few sequences I thought the 3D looked great and the high framerate was not a problem at all. But that was the very first sequence they shot (so I wonder if the crew worked harder on that sequence during production to get it perfect than they did on the rest of the film), and the movements of the camera and characters weren't as grand as other sequences.

What I'm very curious about is what will happen to the next two films in the series- production has ended and is in the can with this 48fps style. As we see, there can be 24fps 2D and 3D extracted from the material (which, as far as 2D, I think looks great), so will the ratio of HFR releases be reduced to just a handful of theaters? Or, to put it more accurately, just be through a handful of showtimes on the same projectors that screen it the other ways for the rest of the day? Will James Cameron back down on his own loud, public stance that this is the future and we just need to get used to it? I highly doubt it.

What I wonder is could this have been experimented with in a different way? Particularly with 2013's release of Oz: The Great and Powerful. The Wizard of Oz was one of the first full color features, and it aesthetically fit to the story- the real world is two-toned sepia, Oz is beautiful 3-strip technicolor. Could the real world in Great and Powerful be 24fps, and Oz be 48?

Luke Letellier prepared an example of what this looks like by applying a frame blending effect to the Hobbit trailer, making the 24fps version into 48fps. If you can ignore the artifacts of the filter (particularly in quick movements, edges have an odd "stretching" quality), the video is pretty accurate.