I was lucky enough to see an early screening of The Hobbit
in 48 fps 3D on the Warner Bros. lot this week. I'm not claiming to have the golden eyes of a cinematographer or visual effects supervisor, but I did have some reactions to and thoughts about the movie's HFR 3D format.
First, I must confess that I have not been a fan of 3D stereoscopic films. I'm the canary in the coalmine when it comes to 3D's potential to make the viewer dizzy; more than once, I've left a 3D movie with a headache or nausea.
Nonetheless, I have been interested in HFR from the beginning, having seen Showscan productions and being privy to some of the work that Douglas Trumbull has done and is working on now.
has left me excited by the possibilities of High Frame Rate Cinema. The Hobbit
is an early example of HFR cinema, displaying the flaws that can be expected from a first technology outing. Remember all the naysaying over early HD content? For starters, adding high frame rate to 3D made watching 3D physically palatable for me. It's hard to understand why someone would be nauseated by HFR; indeed, for me, it seemed to solve the issues I had watching 3D with any level of comfort. Was this due entirely to the lack of motion blur? Honestly, I don't know. But I know is that I left the screening minus headache, nausea or eyestrain.
The experience I had watching The Hobbit
was uneven. Most of the time, I found it more immersive than 2D or 3D 24 fps. Occasionally the HFR look was disruptive or distracting. But I do not understand the comparison that many people draw between 48 fps and a TV or video look. For me, 48 fps doesn't look like 30 fps at all, much less 24 fps. It looks different than anything we've seen thus far.
Bilbo Baggins' Hobbit Hole home has an intimate "real life" look to it, yet the Dwarves had an almost animated appearance.
The inconsistency in look is based on the depth of the imagery in the scene. Scenes that take place in the foreground or close-up -- such as those in Bilbo's Hobbit hole -- appear much more lifelike than film or video; it is similar to watching "real life" on the proscenium stage. But even this wasn't consistent for me. I found the dwarves, even in close-ups, to almost look like animated characters or illustrations, but incredibly real and alive. Meanwhile, scenes that took place in the mid- or background often appeared almost painterly to me, sometimes infused with a level of life or realism and sometimes less so.
Did the look draw attention to itself? Of course, because it's a look I haven't seen before. But most of the time I found it engaging and pleasant to watch. The difference in the look from close-up to farther away was distracting to a degree. As the look shifted depending on the depth, I thought about Douglas Trumbull's idea of variable frame rate, giving the director the ability to manipulate frame rate by scene or even with objects or characters within a scene. That might be insanely impractical right now, but it seems like something interesting to shoot for, and I'm glad Trumbull is working on this.
Bilbo Baggins at Rivendell.
The other thing I noticed was how challenging HFR is for visual effects. Increasingly, even in 2D movies, I'm finding matte paintings distracting. Equally if not more so in The Hobbit
, where, for example, the background image of Rivendell -- even with all the tumbling waterfalls -- couldn't hold up against the life-like nature of the characters in the foreground. Integrating 3D CGI in a live-action scene also seemed problematic, at least from time to time. When our heroes escape the orcs by being rescued by giant birds; the birds -- as realistically as they'd been modeled, animated and rendered -- just seemed wincingly false in the scene.
Anybody going to watch The Hobbit
to make a definitive thumbs up or down judgment on HFR Cinema has got it wrong. These are very early days for a look that's knocked around our industry for decades, mainly for location-based entertainment. What's pushing HFR Cinema into movie theaters is part of a bigger revenue-driven goal to get audiences back into movie theaters. Yes, of course that takes compelling stories with talented actors and great directors, cinematographers and so on. But audiences are finding even the best movies less compelling in the movie theatre than just watching it a few months later at home on a giant plasma screen. I know I go to the movie theater much less than I used to.
HFR Cinema, hope the exhibitors and studios, will be a compelling reason to draw audiences back to the theater (they're trying wine and food as well). The onus is on them to prove it so, and they're looking to directors like Peter Jackson and James Cameron to make it a reality.
If HFR Cinema fails, it will fail on its own merits. In the meantime, I think it's intriguing enough to want to see more. Next time in 60 fps or higher.
(L-r) STEPHEN HUNTER as Bombur, ADAM BROWN as Ori, MARK HADLOW as Dori, JED BROPHY as Nori and PETER HAMBLETON as Gloin in New Line Cinema's and MGM's fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo Baggins in New Line Cinema's and MGM's fantasy adventure THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
All images courtesy of and © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.