Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: THE HOBBIT, 48 Frames Per Second, and A Whole New Journey

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: THE HOBBIT, 48 Frames Per Second, and A Whole New Journey

"To a regular cinemagoer...attendance at the motion-picture playhouse today is a continuously disturbing experience...The discovery that the shadowy images of the screen could be made articulate was as fruitful for exploitation to the captains of the cinema industry as was the realization that women would wear long skirts to the couturiers." -Critic Howard Barnes, deriding the emergence of "Talkies", 1931

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is a coming home of sorts, very much in line with the other three films that formed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. From the casting, to the locations and settings, this film is an echo of the other works, and despite early involvement with Guillermo Del Toro, it's a film that very much feels to be a Peter Jackson film through and through.

From the music to the costumes to the iconic New Zealand vistas, it's easy for any fan of the other films to immediately feel that they're returning back to middle earth, except for one major technical change - eschewing the celluloid used as the main capture format for the previous trilogy, Jackson has instead shot The Hobbit on digital video, in 3D, and using 48 frames per second ("high frame rate", or HFR, as opposed to the normal 24fps), and with a 270° shutter angle.

After a pretty notorious brief "sizzle reel" shown to exhibitors several months ago, many were worried about how the film looked. In the 10 minute segment, people responded well to the vistas, but found that closeups made the sets and actors seem too "video-y", almost giving the look of daytime television rather that the "film look" that's been developed for decades. Naturally, much of this footage hadn't been fully timed (or, "colour corrected") to make it look like a final product, but there was much consternation by some that the move to HFR was going to be disruptive and distracting.

Without getting too much into the history of framerates, the short version is that 24fps has always been a kind of accidental, "good enough" standard, more tied to the need for synchronous sound and reduction in celluloid costs than for an ideal aesthetic medium to create moving images.

24fps does exhibit many characteristics that many take for granted, artifacts such as smearing and motion blur that (like grain) are often considered technical limitations rather than specific advantages. This contributes to the aesthetic often called "filmlike", and similar to scratches on a record or brushstrokes on a painting, they provide a familiarity to a long line of moving pictures.

Still, artists are known for taking advantages of these limitations, and through the century plus of experimentation have managed to exploit in often stunning ways these so-called impediments to the capture of so-called "reality". Yet look at any Michael Bay film, particularly the Transformers franchise, and you'll see just how ridiculous motion blur can be as an obstruction to clarity and coherence (the visuals, of course, not being the only impediment in this case). With "only" 24 frames captured per second, the shutter is open long enough for a quickly moving object to quite visibly streak through the frame. Doubling the capture rate means each individual frame, much like a series of snapshots, would have a significantly clearer image, free from this softness or blurriness.

What's perhaps not as well understood is that even for relatively still shot images, the capture and projection at 24fps still has these moments of motion blur exhibited, giving a kind of "glow" to micro movements, softening edges, making things feel more "painterly". Quite simply, this is the look of cinema as we have accepted it, and these various characteristics are what audiences have come to expect even from projects shot on digital video.

With a single scene in The Phantom Menace, followed by the two other prequel films, George Lucas helped usher in 24fps digital cinema for the modern blockbuster, paving the way for the recent 3D resurgence. As relatively "plastic" as some find these films looking, they nonetheless share many characteristics with traditional celluloid, particularly when elements of motion and blur artifacts are examined. There have been a slew of shot-with-digital productions since then, and the best-looking mimic celluloid's frame rate, resulting in a look that conforms well with our expectations for what a motion picture should look like.

HFR, it must be said, takes things to a whole different level.

I can state unequivocally that people used to a normal cinema experience will almost immediately find the look of HFR jarring. Some will certainly spend much of the running time annoyed by the look, the way that many are irritated by the whole notion of 3D cinema in the first place. The change to HFR may actually be even more radical than seeing a modern 3D film for the first time. Everything looks... cleaner, a characteristic often ascribed to HD video. It's as if a veil has been lifted off the image, you're able to see fine detail during camera movement that simply is not evident normally.

Expect vitriol, and plenty of it.

What it does not look like is broadcast video, although that might be the first thing that people respond with (HD video shoots with a higher framerate than most celluloid productions). Given the entire package - the careful colour timing, the 4K resolution, the 3D and of course the HFR, this is very much a new experience, one that certainly takes some time to acclimate to, but once accepted becomes quite revelatory. Alas, people used to movies looking a certain way will immediately dismiss it as being "too video-like", and decry the whole process.

I personally found the effect most evident in, of all things, a simple flame. Naturally, a flame dances around extremely quickly, often one of the more rapidly moving elements captured during any given scene. In HFR, the tiny details are brought to life, the thin wisps of smoke are shown clearly, the tiniest of details of each fork of the flame tip captured with little smearing. It's a unique experience for me, and whenever a flame would be on screen, it was the first elements that caught my eye, reminding me that what I was seeing was indeed something quite different than normal.

This might be the number one crutch against HFR - most people, even many critics, don't ever think about the artifacts baked into what they're watching; we've spent much of our lives consuming films in a particular fashion, giving zero mind to 24fps. Throw us something using HFR, and we're quickly made to notice it, making it slightly offputting and distracting from the other things going on up on the screen. This I think was certainly the case with the 10 minute sizzle reel, where the audience was thrown into the deep end of HFR, and didn't have enough time to acclimate to it.

Minutes into the film, I found myself lost in the imagery, reveling in some of the scenes and (if briefly) forgetting about the HFR. I would be shocked if people didn't notice the difference right away, but I'd also be pretty surprised if most didn't acclimate relatively quickly to the technique. Unless one is held back by stubbornness or sheer will, most will quickly grow to at least become used to the new look to the point of forgetting about it, and at best embrace it as a new cinematic tool worthy of appreciation. On the other hand, I think it will be a rallying cry for some, and become the central focus of most people's reactions to the film.

Being first with this sort of thing is hard, and if the role of a critic has any validity, it's in preparing the audience for something new, potentially jarring, and certainly different to established expectations. We can dismiss any change as mere fad or something meant to mask poor storytelling if that's called for, but in this case I think that Jackson's decision is a decent one, pushing the audience in a positive direction for this type of 3D/effects-driven project. This fact won't stop the pile-on of hate, of course, but I do respect the desire for an increase in fidelity and clarity over a fetishization of the status quo in order to placate some convenient semblance of what's to be considered "cinematic".

You'll see people complain that things appear "too real", suddenly seeing details usually masked by a slurry of blur and judder that traditional 24fps masks. For some it's a visual uncanny valley, where suddenly the movement on the big screen lacks certain characteristics we've been trained to accept as "real", so that when we see the new class of projection it seems off. I imagine some felt the migration from handcranked, ~11fps to a standardized 24fps may have gone through the same transition, but we certainly have plenty of examples of people slamming the move to the talkies, to colour, to widescreen, and of late, to digital capture and projection.

There's been a slew of hyperbole on both sides - apart from the detractors, there have also been HFR advocates that talk of a "window-like" experience opening up on the cinema screen. Dialing that back a bit, it's certainly an extremely clear and vivid image (particularly when projected with 4K resolution), but anyone confusing the elements of montage for anything less than a cinema presentation is fooling themselves. This rapidly-changing vista never lets us truly forget we're watching something assembled for our engagement, and no radical technological move will truly make us feel that we're suddenly in some magical window environment.

Frankly, the metaphor is further compromised by the whole notion of a closeup, where you see far more detail than even when being the most compromising of personal space - heck, I'd replace all the windows in my house if I could have images like I see as part of this presentation as vividly and in as much detail gazing from the kitchen as you do when watching this work on a giant screen.

At its best, HFR does provide something quite extraordinary. Tiny details on the texture of wood, the writing on a sword, or the wisps of hair on a Dwarven beard, all are etched in at times astonishing detail, not simply as a still image but during movement. These feel less like video images, and more like a series of great photographic depth. After all, photography hasn't been limited to shooting at 1/24th of a second, and a capable photographer can capture and time digital imagery to create appropriately glossy, rich imagery without it appearing to be some soap opera. Yes, the increase in resolution helps a lot, but more than that, the ability to capture without the aggravated motion artifacting opens up the world on screen in a way that's pretty unique.

I fully expect a slew of negative rants about the process. It's almost more of a radical departure from normal 24fps capture as High Definition television was from SD, and the established ways of what we consider to be "cinematic" are extremely entrenched. It's a bold move on PJ's part to go in this direction, and once the shock has worn off (and even being well prepared for what I was to expect, it was quite a shock) I think many will be more than satisfied with the look of the piece.

Others will slam it as a "continuously disturbing experience" as per the quotation above. For the open eyed, it will be like the HD to SD comparison, a case made for looking at the other films in the cycle suddenly seeing issues you hadn't before, becoming distracted in time by the blurriness and juddery pans that we've taken for granted. This may become the new normal, at least for films of this scope and type, and with familiarity will come a form of acceptance about the advantages from an aesthetic point of view rather than simply a reciting of its technical specifications or departure from a previous way of doing things.

There's one particularly aggravating comparison that should certainly be avoided, and that's to the 120/240hz "motion smoothing" mode that exists on many new television sets. In this instance, the TV manufactures interleaved frames to boost the rate, crafting artificial images that really do look more like plasticine than either broadcast video or a "cinematic" look. One should not confuse this digital processing trickery with the actuality of capturing images using higher frame rates.

No real-time post processing could ever approach HFR capture, and what many of these TV tricks do is simply exacerbate the limitations inherent in the signal, over emphasizing the limitations motion blurry source, and then running a subsequent "clean" pass that gives the image a particularly repulsive, Claymation-like look. Fear not, those that have messed with their settings on their TVs, The Hobbit looks nothing like these abominations, and you should take time to disable any such processing whenever you come into contact with such setups.

It has been promised that the move to HFR is a boon for 3D presentations, resulting in less eye strain or headaches. I'm not sure this is necessarily the case, but over the course of the three hour film I didn't find myself perturbed by the film in any physical sense. The clarity does result in having a few more artifacts become slightly more evident, there are brief moments where images are slightly ghosted, seeing a mild "echo" of one eye bleeding into the other (say, a faint outline of a ghostly sword just to the left of the outthrust weapon).

In the end, just like lens selection, camera movements, montage decisions, and so on, HFR is another tool in the filmmaker's toolbox. It is in many ways jarring, but it's in many other ways revelatory, providing some supremely engaging images on screen. Just as seeing Dark Knight films on celluloid IMAX or The Master in 70mm respected the desires of the filmmakers, so to does the HFR 3D presentation of The Hobbit very much correspond with what Jackson and his team want the film to look like. The care with which it has been crafted, the quality of the presentation, and the sheer bravado nature of some of the sequences speak very much to this fact.

Jackson has been comparing the effect to the move from vinyl to CD. The comparison is apt, but not for the reasons he's making - many still prefer the "warmth" of vinyl to the "coldness" of digital, thinking it closer to the original production. Sure, for older recordings there may be an argument here (a losing one, but an argument), but for something sourced in digital to be then spat out onto an analogue format is simply adding in distortion for the sake of familiarity or whim.

One could easily master a high resolution audio disc (say, 24/192) with pops and clicks, and do a roll-off of the high end with increased noise and replicate immediately the vintage sound, if that's what the artist would like to present. This would be for aesthetic reasons, not technical, and is the basis for why Paul Thomas Anderson leaves noise in the 4K digital files for The Master. 3D/HFR is what Jackson wants his film to look like, and all other presentations are compromises of this vision meant to sate a marketplace that's often adverse to change of any sort.

The Hobbit is sure to be one of the big event films of the season, coming on the heels of the previous films in the series that went on to win many Oscars, including Best Picture. There will be plenty of time to discuss the merits of the film itself, for now I'd simply suggest that the move to HFR should not be one to be wary of, and in fact seems very much to be the preferred mode to watch this film. It results in a look that's in its own way quite beautiful, even if it's a beauty type that takes even the most open-minded some time to get used to.

The film will be presented in a wide variety of formats, a celluloid version (the down-conversion to 24fps helped in part by the decision on shutter angle), IMAX 3D blow ups, and so on. I would suggest, when picking up your ticket for the opening week, that you go out of your way to try to find one of the select theatres showing the film in the way it was intended. Any distraction about the look quickly fades as you're drawn into the story, of course, but there's still several times throughout the running time where you can sit back and marvel as the imagery, presented in this new and pretty incredible fashion.

I wish you well in your journey back to Middle Earth; it's never looked quite the same as this, this is true, yet in many ways it can be argued that it has never looked better.

Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
48 FPScineruminationsHFRPeter JacksonThe HobbitFran WalshPhilippa BoyensGuillermo del ToroJ.R.R. TolkienIan McKellenMartin FreemanRichard ArmitageKen StottAdventureFantasy

More about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

More about Jason Gorber's Cineruminations

Around the Internet