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

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
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 Twitch'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 Meliés 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.

Around the Internet:
  • Ozark Prophet

    I was a HUGE fan of the first one. Amazing how well it was shot and how good it looked. I said it was some of the best film work around.. but I just saw this one in HFR 3d, and the entire film seemed very muddy.
    Almost like judge dredds undies described below
    Sort of like there was very little color contrast and many scenes were underwhelming in comparison to the first. I think I'll skip the theatres on the third one's release.

  • judge dredds dirty undies

    Maybe it was the cinema i went to but I saw this in HFR 3D on Wednesday and it was horrible. Not so much because of the 'television' look, i found that a little jaring but got somewhat used to it. No, the problem was the image was so dull. It was like watching a film with sunglasses on and hugely detracted from the film. Again, this may have been something to do with the cinema, I can not fanthom how anyone could regard HFR positively if this was the experience everyone else is getting.

  • Yeah, as Todd said, there's a real issue with poor projection being the culprit in most cases. One advantage of digital Imax projection is their use of twin projectors for higher output, but they use linear polarization, meaning you have to keep your head straight or the image will blur. Plus, most of thr IMAX/LieMAX setups arent showing HFR.

    Easy to test the quality of the calibration, just look at the end title credits which are in 2d white text and see how "off" things are. When I saw GRAVITY at my local Atlmos setup there were magenta and cyan bars on either side of any white object. Revolting.

    Yes, it's inescuseable that there ever would be issues, but that's a result in dramatic cuts to projection budgets and the culling of competent people, not something inherent to the format. Get to know your local manager if you can, express your concerns about what you saw and find out if there's anything that can be done. Yeah, it's work, and you're paying for the privilege, but as there's that give a shit consider it Karma for your fellow cinephiles.

    And, yeah, it IS a darker fiom , period, and you ARE wearing sunglasses. However, it should look like it's supposed to, not a compromised, blurry, dark mess...

  • Dimness of image is a common complain of all 3D projection and ultimately it's a projection / theater issue, not one inherent to the films in question. Many theaters either don't calibrate the projectors correctly when switching from a 2D to a 3D screening or choose deliberately not to replace the bulbs as often as they should to keep costs down and as a result the 3D showings are dimmer than they should be. 3D needs to be projected with higher brightness settings to appear correctly.

  • hernan_n

    Contempt for your audience is never good. If Peter Jackson is set on doing his films using HFRs then he should make an effort in filming them in a way that actually suits the format. There are some aspects of HFR that I don't believe are things you just get used to. First of all, those fake, impossible roller coaster cg camera moves only get worse with HFR. Secondly, light the film in a more natural way. It's extremely off putting to feel like the characters are always on a stage.

  • I actually disagree - the "impossible" camera moves (as opposed to the impossible invisible ring?) actually look far better and more organic without the strobing and judder inherent in the 24fps presentation. Even shooting at 48 and downconverting makes things better than the shot-on-film version for these artifacts. You're trading one quirk for another, and the issue is whether it's up to the filmmaker to decide how to show it, or the audience to pick the familiar.

    As for shooting them simultaneously, for the most part that's true, yet there are still loads of pickups, and the actual effect of the lighting is dramatically affected by decisions in post. Still, I think that there's certain a consistent look to the film, one I believe is still quite commensurate with the previous trilogy that was shot on film and garnered many awards for its cinematography.

    There are loads of other elements that differ, especially with regard to the camera movement - PJ mentions on the Blu-Ray commentary for the first film that midway through production they actually dropped modelwork for CGI so that he could finally get the camera to move the way he wanted. Similarly, creatures that were originally done with prosthetics/animatronics were replaced by CGI (Azog replaced within the last few weeks of shooting, with the final shots delivered literally minutes before the NZ premiere).

    Again, just because PJ says it's what he wants doesn't mean you'll like it, or that it can't be criticized. But it's still unquestionable that this is the way this particular artist wants these things presented, and any other presentation is a compromise of that original vision, whatever your own preference. In that sense, it's no difference than "preferring" pan-and-scan (be it 4:3 or to "fill" your 16:9 screen), or to like dubbing over subs, or colourization over black and white.

  • hernan_n

    Good points. A cg camera move that is not possible to do with a
    real camera, can't truly be described as 'organic' can it? Smooth 3d camera moves that don't behave like real cameras may be easier on the eyes at 48 fps, but hurt in conveying any realism. Out of all the movies this past year I feel that Elysium (which was disappointingly mediocre) and Gravity would actually suit 48fps more than the Hobbit. That being said, the big enjoyment that I had with The Hobbit was how amazingly integrated and detailed the 3d creatures all looked.

  • Yeah, here we get into weird things - post Raimi/Sonnenfeld, we've had generations that have made "shakycam" a staple of most genre films (yes, of course there are loads of precursors, but it's nice to arbitrarily give them credit). Still, that's a style, and also doesn't replicate what we see. Our eyes constantly make micro adjustments during even rapid movement, "smoothing" the image far more than any running-with-a-camera can convey. Stick a camera on a gimble and have it sweep over a canyon on a copter, and the image is far more like what you actually see from the cockpit than doing the same without image stabilization.

    Take the same with some of the new moves from the CGI sets (particulary Dol Guldur, or the Goblin's lair) do give you a sense that =you= are on a crazy ride, rather than a camera being on that ride. It's a subtlety, sure, and certainly debatable, but if the intention is to provide you-are-there-, then actually removing artifacts (judder, blur) might actually help.

    Again, these are now aesthetic choices, not necessarily technical. Some like grain, and artificially add it. Tarantino left in needle drops and the pop/crackle of his vinyl collection in DJANGO, Anderson added negative density to the MASTER (see this article: http://twitchfilm.com/2012/09/.... These work because of familiarity, not because of some inherent superiority.

    Again, just because it's new doesn't make it good, or bad, from an aesthetic point of view. It does make it, like anything in cinema, a new tool, one that can be used well or not. It's interesting for me on how PJ is changing his approach from film-to-film, we'll have to wait to see what further refinements will occur 12 months from now during what promises to be more than a few aerial shots of battle and destruction.

  • I 100% agree that a major issue with the look of The Hobbit is down to lighting but the reality is because they shot all three simultaneously they're not able to learn and make adjustments from film to film just because of how it was shot. That stuff is going to remain consistent throughout the entire trilogy.

  • Stuart Muller

    Really enjoyed that Jason. I'm off to see DOS in HFR today, having dreamed through it on the first showing (failed to pace my enthusiasm for the double feature on opening night). I saw it in 2D 24fps a couple days ago found some vague complaints I had from the midnight screening - some heavy-handed dialogue and story-telling - now seemed less abrasive. I can't yet say that DOS is better than AUJ, which seems the general sentiment, but this may because AUJ feels closer to the book than DOS (not that I hold the films to that requirement). At first blush though, it's certainly tighter and taughter, though how much of this is the film versus my adaptation to HFR is difficult to say. I'm also making this judgement having just seen AUJ in HFR and being utterly floored by the visual splendor of the thing. AUJ is a familiar film to me now, but in HFR and on a big screen it felt fresher and more potent than it ever has been.

  • Stuart Muller

    Found a big difference in the quality of the HFR today. Today's was a different theatre to the one I saw the double feature in (though both are listed as XD), and I forgot my personal 3D glasses this time. I suspect one or both of these were factors in the darker, blurrier, and sketchier 3D projection I saw today.

    Do you use your own 3D glasses or the freebies at the movies? I now own a sweet pair of Oakley's but I've never had the opportunity to really compare the quality between them and the freebies, but would be interested to hear if anyone else has. Do great 3D glasses make that much difference? If XD projections are pretty uniform in their quality then my experience would seem to imply that glasses make a huge difference.

    So many factors at play.

  • Yeah, I have the Oakley pair... There's a difference, particularly in sharpness, but not one that should make as much of a difference as you saw. Very likely a calibration issue

  • Stuart Muller

    The Hobbit Oakley pair?

  • No, the regular kind, have had them for just over a year. Naturally they don't work with IMAX or Dolby 3D, but they do make for a more comfortable 3hr screenings. I see enough of these that it was more than worth it trying to track a pair down.

    I talked about them here: http://twitchfilm.com/2012/02/..., if you're interested

  • I went with a friend to see the movie in HFR-3D (and with D-box seats, but that's beside the point). Yes, I did need time to adjust. Yes, the smoothness did sometimes look exaggerated. Yes, it did look a bit like a sports broadcast or an old BBC drama. Still, I liked it. The computer-generated sets, effects, and creatures did look more natural and, as you said, better-integrated with the live actors and sets. The overall picture had a nice clarity too (though evidently the second movie is edited differently from the first one, which I didn't see in HFR-3D).

  • ps. I let the D-box slip buy - man, I hate seat transducers. Give me proper flat-to-6hz speakers any time over gimmick seats.

  • The difference was noticeable, but as I said above it's a combination of the tone of the film's photography (darker) and some futzing to take the "digital edge" off.

  • Shayan

    I was immediately smitten with HFR the moment I saw that opening shot of Bilbo walking down his hallway, carrying a candle, in An Unexpected Journey. I agree with you that it is best showcase for these Hobbit movies, and i'm very grateful to Peter Jackson for introducing HFR into mainstream film-making.

  • Kurt

    I may be utterly wrong on this count, but the Mieles special effects shorts, the introduction of a sound track and technicolour and eventually Wide-Screen aspect ratios were immediately welcomed by audiences (lets ignore studio politics and film critics for the moment) as great and interesting ways to view a movie that smoothly transitioned to the norm (again from audience point of view)...I may be wrong, I wasn't personally a part of the conversation in the 1900s, 1920s and 1930s, of course - and certainly the internet mass-conversation of the 2000s and beyond is a quite different discourse in itself. But all those caveats aside, audiences were hungry for special effects, no matter how rudimentary, and they wanted sound and they wanted color, big glorious colour and Wide Screen made them feel like it was more 'significant' than TV.

    The 3D in the 1950s, and again in the 1980s was initially met with enthusiasm, but then it waned as a gimmick in the same way that William Castle goofery was designed not so much to last, but to bolster middling product.

    Modern 3D, with the Polar Express was initially greeted with delight, but a certain portion of the audience (myself included) get severe migraine headaches from the technology, and much like the 1950s and 1980s, audience enthusiasm began to wane...This is the major difference between the 'sound' or 'colour' and Wide Screen analogies. Audience desire for these never waned once they were introduced (albeit the 'pan and scan' and letterbox matting tomfoolery of the heyday of VHS might sully my point in terms of Wide Screen acceptance in the home, but we are talking in the cinema here./)

    Now, it might be the price structure and the economy, those $3 premiums hurt a family outing to movies to see something second tier such as Epic or Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs 2. But I'd argue the roll-out of a multitiered, frankly quite confusing array of technologies (Dolby 3D, IMAX3D, RealD) coupled with the HFR on top and significant cost premiums and other forms of entertainment (social media, videogame consoles, etc.) simply is too much of an energy barrier for technology to be passively 'accepted' when it looks so radically different (at first blush). People are also less patient, and used to customizing their experience, for better or worse, in this century than the last.

    It's very good to have articles espousing the 'brain-acceptance' factor of HFR to smooth-en the transition, which will very much likely be the norm in 10 years or less, but there is no way around the fact that audiences were not immediately smitten with the change and its going to have to be forced upon them.

  • ...audiences want spectacle, and they want "headache free" 3D. HFR helps with that, you're not getting (as much) divergent blur per-eye.

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