Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit in High Frame Rate

I suspect a few of you out there, less nerdy and obsessed with movies than me, might have noticed that one of the showings listed for The Hobbit said something like "HFR 3D" and wondered what the hell that means. HFR stands for High Frame Rate. Normally movies are filmed at 24 frames per second, but for The Hobbit, Peter Jackson filmed it at 48 frames per second.

In theory, this is supposed to make the film look more detailed and lifelike, since 48 fps is closer to how we see things in real life. In execution it yields mixed results. If you're wondering how noticeable the HFR is, the answer is that you will notice it the very instant that the Warner Bros. logo flies in at the start of the film. It looks astonishingly clean and fluid, but at the same time you might feel like something is a bit off.

One of the main problems I felt watching scenes that involved either a lot of movement was that in HFR, it felt as though you were watching the movie on fast forward. This was really problematic at the start of the movie, where there is lots of bustling action. Even minor things, like Bilbo cleaning up his house, felt as though they were happening too fast to be at normal speed.

Also problematic was the very look of the film itself. At many times it looked as though you were watching either a BBC sci-fi show from the 80's or the cut-scene in a video game. I suppose that isn't too surprising, since video games, and things shot on video (such as soap operas, 80's era BBC sci-fi shows, and essentially anything broadcast live) are shown at a higher frame rate than things shot on film. The thing is, it's hard not to associate the look of video with the types of things generally shot on video. Even though this movie has a massive budget, at times the HFR made it look like a British made for TV movie.

When it came to CGI heavy scenes, that's where it really felt like a video game. In one particular scene, an orc has a monologue while CGI rendered fire burns in the background. I'm sure it would have looked completely convincing had I seen it in a regular 24 fps showing, but at 48 fps, I felt like I should be picking up a controller because at any moment it would be time to start mashing buttons.

I'm willing to admit that part of the problem may not be that there's anything wrong with the HFR, and it's just that viewers tend to associate things shot at high frame rates with forms of entertainment that are inferior to movies. On the other hand, there's no getting around the fact that things shot in HFR look as though they are being fast forwarded, and I think part of that may be due to the fact that HFR reduces the amount of motion blur that occurs, which may be key to tricking your eye that what you're seeing is at normal speed.

I definitely understand the interest in showing movies in HFR, since there are times when watching movies filmed normally that I've been aware of their inferior quality. For example, next time you watch a movie in the cinema, pay attention whenever the camera pans across a scene. You'll notice that in those moments, the image gets blurry as hell. All of the detail gets completely washed out. In The Hobbit, in scenes where the camera panned, it still maintained sharp levels of detail.

I think it was a daring move on behalf of Peter Jackson to not only show the movie in HFR, a controversial new format, but to show it in HFR on top of showing it in 3D, itself a controversial format. Now, many of my friends have heard me voice my complaints about most 3D movies, but with The Hobbit, I think that the HFR greatly added to the 3D effect. I never felt the sort of eye strain I usually endure when watching a 3D movie. It was actually surprisingly comfortable to watch in 3D, aside from the fact that I had to wear glasses on top of my glasses. That's good, because The Hobbit clocks in at almost 3 hours long.

There were some moments where the 3D combined with HFR actually made the movie feel genuinely life-like. In some shots I actually felt as though the actors were standing right in front of me. At other times, it felt as if I was watching some absurdly immersive stage version of The Hobbit, and that the actors were on a stage, just a few feet away. It also helped that Peter Jackson seemed to know a thing or two about how to direct a movie in 3D, and the shots he chose had a very natural feel to them, as opposed to the eyeball gouging feel of Transformers: Dark of the Moon when seen in 3D.

This new HFR format is going to take lots of getting used to, and I suspect that we're going to see more of it in the future. I'd definitely be interested to see a 2D movie shown in HFR, preferably one without lots of CGI effects. Then, I feel, it will be easier to evaluate the format on its own merits. It's a bit hard to do now, because I think it's possible that CGI artists may have some work to do to catch up to the new format.

So, if you're a die hard film buff, I'd say its worth checking out The Hobbit in HFR, just to see what the next big thing in filmmaking looks like. If you're a more conventional filmgoer, I'd recommend seing a non-HFR showing, just so you don't get distracted by the radically different look of HFR. I myself plan to re-watch The Hobbit in a 2D non-HFR showing, so that I can focus more on the actual story, and not the look of the movie.

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