Monday, December 17, 2012

Why the Hobbit is the Perfect Movie to See in 48FPS

I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this weekend.

Of all the controversy over this new franchise, second only to its being cut into three separate films, is that it the first major film to be shot in 3D at 48fps. Most of the noise is from detractors, whose complaints can all be summed up as this: it somehow feels less cinematic. It takes you out of the film, makes you more aware of it's nature.

Over the last decade we've experienced similar reactions to new film technology. Ten years ago Star Wars Episode II was the first major motion film shot in Digital. The rise of 3D technology peaked with Avatar, ensuring its place in cinema. Allow me to argue that these particular films, and now The Hobbit, are the best venues to introduce these technologies.

I saw the film in 3D at 48fps, rather than in 2D 48fps, so I cannot attest to that format. The viewing experience may be very different, and the "soap opera effect" may be very hard to overcome indeed.

What I can tell you is this: the first thing about 48fps you notice is that you notice it. There is definitely a learning curve to seeing it in the first minutes of the film. People have described it as seeming to be in fast motion even when things are moving at normal speed. This is very noticeable in the first shots of the film: Bilbo walking about his home, close ups of his hands, and overhead tracking shots of fantastic vistas. If you look closely nothing is sped up, but the movement is almost dizzying, as if you were fast-forwarding a DVD.

This is simple to explain: at 24fps there is half as many frames as 48fps, and each frame, depending on shutter speed, takes in an image for nearly twice as long. Thus fast moving objects will be seen in more than one position in-frame, and you get motion blur. Motion blur has become established as a comforting feature in films to the point that movies that need not have it, such as CG animations that can capture any object in it's exact position perfectly, nonetheless use it to convey speed. Look at Ray Harryhausen's motion capture animated skeletons in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: they swing their swords with perfect clarity, each position of the limbs having been shot completely still and moved incrementally for each shot. The effect looks primitive and herky-jerky today.

So, in The Hobbit, when Bilbo reaches into a chest to pull out a parchment, each frame picks up a more accurate position of the hand and shows it with much less motion blur. In effect this makes it look as if the hand was filmed moving in slow motion, and then the motion was sped up with undercranking. This is why people insist the action looks fast-paced when if you were to see it in a traditional, 24fps version, it should clearly be normal.

Now, I cannot attest to the 2D version of the film, but in my experience in 3D, this sensation diminishes as the film runs. I'd say after no more than 15 minutes, my brain accepted what it was seeing.

There is one other side effect besides the "fast-forward syndrome," and that is the clarity of the frame picks up tons of detail on the settings and props. I've seen a film set up close, and noted how fake the props and construction looked. Clearly, in a production where thousands of props are created, the prop makers have to skimp on some details. 24fps filming is very forgiving, though, and if done well enough you will never notice.

In The Hobbit, though, you can clearly see the seam in Gandalf's hat. Yes, Ian McKellen is wearing contacts. And some sets come in so clearly that rather than accepting it fully as the real thing I had the sensation that I was standing in a recreation of the scene at an amusement park. Such things can take you out of a film. Thankfully, the crew on this film were well aware of the situation, and extra efforts were taken to ensure each prop was built and each prosthetic was applied to the highest quality, so that nothing shouts "FAKE!"

So now that I've defended the "demerits" of 48fps, let me get to the benefits. First of all, the frame rate makes the 3D way, way better. You can easily compare it to the trailers that precede the movie, all at a normal frame rate. Even the animated movies, created in a completely digital 3D space, betray the faults of 3D up until now. They're dim. Fast moving things kind of flicker. The colors suffer. The effect is conspicuous.

Now, at 48fps, depth and form are much more defined. Close-ups of characters faces can be studiously observed. The picture is much brighter, and the colors are vivid. I found that I could follow fast movement without getting a headache. And I noticed how gorgeously the rack focus worked to change the depth of field.

All in all, the increased frame rate vastly improves the appearance of the 3D, and nullifies many of the detractors' complaints about the format. I found that, as I have previously experienced, I started to not notice the 3D consciously, and sometimes had to look for it to make sure that, yes, I am still watching something in 3D. It's just that it was much more natural and easy to this time around.

Before seeing the film, and deciding which of the five, count them, FIVE different formats to see it in, I was wary of the warnings that I had heard about, afraid that the viewing experience could ruin the movie I was going to see. On the other hand, I had seen the lukewarm reviews, and my expectations weren't stratospheric, so I decided to roll the dice. It was a decision well worth it. Not only did I enjoy the format, I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and will now think twice before seeing another 3D film at 24fps.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out the obvious: our initial aversion to this new technology is purely based on our conditioning to see films at the arbitrary frame rate of 24fps. Like scratches in a record, we've learned to appreciate the defects of the format as pure and comforting. It doesn't matter if the technology is better to us, if it somehow feels less magical. Of course, these are fallacious reasons. Simply put, if this was the format you were accustomed to all your life, it might be very difficult to put up with the old format.

 It is a bit sad, really, to think that a hundred-plus years of cinema history would be fated to be seen as quaint by some future standard. But it's not enough of a reason to embrace the future. Supposedly after 60fps the eye cannot detect a difference, and I've heard Avatar II will be shot at that frame rate. That is yet to be seen, but that film, just like this one, would be great candidates to try the format with. After all, these are adventure stories, which we enjoy so much to hear. It would be hypocritical not to embrace that spirit.

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