Fantasy, More Real Than Real: THE HOBBIT, HFR And The Future Of Movies

Jim Tudor, Contributor
Earlier this year, I found myself at a friend of a friend's apartment watching Tod Browning's 1932 masterpiece Freaks through the "motion smoothing" filter on his HD TV.  For me, the resulting video-like image of what should be the opposite (which is to say, an absorbing film image - not so much sharp and immediate but lush and rich) robbed Freaks of its intended "filmic-ness", stripping it of the subtle texture and patina that is so accepted as what cinema ought to feel like.  As such filtering is force-fed upon an uneducated populace (uneducated not just about new HD TV technology, but about film language and cinematic nuance itself).
The Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson has apparently decided, perhaps in deference to those who impart such HD TV manufacturing defaults that if he can't beat 'em as a filmmaker, he'll join 'em.  Consequently, he's gone to newfound pains to shoot and present (in mercifully limited selected theaters) his return to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a potentially game-changing (game-ruining?) double frame rate.  The result, coupled with Jackson's accomplished use of 3D, has been hailed by some as a revelation, "like seeing a movie for the first time as though the glass has been removed from the window frame".  Others have decried it as a distractingly hyper-real live video aesthetic that at best "just takes some getting used to", and maybe works in certain moments more so than others.  What not many seem to be doing is calling out this high frame rate (HFR) technology for what it is: ultimately reductive to the filmmaking art form, and grotesquely anti-cinema.

HobbitAlexRevHFR2012DecFullph3-300x188.jpgIn regards to the prequel film The Hobbit, (read Jason Gorber's in-depth review here. My quick take?  Being a Tolkien novice but a great appreciator of Jackson's previous Middle Earth trilogy, this film, while generally satisfying, plays as an unnecessarily inflated thematic redo of The Fellowship of the Ring.) it must be stated that HFR detracts considerably from the established fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings - a place widely known and loved by filmgoers and Tolkien enthusiasts alike.  For many, The Hobbit represents a chance to return to that place.  Those opting for Jackson's preferred HFR viewing will be deprived that desired familiarity, perhaps not fully understanding exactly why it looks but doesn't feel the same as a decade ago.  For film devotees, the monstrosity of HFR creates a conundrum, as a director's preferred version of his/her work typically trumps any meddled-with versions of their film as the go-to version.  (The Hobbit is available theatrically at the conventional 24 frames per second on far more screens, although I have yet to have a chance to experience it that way.)

Hobbit-009782-300x200.jpgWithout the softening grain and lushness of the 24 frame-per-second image (24 fps being the photographic equation historically tethered to 35mm film exhibition, as well as its high resolution film-like video supplanter in recent years) the window of the screen itself becomes strangely non-existent, weirdly inconsequential.  When Jackson comments "people under twenty will get it," what he's getting at is the you-are-there perception he's forcing, is in actuality a form of (false) interactivity.  Jackson wants to "take audiences there" more readily and effortlessly than ever before.  But my question is this: Just how much of audiences' mental absorption in regard to a conventional well-made film is generally due to technology beyond the filmmaking basics, and how much is good old competent cinematic storytelling?  Were the many, many rabid fans of Jackson's 24 fps LOTR trilogy any less transported, any less enthralled by his expert craftsmanship and tale telling than they are with The Hobbit at 48 fps?

Interactive_vision_lets_play_school-167x300.jpgOf course not.  In fact, HFR is even more detrimental to The Hobbit, as it reveals established environs and even characters as complete and utter artifice. Sir Ian McKellan, so commanding as Gandalf the Grey? In HFR, he's now a great actor in an obvious costume.  The majestic Elven kingdom of Lothlorien?  Now merely the best fantasy set money can buy.  Or worse - in the extreme wide shots, it's a digital rendering, an obvious matte painting for a new generation.  It's like the difference between processing a costume on a character as part of a fully formed unquestioned vision (via great storytelling, and, as it turns out, the invisible barrier of filmic patina) versus seeing it on display in real life as part of a high-end museum exhibit, or worn by a devoted cos-player.  It's no longer part of a world so wonderfully other than our own; now our world has spilled into the window.  (But not really.)

Anyone who's set foot into a retail toy aisle knows that children's playthings have slowly become more interactive, busier, and less imaginative, less open-ended.  It's strange that although the youth-appeal mentality behind HFR and increasingly interactive children's toys is the same, even as the end result is essentially opposite; each is ultimately wholly anti-progress and detrimental.  This is the thing:  Film should not be "interactive".  HFR, although merely feigning actual manipulation-based interactivity (by presenting the appearance of an interactive cutting edge HD video game) keeps viewers traditionally rooted as viewers, the underlying mentality seems to be that Jackson is offering up something as a perceived step beyond that.

When one opts to experience a film, it should be a decision to turn oneself over to a filmmaker's vision.  (This is the inherent reason for the failure of such gawdy gimmickry as the choose-your-own-adventure cinematic blunder Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie [1995], and other forgotten desperate movie experiments over the years.)  Children's toys ought to be immersive; ideally the less guided, the better.  And yet, it's been said that filmmakers are nothing if not grown kids at heart, making their livings by playing with filmmaking toys.  With Peter Jackson (a former schlock-slinger of the Ackerman generation, boyishly snickering throughout his varied career) and his HFR initiative, these mentalities collide in the worst and all around dis-servicing of ways.

life-of-pi-image03-300x210.jpgIs it true that we are less content to just watch a story any more?  Now do we really need to artificially "be there" with the characters?" For years, popular movies have faced increasing accusations of forsaking cinematic maturity in favor of pandering to children and childhood-level attention spans. In my lifetime, this came first with the rise and domination of the blockbuster over the auteur driven Hollywood of the early 1970s.  In more recent years, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis have managed to legitimize such technical tools as 3D and motion capture animation, both previously dismissed as juvenile gimmicks. Despite a general critical disgruntlement with these and other recent shifts enabled by the digital filmmaking revolution, they were never toxic in and of themselves.

HFR is different.  While I'll begrudgingly allow for a "never say never" caveat in that HFR may be the right tool for precisely the right movie (which is exactly the case with 3D and mo-cap, both of which have proven artistically viable (Life of Pi and Hugo in 3D, Peter Jackson's version of Gollum or Cameron's Na'vi people in Avatar), the bottom line that is being so shockingly missed is that it is inherently reductive to cinema, dragging it downward towards the less developed sensibilities of television (many observations about the look of the HFR Hobbit have used terms such as "CGI Masterpiece Theater") and video games.

HDTV1-300x147.jpgNow, those may be fightin' words to some, although the point here isn't to knock television and video games.  Those are both admirably evolving mediums that may or may not warrant the rise of motion smoothing settings, or "game modes" that are built into modern HD TVs as defaults.  Sometimes this is stealthily the case - when I bought our HD TV, I had to frantically dig deep into my TV's menu to discover and shut off this feature, lest my DVDs and blu-rays all be violently converted to a sharp, glaring rudimentary video-like aesthetic.  Perhaps the true horror here is that so, so many people are so intensely ignorant of such vital film art tropes as cinematography and grain quality that as they are made to upgrade to new HD TVs, they unknowingly accept the defaulting smoothness converter effect as high definition itself, leading to the terrifying ambivalence in regard to the HFR Hobbit that I've witnessed, even among fellow professional film critics.

Hobbit1-300x169.jpgThe story of The Hobbit centers on one character, Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit quite set in his ways, forced to leave his comfort zone and experience the freakish and deadly world.  His death-defying first-hand experiences are disorientation of the highest order.  Such is the effect of HFR.  As TV and video games ascend their artistic mountains (as they should), it is conceivable that for cinema, this "innovation" may be the bump over the apex, the nudge back down the wrong side of the proverbial mountain.  And a lonely mountain that will become for true film lovers.

For a diametrically opposed viewpoint to his on Jackson's 48fps experiment and the future of high frame rate filmmaking read Jason Gorber's piece here.

This piece was originally published at Jim Tudor's other online home, ZekeFilm.com
Around the Internet:
  • Tina Runson

    Ok.. Who has seen HFR WITHOUT the 3D glasses? The 3D glasses are what is messing up the movie. They change the saturation, the edge bleed, the glasses company screwed up the movie. Not the HFR cameras that Jackson used.!!!!

  • Bradley Bruce Paisley

    Those of you who are now nay-saying intelligence and artistic elevation should go to HFR movies with their smarter friends but just stretch a woman's stocking over your head and watch the same movie as your friends at the same time. Then you can both enjoy the same movie at the same time. A Special Note To Dumb People: you must first remove the woman from the stocking before you stretch it over your head.

  • Bradley Bruce Paisley

    Stupid people don't like HFR because it has more detail than their simian minds can handle. Only smart people like HFR because they can appreciate and absorb the extra detail. Dumb people want the old fuzzy movies so they can get the general idea of what is going on and see the explosions and shiney things but they do not want to think more than that. Smart people want to drink in all of the detail and nuance of the stunning micro elements and feel every visual mnemonic trigger. Dumb people are not even bothering to Google "mnemonic" right now because they can't even pronounce it.

  • Hey, Jim, nice to see a differing point of view up on the site, I'm all for that!

    It remains for me a false analogy, the artificial motion "smearing" that goes on with television post-processing (ie., "motion plus") compared to HFR. I can completely accept arguments against the format, but to equate at all with interframe blending, or even vintage broadcast television, misses the mark entirely for me. I get that it's an easy shortcut, but it's inaccurate both in terms of the actual look of the presentation, and the underlying process that's going on.

    This HFR cinema stuff is new, and I think quite shocking (to the point of distraction) on first viewing, as I noted in my article (http://twitchfilm.com/2012/12/... ). I also think it's entirely beneficial to the 3D presentation, and frankly many of the observations made about the film have far more to do with a switch to shoot digitally rather than simply the switch from 24fps.

    I do encourage, even those that didn't abide the film in its preferred presentation, to give it another shot while still in theatres. I've now seen it a third time, and it really is something that's acclimated to - not in a "getting used to something bad" sort of way, but in actual visual acuity of the imagery. It's nice with this film you have a choice from a myriad of formats, but given that many of us will see this film multiple times (it's a Winter blockbuster, it's what one does, no?) I encourage at least a couple of those times to be seen with a good HFR setup.

  • Mattavious

    When I first bought my new Samsung Plasma tv and stuck it up on my wall, I did so with much pride. I had worked and saved my money and was rewarded for my sacrifices. Then I popped Ip Man into my BR player and my heart sank into my stomach. Surely something was amiss. It looked like a tv soap opera on my new HD Tv. Then I learned about motion judder and knew it must be disabled at once! But my model of tv doesn't let you turn it off! I was ready to chuck it out the window but instead learned I could hack into the tv to turn it into one model higher and was then able to turn it off. My tv and my window were spared. Sometimes new technology is excellent and sometimes we need to see that we are taking a HUGE step backward.

  • John

    As i said in another article , sorry if its offensive but...it looks like Shit. Complete and Utter Shit. They messed up the exposures. 2% looks nice , the other 98% looks as bad as it gets.

  • $79900

    none of these arguments make any bit of difference once you actually see the Hobbit in HFR. it is not 24fps ---- its better. its amazing. its not tv or video games or a play, although it has flavors of them, its something new, and its awesome.

    HFR would imho greatly improve dramatic films, to me it really brings out the performance of the actors, being able to watch their faces in such detail. It really reminds me of some of the thrill of watching a play. But like I said, its not anything we've had before. It's a new type of film and it is good.

  • RawBeard

    First up I am a massive fan of film, I will always choose model work and prosthetics over CGI, I have never been a fan of 3D, also in reference to the article I am over over the age of 20 (35) and I am British (due to other comments I've read elsewhere about it looking like a BBC Drama).

    Now I watched the Hobbit in 3D and at 48fps, and after a minute or two of adjusting, the film worked for me. The clarity was ridiculous and the world felt immersive, but not once did it distract me from the film... it enhanced it. Most of the CGI was astounding, Gollum in particular looked almost real (his eyes just gave it away), The White Orc varied in quality and I admit the scene with Radagast The Brown racing across the moors looked ropey especially in the close up scenes. But I had a blast with this film, loved HFR and will be seeing the rest of the Hobbit films in this format. Not once did it look like a BBC Drama, a couple scenes felt like I was watching it live, sat on a nearby rock/wall. The only problems I had with costumes was Saruman's Beard, and the brim of Gandalf's hat.

    I've said this before but if a film HAS to be in 3D (and they don't) but if it HAS to, then it also HAS to be in 48fps. Standard 3D is beyond dead to me, and I hope films like the next Tintin, and Avatar sequels use this format.

  • reza karkouti

    I just watched The Hobbit in HFR 3D. I was really excited to experience HFR, but it was a total disaster and disappointment. We go to the movies to forget everything real and immerse ourselves into a imaginary world. With HFR we can not escape reality, but in fact now we are made to watch reality on a gigantic screen. Middle earth felt more real/fake than the world I experience every day.

    I can only imagine that HFR would world perfectly for the movie "The Truman Show", because the real world was actually fake.

    These new age directors are going to ruin movies for the rest of us. Damn Dictators of hollywood.

  • I think the HFR did this film a disservice. The 48fps makes everything look undercranked...it had the effect of watching a silent movie. Motion was hectic and jerky. Irrespective of the technology, Jackson has pretty much lost his touch as a storyteller with both this and the LOTR films. Everything is done in service to the technology, and very little in terms of creating a solid film. It's all spectacle, all the time. Jackson has Lucas syndrome...he's become another fat bearded man in a closet, wanking over his gear. And we're all losers because of it. The film is 3 hours long, with two more to follow. I was bored shitless at the 2 hour mark, and had to keep asking myself what the characters were even doing. Every time the plot lags, boom, it's an Orc chase movie. This is not to take away the fact that the film has excellent moments (the Goblin King sequence, Gollum, the final Orc chase). But the entire film is a massive drag when taken as a whole.

  • Guest

    We are all Todd Brown's Freaks

  • FreeJack

    Such a joke to suggest that I cannot be both a film lover and embrace a new technology, at once...even worse to suggest that by pushing technological boundaries, Jackson somehow betrays his craft. Both are untrue. We have become so connected to 24fps in film that anything else is jarring...but what were critics and filmgoers saying when the first "talkies" emerged? Or color? Or widescreen formats? It took a period of adjustment, every time. If 3D is what audiences really do want, HFR is the best way to achieve it. If, however, it is just another fad (audiences are not voting against it at the box office) then HFR will disappear. I am betting James Cameron uses it on the next Avatar movie, personally.

  • Earp

    Duh! Game mode switches OFF motion smoothing and other things, to reduce picture latency. This author is showing his ignorance here. I bet he said similar things about 3D when it was first out. The last line says it all: 'true film lovers'. Talk about pretentious! I bet he is also an 'audiophile' with $1000+ cables...

  • Jim Tudor

    Why, of all the things I said, "true film lovers" so offensive??
    Strictly speaking, there's no true film used in THE HOBBIT anyhow. How about "traditional film lovers"? Is that less pretentious? If I could afford $1000 cables, I would still have the very-much non $1000 cables I currently use. I'm no booster of 3D (3D is NOT the problem here!), although it has certainly benefited certain films, such as LIFE OF PI, HUGO, and even TRON: LEGACY and PROMETHEUS. Perhaps I'm a bit ignorant about "game mode", except that's what the guy who I watched FREAKS with said his TV was set to. I'm no gamer. Too many movies to watch.

  • Mr. Cavin

    I think it's because the word "film" can mean both a format and movies in general. People who are reacting with annoyance seem to feel like you are saying "people who understand movies will probably agree with me," which would be pretty pretentious. People like me accepted the sentence to mean "people who prefer the aesthetic of film will probably agree with me." I fall into the latter category; and while I haven't seen the movie yet, I suspect I would agree with you (though I do see the benefit of eliminating the creepy stuttering blur that happens during certain lateral camera movements).

  • HEY! I'm an obsessive audiophile - and da, my cables are insanely expensive. But I love the technology think it looks great and see no 'purity' issues.
    And I totally agree with you about this bizarre(especially for a Twitch front page) article of outright ignorance and dishonest cherry-picking of Jackson's quotes and explanations regarding HFR.

  • Why is it on the front page? Because that's where all articles go when freshly published. Why is it being published at all (if you want to continue your argument)? Because we really don't believe there is any one definitive view on these things - which are really matters of taste - and if we have diverging views within our writers then we represent both sides. Jason Gorber's piece - linked at the bottom of this one - presents a radically opposed view on the issue but they fact Jason has his opinion makes Jim no less entitled to his own, and vice versa.

  • bleh

    the preference of 48 or 24 fps is probably as simple as the preference between an impressionistic vs naturalistic (or realistic) sensibility. either can be terrible if not used properly, and the expression of the film can be affected either way according what the movie is trying to represent. i havent seen "hobbit" yet but i can understand how maybe a hyperreal quality of 48 fps may take the viewer out of the fantasy. but then again, this is supposed to be a high tech, high budget 3D film making full use of whatever film technologies are available today. it would be silly for instance, to film a apatow type comedy in 48 fps as the focus is on the human element. but for "hobbit", or a futuristic sci-fi? maybe its appropriate. but not necessary.

  • Danathar

    HFR works, but the special effects when mixed with live action are not there yet. Until they do, I'd like to see a dynamic variable frame rate system. Scenes where people are talking or slow scenes DO look better in HFR. The actors can deliver more information as facial gestures and body language are more compelling at the higher frame rate.

    The computer generated stuff though....HFR shows illuminates their deficiencies, especially when mixed with live action.

    I can see HFR being used for certain types of content until the rest of the production process catches up

  • hutch

    Yeah, the variable frame rate cameras would be ideal if the HFR does make swooping and action better looking (haven't seen it yet) and easier to gage what's happening. But, boo, to HFR on close ups and mid shots. I can see the prosethics and glue holding on mustaches (That new Donnie Yen movie where he plays General Kwan.)

  • Bad prosthetics became visible as son as decent HD cameras started being used - nothing to do with 48fps.

    I saw The Hobbit last night, and as my suspicions confirmed, all the imperfections I've read about are exactly the same imperfections exposed via the use of 4k HD cameras. You offer a good example by pointing out a film that was not shot in HFR.

    The critics who have wield this critique are merely showing that they never looked all that closely at 24fps HD.

    And yeah the author of this piece shows how very little he knows about this technology. Comparing it to smoothing knobs on HD TVs is just bizarre - I'm really surprised Twitch would front page such a silly article. Sure there are critiques to be made, but most I've seen have been a combination of attacking PJ, showing their utter ignorance of the technology, and exposing how lazy they have been at analyzing previous digital technology.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    Why would 4k HD cameras matter in terms of imperfections, isn't 35mm already roughly a 4k image as is? I could see that mattering more on TV shows than on hollywood productions.

  • 35mm film resolution has been shown to exceed 4K resolutions, however recording onto celluloid renders a more subtle focal falloff as it's a three dimensional medium, as opposed to the flat grid structure of a digital sensor. While film retains the detail without the hard sharpness, the flat square pixels of a digital sensor lead to unpleasant sharpening, i.e. pimples, makeup, and wig work.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Fantastic comment.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    Thanks for the detailed explanation, one of the better comments I've read on this site in a while.

  • hutch

    And I wager that previous HD cameras exposed bad prosthetics but HFR will expose nearly all prosthetics.

  • hutch

    This is true but I don't see how HFR wouldn't exacerbate the problem.

  • Jim Tudor

    Thanks, folks, for reading and taking the time to comment. I know my
    extreme response to HFR seems to be in the minority, but I retract
    nothing. I don't understand why lack of understanding about the nuts
    and bolts of this technology negates my reaction to seeing THE HOBBIT at
    48 fps. I do happen to know that a film shot at 48 fps and a blu-ray
    disc filtered through a smoothness converter are two different things.
    But my point is, they FEEL the same to me, or at least the gaudy, ugly
    video effect is close enough that it does warrant the comparison. And
    for the record, I've been a HUGE fan of most of Peter Jackson's work.
    (I've been contributing to Twitch long enough that you can probably go dig up my 2005 Best of the Year list, and find his KING KONG very highly ranked. That also was not a popular opinion, but I stick that as well.) When I talk about him snickering boyishly, I mean that in a fun and
    wickedly positive way. (Although I see how that intent could get lost
    considering the rest of this piece.)

  • fpjackson@jack.com

    I liked your article, and think in regards to the Hobbit, you're spot on. Now, in regards to the future of film and the 48fps medium, I feel there is room for improvement, and they may overcome the problems you've outlined.

    What I don't understand though, is people screaming about how if you don't like the 48fps you're an idiot, or whatever other nonsense. I'm not sure how these people view reality, but The Hobbit in 48fps looked like crap. The sets and costumes weren't up to par, and they had no experience lighting a movie for the high framerate. 48fps makes the swap between practical effects and cg look absurd (especially when done in the same scene). 48fps may be the future, may be an amazing tool, but in this specific case (the only case so far...) it didn't improve the movie.

  • hutch

    Interesting. I love Peter Jackson-except King Kong which I think sucked. ha. Anyway, I agree with you some of this can look ugly but I don't think Peter Jackson loves entertaining us and is not a jerk trying to cram the new hotness down our throats...James Cameron, however is a different story...

  • hutch

    *I do think

  • Every time the camera moves in 24fps the image stutters, blurring. In 48fps all Jackson's swooping camera shots look SO MUCH BETTER. The format definitely has it's growing pains -- there are a few shots that look bad -- but in time they'll learn to correct those mistakes. (Also, equating the format to that fake hrf on your TV makes you look like you have no idea what you're talking about.)

  • hutch

    I do agree with you in being alarmed at newer generations accepting the horrid look of Auto-motion as the standard. I know people who work in the business that watch television with that awful thing on because they shrug and say "I don't know how to turn it off." Really? That's absurd.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Really. I can't remember the last time I walked into a sports bar that didn't have their TVs set to the wrong aspect ratio. A whole new generation of sports fans are being habituated to short / wide basketball players.

  • hutch

    I would be more appreciative of these HFR criticisms if they didn't seem like such personal jabs at Peter Jackson himself. Misguided or not I'm pretty sure his intent is to bring something new and exciting to the movies. All these critics make seem as if he is some horrible mastermind out to ruin movies. The fact that the Hobbit is offered in any format of the audiences' choosing is already case in point that he has audience consideration in mind (and, yes I think it's audience consideration and not just the fact that most cinemas haven't adopted the format yet.)

    Overall I will say the conumdrum for HFR is that the movies that would benefit from it most are the ones with the most make-up, GC, and costumes (which all get exposed as such in HFR), whereas regular movies like corny-ass rom-coms wouldn't need the format at all (unless you want to see botox injection sites on actors' faces).

    I can live without HFR, but I am excited at trying it out. And who is to say that further down the road filmmakers won't find a way of covering up the warts and fakeness that HFR exposes now?

    Chill out on the snobbery and personal attacks on Peter Jackson. Cut him some slack and, god forbid, support the guy who has spent so much of his life simply trying to entertain us.

  • Sorry, as a musician I can feel the lag induced by 24 frames a second. I expect at most a 10ms auditory response from electronic instruments, I should expect no less from images and sound sync on the screen. Latency of frames in 24 fps is 40ms, latency of 48 fps is 20ms and latency of 60fps is 16ms. Worlds apart in terms of associating visuals with the audio.

    If you're going to complain about film quality, complain about the excessive use for motion blur and the lack poor digital encoding of said motion blur. Higher FPS is beautiful and far more natural.

  • gwwwww

    This is absolutely not true; there is no "lag" induced by 24fps. I'm a musician as well as an animator; latency in audio/video technology has to do with the time from triggering to processing to actual output. I don't know where you got your numbers but the "latency" of any movie whether 24 or 48fps can be controlled and adjusted at each theater if it is noticeable. More than likely, it's right on.

  • "True film lovers".
    I could point out more conceit and dishonesty, but that's really all one needs to know about the quality of this laughable piece of try-hard activism.

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