Was The Hobbit the right proving ground for 48fps?

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.

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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.

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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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