Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is now firmly planted at the corner of creativity and technology, so much so that it is causing a nasty traffic jam. The debate pits fans of classic cinema against early tech adapters. Here’s what it’s about. Jackson went one step further than shooting the film in 3D. He shot in High Frame Rate 3D (HFR 3D). Whereas as films have for years been shot at 24 frames per second, Jackson shot at a rate of twice that, 48 frames per second. Effectively what this does is to increase the “realism” of the film. There’s none of that almost imperceptible flicker or bluriness that distinguishes film from, say, HD video.
The effect said to have been achieved by Jackson (I haven’t seen it yet) is akin to hyper-reality in 3D. You can apparently see everything, everywhere on screen in perfect focus at all times. It’s super crisp. The experience has elicited passions (mostly negative) from critics, almost universally:
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott:
Mr. Jackson has embraced what might be called theme-park-ride cinema, the default style of commercially anxious, creatively impoverished 3-D moviemaking. The action sequences are exercises in empty, hectic kineticism, with very little sense of peril or surprise. Characters go hurtling down chutes and crumbling mountainsides or else exert themselves in chaotic battles with masses of roaring, rampaging pixels.
The Hobbit is being released in both standard 3-D and in a new, 48-frames-per-second format, which brings the images to an almost hallucinatory level of clarity. This is most impressive and also most jarring at the beginning, when a jolly dwarf invasion of Bilbo’s home turns into a riot of gluttonous garden gnomes.
Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction. But of course it will soon be overrun with eager travelers, many of whom are likely to find the journey less of an adventure than they had expected.
Um, he didn’t like it. Scott pretty much sums up the criticism that the film seems more like a thrill ride in an amusement park than a movie. In an terrific essay, Vincent Laforet writes of his experience of seeing all three versions (2D, 3D and HFR 3D) in one sitting. I’m just guessing that he didn’t watch each version of the 2 hour 40 minute movie in its entirety. He didn’t like it either. For Laforet, it was too-much-information. He wrote, “In my opinion, film is not necessarily about WHAT you see – but it’s almost more an exercise in what you DON’T or CAN’T see. ” In HFR 3D, he saw everything. 2D leaves much to the viewer’s imagination, and actually makes filmmaking more of an art, according to Laforet. Another one of his major points was that the audience was too stunned by the impact to really get “into” the film. However, I imagine that would become less the case over time. I recommend his article for an in-depth comparison and analysis of the three versions.
Oh yeah, there were other critics who didn’t care for it either:
Kenneth Turan, LA Times:
Though Jackson and other zealots for high frame rate would have you believe that the new system is more immersive, the truth is just the opposite. Whatever its virtues may be from a technical point of view, audiences looking for a rich, textured, cinematic experience will be put off and disconcerted by an image that looks more like an advanced version of high definition television than a traditional movie.”
Richard Corliss, Time:
The clarity of the image is sometimes magical, occasionally migraine-inducing… At first, in the Smaug battle, I thought I was watching a video game: pellucid pictures of indistinct creatures. After a while my eyes adjusted, as to a new pair of glasses, but it was still like watching a very expensively mounted live TV show on the world’s largest home TV screen.”
If HFR 3D does become the format of the future it’s likely to mean a few things. First, films will become ever more expensive to produce. Second, it will be more difficult for filmmakers to suspend it’s disbelief. Bad lighting? Fake looking, cheap sets? Prosthetics? We’re going to see it all. I remember how much more fake television sets looked when we transitioned to HD. This is the same thing, only on steroids.
For a complete roundup of more negative takes, check out Collider.com.
In an interview on Facebook, Jackson explains his rationale for shooting in HFR 3D and describes what the experience was like. He says that his goal was to give the audience a much more “immersive” theatrical experience. It much more realistic because your eye (and by extension your brain) is seeing twice as many images a second. As a side note he points out that the decision to shoot at 24 frames per second was a commercial decision made at the dawn of the talkies era. You needed to achieve a standard rate to mechanically shoot film and record sound, yet film was and is expensive. 24 frames per second was determined to be the slowest shooting rate that would still achieve the desired quality.
Wells is not alone in his decision to shoot HFR 3D. Thomas Edison himself recommended shooting at 46 frames per second, saying that anything slower “would strain the eye.” OK, granted that’s going back a ways. James Cameron, for one, is a big supporter:
“Increasing the data-handling capacity of the projectors and servers is not a big deal, if there is demand. I’ve run tests on 48 frame per second stereo and it is stunning. The cameras can do it, the projectors can (with a small modification) do it. So why aren’t we doing it, as an industry?”
For critics, viewers and filmmakers, I’ll give the final word to Brendan Bettinger of Collider.com
Critics are fighting for the art they love as they know it, and I respect that. But this is not an issue we can judge solely based on our own first subjective experience. Presentation in 24fps has treated us very well over the years, but 48fps offers something even greater. It is our responsibility as cinephiles to give it a chance. See The Hobbit in 48fps. See the sequels in 48fps. Keep an open mind and try to see what Peter Jackson sees.