There was a time when buying a ticket was a thoughtless process: show up to the box office (or in the 21st century, head to the web page to buy in advance), hand over your cash, enjoy two hours of entertainment. Thanks to the evolution of technology, the process has become a tad more complicated. Now there are variations of any given movie. Take next week's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — if you haven't bought tickets in advance, you're in for some decision making. Do you see plain old The Hobbit? Or maybe the stereoscopic The Hobbit 3D? Perhaps the IMAX version? Wait — what is The Hobbit 3D in HFR?!
The latter option is the latest innovation to the multiplex landscape, introduced for the first time by director Peter Jackson for his fantasy epic. Abbreviated from "High Frame Rate," HFR doubles the frame count of a film from the standard 24 frames per second (how the movies you watch are typically shot and projected) to 48 frames per second. By choosing to shoot An Unexpected Journey in 48 FPS, Jackson hoped to create crisper 3D, brighter colors, and a new level of realism never before seen on the big screen.
When The Hobbit trilogy began shooting in 2011, Jackson explained his plans for the 48 FPS technology:
"The result looks like normal speed, but the image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness. Looking at 24 frames every second may seem ok — and we've all seen thousands of films like this over the last 90 years — but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or 'strobe.'"
Along with appearing more lifelike, Jackson also explains that 48 FPS would detract from the physical strain often incurred by 3D. He says that his crew would, "often sit through two hours worth of footage without getting any eye strain" and that continued exposure to the technology made other film experience "primitive." Avatar director James Cameron has also been a strong supporter of Jackson's in his quest to realize the 48 FPS Hobbit, backing up the director by suggesting that his own films would shoot in the higher frame rate format. The future, as the major players make clear, could be 48 FPS.
But 48 FPS has sparked controversy, early reactions to the format have been mixed, many noting that it distracts from The Hobbit's story and action. The film will be projected in "HFR" when it arrives Dec. 14 and audiences will get a chance to see if the next generation of cinematography lives up to the hype. Will you take the plunge? After watching the film and enjoying it quite a bit, here's what I thought of the new technology:
The Adjustment Period
If you're daring enough to take a chance on The Hobbit 3D in HFR, the differences between run-of-the-mill 24 FPS and 48 FPS will be immediately apparent. The film opens with an thrilling attack on the Dwarven people by the big bad Smaug the Dragon and it's every bit as grand and fast-paced as one demands from Jackson's Tolkien adaptations. Although there wasn't the traditional blur caused by the movement of a film camera, the 48 FPS combined with the 3D caused a separation between the actors and the landscapes behind them. Every detail felt more tangible, but in the way a soap opera or football game looks more "real" than a big screen movie. Added was the illusion of fast motion — in one early scene, Bilbo prepares his journal while Frodo mulls about behind him. The picture was like a Benny Hill sketch played, but the audio was perfectly in sync. The weird effect quickly dissipates, suggesting that a brain trained to watch 24 FPS films may require torque to adjust to seamless 48 FPS.
But Jackson suggested in his original announcement, 48 FPS does create a better stereoscopic experience. The 3D in Hobbit isn't as noticeable as something like Life of Pi, but it's still immersive and never painful.
Realistic Fantasy and Too Realistic Fantasy
48 FPS is an actor's friend. It's easy to envision a dialogue-driven drama that would benefit from the technology, greater intimacy obtained by the movie feeling more like live theater (with the added benefit of camera angles). In An Unexpected Journey, back-and-forths between Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarven companions are beyond sharp and, even with 3D, which generally darkens animate, feel livelier than anything else seen on screen in 2012. As with the big battle sequence mentioned before, scenes with more movement have a staged feeling and it's easy to be snapped back to the reality of watching a movie rather than being fully immersed in the world of Middle Earth.
The biggest problem for 48 FPS may not actually be the camera effect, but the inability for the constructed sets to look real enough. Outdoors, the faultiness of 48 FPS is much less noticeable, Jackson's digital photography looking documentary-like because there isn't an element to ring false. With interiors like Bilblo's Hobbiton home or the crystalline Rivendell, the suspension of disbelief is broken. The picture quality is pristine, but 100 years of a standard frame rate doesn't make it any less like I, Claudius or old Doctor Who.
CG Characters Like You've Never Seen Before
Even with all the possible downsides against 48 FPS (possible, because like 3D, tolerance for the effect is closely tied your own eyes and mind), the enhanced projection does wonders for the creations of Jackson and his special effects team WETA. Gollum was already an impressive feat when he debuted in the original trilogy. Here, he looks as human as Bilbo — and it's not just a decade's worth of CG improvements. As it further details the human actors, 48 FPS strips the entirely CG characters of motion blur and soft edges. Skin looks like skin, the eyes as deep as any human counterpart. 48 FPS demands twice as many frames of special effects than a normal 24 FPS feature. It shows.
48 FPS is a true cinematic experiment conducted on one of the biggest movies of 2012. Jackson is all in. Will you give it a chance?
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]