Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: THE HOBBIT And HFR, Part 3 - One Last Time
With the close of Peter Jackson's latest foray to Middle Earth, the final film in The Hobbit trilogy also marks another time of reflection upon one of its more interesting and controversial aspects.
Jackson's decision to capture and present the work in High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D continues to engender conversation, even if it's been carefully shifted to the back burner. Press screenings for the final two films have been shifted to be either in 2D or "normal" 24 frame/second presentations, and for the most part all conversation of the work has shifted to the film's content rather than its method.
The primacy of the film's content should, of course, be at the forefront of discussion, and the intention of HFR surely wasn't to be a distraction but instead was to provide a new form of spectacle in order to more fully immerse the audience within the land of elves, dwarves and so on.
In this, the third part of my series (Part One here, Part Two here), I'll look at what HFR has brought to these films, a look ahead to the future of what the change in framerate promises, and tie it to some developing technology that hopefully in time will rectify some of the challenges for acceptance by many audience members.
Many of these same criticisms continue to play out that I spoke of in the first part, and the vitriol for the decision to present in high framerate continues, with many choosing to either see the film in 2D or to skip it all together.
HFR, like any progressive image format, requires a certain acclimation. We're often not aware how our brains have been wired to accept the strange quirks of 24 frame presentation as "natural" in the context of cinema, but from our first experience many are conditioned to accept elements such as judder (the stagger-step jumps witness during horizontal pans), or the softening caused by motion blur even in relatively static shots.
As discussed in the second article, Jackson made major alterations to his HFR presentation in the second film, lessons he has carried over to The Battle of the Five Armies. He has employed software such as Pro-mist to artificially add in some blur to create a softening that takes some of the edge off certain shots that are jarring to some.
While the first Hobbit film saw a slew of press surrounding the process, now it's pretty much accepted as a secondary aspect to the story of these films. Jacon Kastrenakes for one wrote for The Verge about how this format is really only good for making CGI imagery look more Video-gamey. He notes that:
"The only movies that filmmakers know how to make right now are ones shot at 24 frames per second. Everything from lighting techniques to camera movements will need to be rethought for the more naturalistic style of HFR, and while overcoming that is going to be difficult, it's something that directors can manage -- particularly if they're making a film that exists in a computer-generated world."
The next big HFR release will be James Cameron's Avatar sequels, and this surreal environment of Pandora will likely be ideal for the slightly strange element of HFR, particularly if he takes the extra step of shooting with an 360-degree shutter. As Jackson noted on a Facebook post back in 2011:
Normally you shoot a movie with a 180-degree shutter angle. Changing the shutter angle affects the amount of motion blur captured during movement. Reducing the shutter angle gives you the stroby (or jerky) Saving Private Ryan look.
However, we're going the other way, shooting at 48 fps with a 270 degree shutter angle. This gives the 48 fps a lovely silky look, and creates a very pleasing look at 24 fps as well. In fact, our DP, Andrew Lesnie, and I prefer the look of 24 fps when it comes from a 48 fps master.
The 270-degree angle is a compromise between the 48fps and 24fps, and combined with the artificial sharpening on HFR presentation and additional motion blur added for 24fps "downmix" one is left with the vision that Peter has presented us with.
Cameron's push surely will be for an even more "pure" aspect of HFR. He had talked at one time of shooting the next Avatar films at 60fps, but recent reports are showing that he might be scaling that back to 48fps. Yet while Jackson and Cameron continue to think this is the future of spectacle cinema, there's one filmmaker that's pushing even harder for an HFR future.
Douglas Trumbull has been evangelical about the limitations of 24fps for decades. A veteran of effects work (he started out on Kubrick's 2001, and helped bring Close Encounters and Blade Runner to life), his experiments with high framerate large-format celluloid ("Showscan") have him to push even farther. Shooting on Canon C500s, his short film UFOTOG was shot at a whopping 120fps.
Seeing this short is even more startling than anything Jackson has done from a visual point of view. Projected at 4K, things like star fields with a moving camera, or the beams of light coming from a projector aimed right into the lens, were able to be fully distinguished. Normally these elements would wash out into blobs of light in the case of the projector, or streaks of lines (Star Wars "hyperspace" style), yet in this film they were as clear as still images, simply in motion.
The advantage for capturing this type of imagery was further assisted by the use of laser project (more details on that presentation here). While traditional
digital 3D has a dramatic reduction in luminance, laser projection allows for full brightness (~14 foot lamberts) for 3D presentation. There remain issues,
and the glasses remain the Achilles heel of the presentation, but at least in terms of technology many of the limits of 24fps and 3D filmmaking can now be
Laser projection uses two separate banks of three colour emitters (R,G,B), each with a slightly different wavelength that's imperceptible to our eyes but can be filtered out with dichroic lenses. It uses a non-silvered screen, meaning you don't have the hotspots and other issues that sometimes plague the regular screen used for 3D. Other than issues I experienced with the prototype Dolby 3D glasses, where the coating on the lens didn't go right to the edge of the plastic resulting in colour fraying on the sides of the image, the 3D experience in terms of stability, clarity and luminosity of image was pretty mindblowing.
So, we can do this stuff, but should we?
I think if The Hobbit has shown us anything its that HFR can be at time extremely effective and at other times jarring. The jarring elements, however, are often ameliorated with acclimation, something that most audiences aren't willing to do. At least, not yet.
I've used for those that truly hate HFR the example of a new pair of glasses. Anyone who has ever got a new prescription has gone through that feeling that clearly their ophthalmologist is an idiot, and the wrong script clearly was made. Everything looks weird, there's a strange curvature to the world. Even your fingers look odd, the hairs on your arm seem almost alien. In time your brain adjusts, so that when you put on your old prescription everything looks faded and dull.
For those that have never had glasses, I assure you that there's that moment of mild panic that the world doesn't look the way it should. The funny thing is that HFR works almost the same. A scene early in the Hobbit will look super weird, but by the end everything's looking engaging and you forget about the format. Here's an experiment for those willing to play along - immediately go see the beginning of the film again. Those moments that looked odd suddenly look much more "normal", the things that seemed disjointed (or, for some people, "sped up") suddenly very much feel part of a whole.
We don't like to admit that all cinema is an illusion, a trick we're playing on our brains. Yet HFR more than almost any cinema technology of the last half-century requires us to do a bit of rewiring of how we perceive these images.
The Verge article is correct about one thing, that those conditioned to playing high frame rate games may be more "plastic" in their ability to be immersed in the HFR headspace than those far more accustomed to 24fps. Yet the question of whether this is worth the trouble is still very much in many people's minds, feeling quite simply that they don't want their films to look the way they do when presented in HFR.
Once again, we're left with insurmountable aesthetic divisions as opposed to strict technical ones. People's taste, for what they "like", have little to do with the issues that HFR "solves". Some don't care about judder, or even notice it during the flying scenes. Others don't want that much detail on Smaug, finding it disjointing, or believing the details make things look more "stagey" and artificial.
I've seen Battle of the Five Armies to date three times and in three different formats. The first, a press screening at the Warner offices, was in digital 3D, 24fps. The film looked fine, not dissimilar to how it looks on home video of course. Smaug flew around, Lake Town burned, the cascade of gold in Erebor looked like a giant monochromatic pile of gold, and it all looked decent.
A few days later, I saw the film again in an extraordinary fashion. Thanks to Peter Jackson's attendance (and some kvetching by yours truly), Warner decided that the IMAX screening that was presented was to be done in HFR, rather than its originally intended 24fps version. IMAX and Cinepelx, the theatre chain, spent days calibrating the sound and picture for the premiere. The presentation was in one of the full sized IMAX screens, and while not the largest in the world the image was still massive. PJ and the film's co-star Lee Pace sat in for the presentation, and both commented following the film how stunning it all looked.
And stunning it was! Those 'copter shots that were a series of jumping images were remarkable on the large screen. Smaug's animated emotions came to life even more. The far distance shot looking back to Lake Town from Erebor saw a perfectly articulate dragon laying siege rather than a mush of colour in the distance.
For a film about a bunch of armies, the final battle scenes (again, almost all fully animated) were far more coherent and pleasing in the IMAX presentation. But character moments also shines, from Bilbo's interactions with his dwarven companions, to that fantastic little scene where he sits beside Gandalf as he picks and scrapes at the bowl of his pipe.
Here, HFR truly was the superior format, the 3D bright and clear thanks to properly a calibrated two projector system, and a giant screen that let you feel like you were falling into the world of Tolkien.
My third presentation was in some ways even more unique. During this year's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, held as always at the Austin Alamo Drafthouse, we saw the film in 2D HFR. This was a unique DCP created both for our screening and one done in Paris. Speaking with Drafthouse's Tim League, a name familiar to almost every reader of this site, he explained that during the recent renovation of the South Lamar location he actually removed the silvered screens from the main rooms (leaving in them in some of the smaller venues), thus preventing us from even screening the film in 3D using their projection system.
I did miss some of the 3D space in this presentation, especially towards the end of the film. The collapsing towers and sense of space, particularly as things appear off in the distance, were flattened considerably in the 2D version.
Still, this provided an excellent opportunity to experience the film's HFR elements in a slightly more "pure" way, removing the variable of 3D and the reduction of luminance that is often a factor.
As I discussed above, the elements that were slightly "strange" only a few days later in the IMAX presentation now seemed far more engaging immediately. There was no real sense of strangeness, it immediately felt present and inviting. Yes, this is a highly artificial environment, but it genuinely feels like a veil is lifted with compared to the 2D trailer or the 3D, non-HFR version.
In the end, we're left with a very real conundrum. It's clear that the director's preferred version remains, as it has always been, the HFR 3D presentation. This is a year when the biggest 3D news isn't about The Hobbit, but about a silly little film by an octogenarian Swiss man who threw a couple flip cameras into a case and gave a bunch of cineastes some visual scat to chew on, allowing haters of 3D to applaud this new and groundbreaking "fuck you" to pleasing and technically proficient presentation.
What's clear from this grand experiment of Jackson's is that this is still very much a work in progress, just as, for all those Jar Jar haters, without that Gungan there wouldn't be a Gollum rendered in quite the same way (pun intended).
Trumbull's 120fps would be mad for a feature film, but it would be drool worthy in the context of a nature documentary. To go to Everest, or into space, or to the depths of the Ocean and to capture/project those images as 120fps (or higher!), in laser projected 3D, is the stuff of dreams that quickly are becoming a reality.
Just as Jackson's toolbox changed between Hobbit 1 and 2, so to will future filmmakers play with different frame rates, going from 24fps to 48fps capture while projecting at a solid rate. This is similar to what's happening now by the likes of J.J. Abrams shooting the latest Star Wars film on 35mm - almost every frame is surely going to be futzed with in terms of CGI manipulation, but the capture medium itself is going to form the touchstone for which all imagery is going to be made to look, all while it's projected eventually from a digital file.
Similarly, the key to any true aesthetic breakthroughs in HFR may well be a combination of traditional framerates. This has always been the case back to the earliest days of cinema, with different "crank" speeds resulting in fast or slow motion when projected at the agreed upon frame rate. What's new is that "normal" speed 48fps could easily have 24fps captured moments intercut, resulting in a hybrid of HFR and regular speed that highlights specific scenes for HFR (say, action moments) while other scenes (dialogue, interiors) would conform to 24fps expectations.
This is where the subtlety and craft of working with HFR will surely come in the future. Christopher Nolan does this type of hybrid trick with his IMAX shooting, switching aspect ratios and grain structures throughout. It remains to be seen just how this new tool will be used in the future, and I for one look forward to filmmakers who are willing to embrace the toolset in order to create things that astonish.
At the end of this journey, we're left with a series of Hobbit films that I argue are perfectly in keeping with the rest of the Middle Earth saga, but for some are little more than redundant appendices upon the earlier, superior trilogy. In terms of the high frame rate aspect of the films, I find myself watching the Blu-rays at home and wishing for the (superior) theatrical experience, just as I do when watching Nolan's Batman films and dreaming of one day having that home IMAX screen I've always wanted.
Despite all its success, there remains just 49% of ticket sales during the first week of release for this final film that were tagged as 3D, and there's no breakdown how many of those screens were setup for HFR. It might take Cameron's fantasy to really break this format into the mainstream, but I'm hoping it'll be something surprising, some spy film or action comedy that really makes the clear benefits of HFR come to life for a wide audience.
For now, it seems that Jackson's desire to move this aspect of filmmaking forward has met with mixed results at best. Things that require change and acclimation usually are met with great resistance, and this clearly is one of those cases where the general audience, and for that matter may vocal critics, simply prefer the status quo.
There's a balance between the evangelical enthusiasm of Cameron, Jackson and Trumbull wanting to move away from the blurry murk of 24fps to an HFR future, and those that are simply wedded to the imagery of what's constituted to be "cinematic". Like anything in movie history - montage, the use of sound, colour, aspect ratios, film stock, grading and colour timing and the use of digital - it often takes years, maybe even an entire generation for things to truly come into their own. We're in the very beginning stages of moving away from something that's been a part of our movie going experiences for almost a century, and these changes are going to be hard to swallow for many.
I'd never argue every film needs to be in HFR, just as not every film needs to be in 3D (or colour, or have dialogue, etc.). Yet HFR clearly seems to have the possibility of transforming in a positive way the form that certain spectacle cinema is crafted. I remain optimistic about its future, excited what filmmakers are going to do with this aspect of their craft.
And as for Jackson's films, that HFR look is for me the definitive rendition of these films. Save for a few scenes, many of them in the first prologue from the first film, I believe that PJ and Lesnie have done an exemplary job in giving these three films a unique look while very much having them feel part of a whole. Yes, Jackson's whip pans and other quirks from his early films simply do not work in HFR, but his sweeping arials, breathtaking vistas and vast, cavernous spaces simply come alive in the HFR 3D version of the films in ways that the other iterations simply do not.
Time will tell if this is just a blip in the line of cinematic developments or the start of something truly spectacular. For now, I recommend highly you give this final Hobbit a chance in 3D HFR, even if you gave it up after your experience with the first film. It may not be your thing, but if you let yourself acclimate to it, you just might find yourself enjoying the way this film looks more than you ever thought you would.