High Frame Rate Hobbits Aren’t So Bad

by Rachel Alison on December 24, 2012

Last night, I went to see The Hobbit in 3D at what Peter Jackson is referring to as Hgh Frame Rate or HFR. About a week before, I went to the standard 2D at 24 frames per second at midnight on the opening night. (Yes, I’m a bit of a Tolkien fanatic. Peep my 404 page.) I knew I would want to see the typical 24fps first so I could make comparisons against the format I was used to. I’m glad I did it this way for reasons I’ll go into in a minute.

The Hobbit

Of course, one of the big things you have to “get over” with the HFR is the feeling you are watching television. It took me the first 30 minutes or so to really get used to the idea that all this fast motion and football-broadcastesque feeling was not a sign of the film being cheap or bad. (In fact, I kept repeating to myself over and over again that the weirdness I was feeling was all in my head, a thing that distracted me from pretty much any of the story that took place in Bag End.) Months ago, I did a blog post on the psychological expectations we have of higher frame rates and why we have them. The conditioning has been instilled in us for decades, and it’s a hard thing to dismiss.

As I said before, I saw the 24fps first, and that was the one I watched like any other movie. That’s the one I watched to (inevitably, unfortunately) compare to the book. That’s the one I watched to enjoy revisiting Middle Earth and see Gandalf again. That’s the one I watched for story. However, with the 48fps 3D, for the first 30 minutes I found myself unable to enjoy story or dialog or jokes or even the music I love so much because I was so damn busy convincing myself that the multi-million dollar film was not a soap opera. (Also, I got a headache. I don’t know if that was from the 3D or the HFR, to be honest.)

Also in the con-column was how some of the effects looked. The first appearance of Smaug and all the fire he rained down on Dale and Erebor looked terrible at the HFR. Fire is notoriously hard to computer generate, of course. And at the HFR, it was painfully obvious that it was fake fire. However when I watched it the first time at 24fps, I didn’t even notice the effect. I noticed fire and it’s detrimental effect on the people and dwarves down below.

Why is this? Well, higher frame rates mean more detail. More frames being shown per second means less motion blur. And when you are trying to add in an effect that is pretty hard to sell in lower frame rates, it makes the task even harder when you have to generate more detail. I think that if feature films eventually go the way of higher frame rates as standard, the poor motion graphics people will have a hell of a challenge on their hands. (It makes me glad I’m an editor and not VFX, ha.)

There were some redeeming qualities, though. Yes, I wasn’t as immersed in the story because I was too busy doing battle with decades of conditioning, and yes there were lots of effects that were jarringly fake. But, (and this could be a big but), damn if it didn’t make me feel like I was in Middle Earth. Rivendell was so beautiful that I actually empathized with poor Bilbo’s sad look back at the place when they left. There were some shots in particular, during a counsel with Elrond, Gandalf, and two others where the camera was looking at the little “patio” they were on. In the foreground was a stream of running water, a little moat. Then columns, then actors, and behind them, the mountains. I could have sworn I was just standing on the other side of the little moat.

There are different techniques in theater that adjust the amount of immersiveness the audience feels. If you went to see a typical production of Macbeth, you would be expected to sit, watch, and take in the story in the “normal” way. However, if you went to Sleep No More, you would NOT be partitioned off, safely and distantly ingesting lines and scenery. You would be uncomfortably close to the action, so close as you might miss the overarching story, but also so close that you may feel a visceral connection to it the way you do when you experience something in real life. Seeing The Hobbit in standard 24fps 2D is like seeing Macbeth by the RSC. Seeing The Hobbit in 3D HFR is like being dragged around the hotel in Sleep No More. Both are legitimate forms of the art, but they just may have different intents and outcomes.

Also, the fight scenes in the goblin cave made more sense in 3D (though not necessarily HFR.) In 2D, a lot of the fights seemed to devolve into an incoherent mess of grunts, screams, and sword clashes. In 3D, I was “told” where too look, and it made more sense. (In both cases, I gleefully noted the Wilhelm scream.)

After the movie was over, my husband said he may never be able to get used to a higher frame rate for feature films. However, I think I just might be able to. Gizmodo did an article doing a very in-depth review of the 48fps version of The Hobbit. (And unlike me, he also watched the standard frame rate 3D version.) One of the things the reviewer, Vincent Laforet, mentions is how viewers have gotten over changes in the past.

If you look at the opening scene of the Wizard of Oz and realize that it was all shot on a stage, and that if you look really carefully at the black and white section at the start of the film for example, you can see that every set extends out 5-20 yards and then ends with a large matte painting that perfectly finishes the perspective lines in an ultimate “trompe l’oeil” …it’s pretty amazing. And when you stop to think that the film was shot under incredibly hot lights to expose the very low ISO color film emulsion…and that yes you can more clearly see the matte paintings in color than you could in the monochromatic opening…you start to think of how things eventually evolved. One important factor is that while matte painting achieved new heights in films such as Star Wars and E.T. just to name two, at the same time smaller cameras allowed filmmakers to step away from the studio lot and to go out on actual location!

Laforet goes on to say that despite the awkwardness of the matte paintings in the colorized bits of Wizard of Oz, it didn’t take him out of the story. The fact that the HFR takes him out of the story The Hobbit is the main reason he argues it doesn’t work for cinema. (Well, his argument is more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it for my purpose here.) I experienced a similar phenomena when watching it at HFR. However, I argue that maybe the typical way of ingesting a story doesn’t have to be the end-all be-all for movie going. Maybe Mr. Jackson wanted a Sleep No More vibe rather than a Macbeth vibe. Middle Earth is a place to get lost in, somewhere you want to explore the nooks and crannies. 3D helps you pick out that book on the table of Bag End, HFR helps you read it, in a manner of speaking.

Perhaps, though, Mr. Jackson isn’t aiming for an interactive movie going experience at the expense of story understanding. Maybe he is the just the first to push all of us towards something inevitable, the way we all had to be pushed to accept “talkies” or color in film. For awhile, people had a hard time paying attention to the films in a “normal” way because they were too busy being weirded out by the technology. They got over it. It is entirely possible that as special effects get better, they won’t look as obvious in HFR. And it is entirely possible that if we watch enough feature films in higher frame rates, we won’t have to spend 30 minutes yelling at our brains to get over it because there will be nothing to get over.

When that day comes, I can be stoked that Mr. Jackson used Tolkien’s dish song and be irritated at the bombasticity of Radagast the way I did when watching at 24fps. And I will be able to do those things in addition to feeling as though I’m in the world of the film.

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