Was The Hobbit the right proving ground for 48fps?

Feature Ryan Lambie 14 Dec 2012 - 09:36

The use of HFR in The Hobbit has already divided opinion. So was An Unexpected Journey, Ryan wonders, the right film to use as its debut?

Although An Unexpected Journey has met with largely positive reviews so far, Peter Jackson’s return to Tolkien’s mythical world of beards and magic has already split opinion over its use of High Frame Rate filming. Leaving aside the merits of the movie itself aside (you can read our take on the movie here, and provide your own thoughts on it here) the 48 frames-per-second technology has dominated discussion over the movie since it was first unveiled earlier this year, and will almost certainly continue to do so for a long time to come.

Jackson has undoubtedly taken a risk in using such a commercially unproven technique on an anticipated movie such as this; when James Cameron employed 3D in Avatar, it wasn’t an unknown quantity to audiences back in 2009 - it simply offered an improved iteration on stereoscopy.

HFR, on the other hand, is something new to cinema. Its nearest analogue is the silky smooth playback of footage you’ll find when watching a television set to 100 or 120Hz; unlike traditional 24fps film, An Unexpected Journey’s HFR more closely replicates the things we see around us, lending the film an unfamiliar quality when we first lay eyes on it.

Shortly after the opening credits roll on this first Hobbit adventure, poor Ian Holm looks as though he’s walking through his house on fast-forward, such is silky-smooth sense of movement HFR provides. While it doesn’t take too long for the eye to compensate for this, HFR makes its presence felt throughout the film.

In many instances, HFR earns its keep; while Peter Jackson’s camera zooms in and out of action sequences, or scans over an extraordinary vista, the usual, headache-inducing judder associated with 24fps 3D movies is entirely absent. Gone, too, is the rather gloomy pall we usually associate with 3D film - while a quick removal of our glasses reveals that some colour change still occurs, it’s by no means as washed out or dull as some of the worst offenders to grace our screens in recent years.

HFR’ advocates have argued that this is precisely why the process is the future of cinema; once we all become accustomed to this new way of presenting movies, we’ll not only love it, we’ll even wonder how we ever put up with those grainy, juddery pictures of the past. Ah yes, film grain - something else which HFR eliminates almost entirely.

An Unexpected Journey’s picture is almost crystalline in its lack of grain; in fact, it’s only when it’s compared with a 24fps movie that its clarity becomes obvious. Shortly after seeing Jackson's film, we stumbled into a screening of another release - and it was remarkable how different it looked. In fact, it took a minute or two to readjust to the art of viewing what we might currently call a conventionally-shot movie.

Our lingering question, though, is this: was An Unexpected Journey the correct film to use as a proving ground for HFR? On the face of it, the answer might be yes, and Jackson himself has naturally defended his artistic choice. It is, he insists, more immersive, its greater clarity and definition providing easier access to Middle Earth and its inhabitants.

On the other hand, we’re dealing with a film which requires the construction of dozens of sets - both real and digital - the texturing and rigging of a legion computer-generated creatures, the application of make-up and beards to a thousand faces, and the moulding of an incalculable number of props. During the heated process of making a movie, set designers, make-up artists and other technicians rely on the knowledge and learning they’ve refined over almost a century. Just as in theatre, there are certain established techniques which look perfectly acceptable up on the screen - by the time the lighting and film grain are lain over the top, the audience accepts everything it sees without studying everything too closely.

HFR shines a glaring light on every step of the filmmaking process. Something like a giant boulder, perhaps built out of fibreglass and carefully painted, which might look perfectly geological in a conventional movie, looks exactly like a fake boulder in HFR. Sets no longer look like ancient stone buildings, but things hammered together by carpenters on a soundstage.

Similarly, the line between live-action footage and computer-generated creatures, which would normally sit behind a forgiving veil of film grain, is suddenly laid bare. We look at an actor, whose every skin pore and arm hair can be made out with perfect clarity, then the monster he’s fighting, and we can see how different the digital textures look.

This isn’t a slight on any of the artists who’ve worked on An Unexpected Journey, whose work is sometimes spectacular (particularly Gollum, who's a more convincing and appealing anti-hero than ever). It’s simply an unfortunate side-effect of a new, practically untested filming technique, which shows up every flaw - even the movement of a camera operator’s arm is magnified several fold, since the slightest wobble of the camera becomes glaringly obvious when compared to the smoothness of the frame rate.

The continued use of HFR in cinema will require a new range of techniques to convince audiences that what they're seeing is real - particularly in an effects-heavy genre movie. Stone will have to be made to look more like stone. Digital effects houses will have to work longer to produce higher-resolution textures for their models. Props will have to be built out of heavier materials.

It could be argued, then, that a fantasy movie wasn’t such a wise choice for HFR. Had it been employed in a movie with fewer digital effects or props, its drawbacks may have been less glaring. In fact, its natural home may be some sort of intimate thriller, since HFR lends a strange, almost indescribable claustrophobic quality to interior shots, while also lending added clarity to, say, chase sequences.

There’s also a third possibility. Instead of taking such a hasty plunge into new territory, Peter Jackson could have dipped his toe more daintily in the technological water. With dialogue sequences and slower-paced moments shot at 24fps, and HFR only unleashed when things are really rushing around, it’s possible that it could have won more people over than it has; the benefits of HFR in these latter moments is undeniable, and with future refinement (particularly in the lighting department - An Unexpected Journey is glaringly over-lit at times), it could become a hugely useful new tool in a filmmaker’s kitbag, rather than an entirely new way of shooting a movie from top to bottom.

An Unexpected Journey is sure to do well, such is the weight of fan devotion and critical goodwill towards it. But for HFR, it may just be that its full employment in an effects-heavy film such as this was a case of too much, too soon. 

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Disqus - noscript

What's HFS? I thought it was HFR, high frame rate, technology? Someone hasn't proof read.....

That was me - sorry, we've been battling massive technical problems all morning in my weak defence! Fixed now, and fully caffeinated! - Simon

Switching between 24 and 48fps is a nice idea, but I don't it's technically possible. I work at a movie theatre that has HFR, and at least with our equipment, the update for HFR was literally a firmware update for our server. Now it can play either 24 or 48fps, but it takes about 2 minutes for the server to load the different firmware versions. That would make having both scenes in 24 and 48fps in one movie impossible.

I watched the film last night at the Kensington Odeon in London, which shows the movie in HFR..must say, I felt like I was sitting at home watching an episode of Corrie or Eastenders..it didn't feel like a film at all, although the 3D was amazing in places and did not give me a headache at then of a long 3 hours ! still it's too early to implement such a change in the way films are made. Just thought the image was slightly dull.

I see this as another gimmick like 3D. Are we going to see Smellovision and rumble seats making a comeback too?

Yeah, William Castle must be sitting up (or down) there, wetting himself with glee seeing all this happen.

Saw the Hobbit in the new format yesterday and I have to say, it blew me away. As you say, picture quality was never short of excellent and in particular the 3D looked and was used better than any other film I've seen since it came out.
The only question for the industry I see posed after reading this piece is: Should we aim higher and raise our standards of production? The answer is, of course, if it delivers a better film experience... Yes!

Rumble seats are already here. My local Cineworld has two rows of DBOX motion seats in one of it's screens.

I'm very keen to see films in the new format, but what I find interesting are the points about the sets and effects being more noticeable. I haven't seen any complaints about this in HD movies and yet, for me, when you watch something like the original Star Wars trilogy in HD, it looks like complete garbage because all of the very same aspects are so much more obvious. However, I didn't see any critics complaining about that at the time (or since), which I find weird when it's being picked up so much here.

Agreed.

You could film at 24fps for some scenees and upconvert to 48fps without a lot of issues if the new framerate is exactly 2:1 ratio.

Haven't seen it yet, but the author's comments make a lot of sense. Still ... I am looking forward to seeing the Hobbit in 3D and HFR. Movies gotta be able to deliver us something in the theaters that we can't get from the couch; otherwise theaters will become outdated.

Gotta admit, I didn't notice the difference. It all looked fine and normal (well, 3D). I was watching it in IMAX, in 3D, through contact lenses and 3D glasses - maybe my eyes can only take in so much...

I am looking forward to trying out HFR Hobbit, but I'm confused as to why this article equates HFR with less film grain... anyone?

One technique is to show the whole thing at 24 but use 60fps to resolve greater movement detail during fast sequences.

I'm curious as to what the exact cause of the 'fast forward' problem is, I'm not sure if it's a matter of getting used to it or an effect of the camera and actor's movements tricking your eyes. I noticed as the movie went on the problem started disappearing, but it still showed up once in awhile.

That said when the clarity and the quality lined up the scenes were dam breathtaking.

I just watched this in HFR. I sure didn't like it. Clarity of image is not the end all and be all of aesthetics. And to me, while watching The Hobbit, the HFR look remained as a filter between me and the movie. I was never immersed. The main problem for me was that it looked like TV. The first hour or so, I was constantly reminded of low-budget productions about the Roman Empire or Ancient Egypt (the kind you'll see on Discovery Channel), with actors reenacting historical figures etc. I don't really understand why so much money was put into making a movie look more like television, when television movies do all they can to look like real movies. It was so hard for me to disregard the HFR, that I never really managed to enjoy the movie itself. HFR makes the good look bad and gives the bad more clarity and visibility. All in all, it's a really bad idea and if I was a movie make I'd never ever in a million years shoot anything in HFR. I turned off that feature on my HDTV. Why would I want to pay for expensive movie tickets to go see it on a big screen in 3D???

I think that there has been so much disinformation concerning the 48fps. I saw it two weeks ago, and I thought it was awful. Every character movement looked like they were on speed. However, it was certainly sharp and full of detail...because it was shot on Red Epic cameras at 5k! That is where the clarity is coming from, not the 48fps. It really drives me nuts with all of this confusion of what is going on.

I did read people complaining about The Exorcist Blu-ray recently because it was a film never intended for HD, and for the first time possessed Linda Blair's makeup looked rubbery.

I think it's because there's less motion blur than film - it looks strange to our eyes. And I would guess that you simply got used to it after a while...

It could run at 48fps but just have every frame duplicated - easy.

Yeah I don't get that either the main thing HFR does is help with the 3D effect and motion blur.

I thought film grain was eliminated when the stopped using film. Digital doesn't have film grain just resolution but now they use 5K screens this shouldn't be an issue at all unless it was deliberately added like films such as 300.

I loved HFR. I didn't notice as problem with things being sped up, nor did it take me out of the film like some people like. I did notice that the film was much brighter as most 3D movies have a darker image. The image on the screen was beautiful with so much detail; you could see the slightest flicker of light in the background, every pore on a person's face. It was amazing. I actually felt more into the movie than I do with IMAX or AVX 3D movies, for me it felt like I was there in the movie.

Films have been shot in two dimensions and at 24 frames per second for more than a hundred years. That doesn't need to change any more than cars need eight wheels.

Film has grain and digital has just pure noise. In a way, they are not that unlike.

Yes, OK I would say these look similar but they are not the same thing.
This mostly effects images that are filmed in low lighting conditions.

Most films are shot with expensive cameras with high signal to noise ratio and are usually lit correctly for the right exposure, they also have ways of eliminating it in post production, reducing the noise to almost nothing. You shouldn't notice noise in high budget blockbuster films shown on high resolution screens unless it is deliberate.

Agreed, Abbey. I saw the movie, and it fails to equal Lord of the Rings Trilogy where props, sets etc. are concerned, due to HFR. Much of it is amazing, of course - but it is not consistant. Much of its visual aspect made me wince. Altogether it was rather irritating, like having a baffling knocking sound from your car engine every 70 seconds, or like being at a rock concert where some dolt in the distance is flashing a pen-laser into people's faces. Everyone has their own tastes, but where some artists use clarity, others - like Turner, for example - produce masterpieces in which the most important thing is that you CAN'T see every leaf on a tree, every hair on a head, every rivet on a sword hilt. This was not such a masterpiece, I'm afraid.

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