Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: THE HOBBIT and HFR, Part 2 - The Journey Continues

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Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: THE HOBBIT and HFR, Part 2 - The Journey Continues
Just over a year ago, I wrote an article trying to delve into the vagaries of the form of cinematic presentation that Peter Jackson chose for his Hobbit trilogy. At the time, there was already much consternation and gnashing of teeth, some claiming that High Frame Rate (HFR) made things look "sped up" as if shot in the 1920s. Others complained of a "too real" look, making the sets look "more fake".

As I wrote:

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.

A year on, and much has changed. While Warner Brothers proudly screened the first film for press in a massive theatre with HFR projection, both the press and word of mouth screenings (a public tease of the film) were shown in 24fps 3D. Naturally, this allowed the majority of reviews of Smaug to concentrate on the film rather than the technology (something, again, that some of us tried to do last year).

What got lost, of course, is that HFR remains the preferred format for the filmmakers to showcase this film.

As a critic, I find it pretty fascinating how debates can rage about showing films in their original aspect ratio (think the Kubrick home video releases), or decrying the colourization fad that took place in the 80s, or complaining about Gredo shooting first, while being resolutely against the presentation of this film in the way the filmmakers intended it to be seen. Here we have a studio giving viewers a choice, being able to see the film again in a myriad of flavours - 3D HFR, 3D Imax (non-HFR), 3D (non-IMAX, non-HFR), and 2D. Pick your preferred seat, and you get to have Middle Earth presented it to you in the way you want.

In an interview with Variety, Jackson stated that "48 (frames per second) is a way, way better way to look at 3D. It's so much more comfortable on the eyes." Yet he admits to being puzzled at just what people were finding objectionable about the first film. As the Variety article states, Jackson "concluded the problem was that the image looked like HD video, and was simply sharper than people are used to in cinema."

In other words, there were two things going on here - the HFR, and the use of significantly higher definition cameras to capture the images in the first place. With Smaug, then, the answer wasn't to reduce the framerate, but the actually soften the image.

Again quoting Jackson:

"When I did the color timing this year, the color grading, I spent a lot of time experimenting with ways we could soften the image and make it look a bit more filmic. Not more like 35 mm film necessarily, but just to take the HD quality away from it, which I think I did reasonably successfully...I was experimenting all the time and trying different things. It's to do with diffusing the image a little but, using what's called a Pro-Mist; it's the saturation of the color. Scene by scene I'd make decisions and choices as to which way to go, so it wasn't really one magic button to press."

Pro-mist is a diffusion filter usually put over the lens during image capture. This site shows a rough idea of the kind of effects that can be captured. In traditional Hollywood this was done in a much more overt way - take any two closeups between Bogart and his leading lady and see how soft focus was used to make her look beautiful, and him seem even more square jawed and engaging. Regarding another iconic series, with the original Star Wars Lucas used a particular brand of pantyhose (over the objection of his cinematographer) to give a kind of gauzy haze to the film. One of the objections made to the home releases of these films (after the "Lowry process" of cleanup) was that artificial sharpening was used to counteract this process, resulting in what some felt was a more video-y look than desired.

Last year at Butt-Numb-A-Thon, I actually had the pleasure of briefly chatting with Jackson about the challenges of presenting HFR to a skeptical audience. We talked about what I believed was a kind of "acclimation" required for viewing HFR (addressed again recently in this recent article by ScreenAnarchy's Stuart Muller), as most of us have spend our lives accepting 24fps as the look of cinema, with all its inherent blur and judder simply accepted as part of the presentation. As I said in my article from last year, "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 year, then, I got to experience the film's presentation in the reverse of what my preferred option would have been. In "regular" 3D, the film looked fine - if you pay attention to such things as grain and colour gamut you're going to notice certain scenes were clearly shot on video rather than film (regardless of colour timing). In short, the film  looked the way that most modern blockbusters do these days, regardless of originating framerate.

Yet during the regular 3D presentation I found a few scenes came across as muddy. The vistas that were so engaging in HFR seemed soft to the point of blurriness, while the integration of CGI creatures to the backgrounds seemed less convincing. In HFR, however, these elements blended correctly. Take the opening title card, with the Wargs running along the top of the mountain vista. In 24fps that shot looks a bit "off", in HFR it captures the sweep of the vista in a pretty spectacular way.

If there's one single scene to showcase the superiority of HFR for this film, it's Gandalf's confrontation with the Necromancer. This is one of my favourite effects of the film, a truly compelling design for diaphanous evil incarnate. As the tendrils of the cloud interact with the shield that Gandalf's staff projects, it's an amazing dance between light and dark. In 24fps it looked good, but in HFR it looks spectacular, each finger of the Necromancer cloudy element grasping at the Wizard Octopus like, writhing and dancing around quickly while not being masked in a mush of motionblur like it was in 24fps.

Before knowing about Jackson's decision to "soften" the picture in post, it was clear that some tweaking had gone on for the HFR presentation this time 'round. There was a sense, particularly in closeups, that a bit of the edge had been taken off. Yet the biggest change is of course the tonality of this film - Smaug is a far darker tale, and as such its palate is far more somber. The most jarring part of the entire HFR presentation in the first film was the prologue, where the sunshine of Dale showed off every nook and cranny of the set, ever wisp of Dwarven hair, ever lick of the dragon's flame. Here' in a mostly dark environment, there's less jarring contrast regardless of the sharpening.

What there is, equally, is less "mushiness". The cascade of gold as Bilbo runs away from Smaug is fine in 24, but noticeably superior in 48. Again, fast moving elements exhibit the greatest divergence, so the way that a lumbering dragon moves is greatly enhanced by the HFR presentation, as is the holocaustic sprays of dragonfire that erupt from Smaug's throat. The metaphor of a veil being lifted is a hoary one, but in this case it's apt - watching in HFR for much of these sequences simply feels like a layer of mush has been taken off the film, and we're finally seeing it free from the other distractions.

Because of the dark nature of this film's photography, even the familiarity of the location doesn't jump out at the viewer. The way that the Prancing Pony looked in the original film is made different by Thorin's entrance to Bree, but it's nowhere near as jarring on first look as something even more iconic like the inside of Bag End from the first Hobbit film. Acclimation again happens quickly, and save for a few moments that pop out, I'd hazard that fewer people not predisposed to judge to what the presentation is would even be able to say specifically what the difference is between HFR and non-HFR. This time, I actually think it's possible to not notice the difference unless you see the film both ways. Unlikely, but at least possible.

Even in sunlight, scenes like the Barrel flume-ride work far better in HFR. While the composting of the characters in 24fps looked a bit "off", in 48 the integration is nearly seamless. Given that this is one of the most spectacular (and fun) moments of the film, it's certainly a showcase for the effectiveness of the higher framerates. Rather than the action lost in a sea (or river) of blur, we can better follow the actions, as the Elves leap about and the weaponry tossed in a symphony of silly destruction. 

Jackson has also learned from the first film about how to shoot his elements. Long a fan of the whip-pan, a staple of 24fps action films that trade motion blur for content, this film seemed to have a lot less in the way of that ploy. In clarity of HFR it felt like the camera was moving rather than us as a viewer, making manifest the technique over the presentation. That is dialed back this time around, and it more than any softening may account for the superior presentation.

While it may have been a mildly cynical ploy, but it seems much of the conversation about this film has focused on the merits of the work rather than the framerate. I've seen many prominent critics refuse outright to see the film in HFR, and it's become a yoke around the film's neck in a way. Bryan Singer has backed away from using it for his future films, while James Cameron continues to push forward with his forthcoming Avatar films in even higher framerates.

Such was the dynamic last year that the anti-HFR sentiments crept into all conversation about the film. I was witness to a conversation following an IMAX 15-perf celluloid presentation, and they were complaining that it looked "too real", that "the HFR ruined the movie". Of course, the IMAX celluloid presentation was not in HFR, yet it provided a convenient scapegoat for this cinemagoer to complain about the look of the film.

A year later, HFR remains just as controversial as ever. Its execution is tied for now to this one franchise, and like early experiments in sound, widescreen, colour, 3D, digital photography and digital projection, there's a great deal of hostility towards any change to what's considered "cinematic". Jackson himself is adamant in the Variety article:
 

100 years from now  films are not going to be at 24 frames a second. The technology is going to move in ways we probably can't even predict now. 100 years ago it was 16 frames a second, black-and-white.  100 years from now it's going to be different again. At what point does a filmmaker use technology to push things along?

Is it the role of the filmmaker to push this technology? Without MeliƩs there would be no Kong, no 2001, no Star Wars, no Lord of the Rings and no Avatar. While as a critic I can celebrate the thought of the latter, the point remains that there are key filmmakers that have driven both cinematic production and presentation into a future of higher quality and clarity. It is to the chagrin of some that we're losing something fundamental about the cinematic experience, just as that critic talked of "continuously disturbing experience" when talkies emerged in the 1930s. Is HFR "more fake" than 24fp, or just a different kind of illusion that we as an audience will soon grow receptive of? Should we even bother when 24fps with its inherent issues that most don't even notice has been "good enough" for so long.

Whether it is the role of the filmmaker or not, it is the role of the critic to be open to the possibilities of the new, while remaining open to the capacity to criticize where warranted. I've seen far less in the way of horror stories (talk of skipped frames or sped-up projection), but those same critics spreading such stories are likely the ones that skipped HFR all together this time around. As a critic, and as an audience member, I remain open to the possibilities of this form of presentation. I encourage you to do the same, to give the HFR screening a chance even if the last time out wasn't your cup of tea.

For what is not in dispute is that HFR remains very much the definitive presentation of the Hobbit films. It provides the best possible showcase for the story of The Desolation of Smaug, and give the viewer the most immersive, engaging and cinematic entry into the world of Middle Earth. It does take a bit of getting used to, but rather than being jarred by the new, I encourage viewers to take a look, even a skeptical one, at this type of presentation while it's still in theatres.

Like the film, for many the road to acceptance or appreciation of HFR will be a long one, but I still believe it is a journey worth taking.

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CineruminationsGeorge LucasHFRHobbitJames CameronPeter JacksonFran WalshPhilippa BoyensGuillermo del ToroJ.R.R. TolkienIan McKellenMartin FreemanRichard ArmitageKen StottAdventureFantasy

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