Is The Hobbit's high frame rate 3D too real?
Ryan Nakashima explores Peter Jackson's decision to invest in 48FPS, high frame rate 3D on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
One thought struck me as I watched the new Hobbit movie in the latest super-clear format: "The rain looks fake. It's not hitting their faces!"
That is just one consequence of filmmaker Peter Jackson's decision to shoot his epic, three-part Lord of the Rings prequel with a frame rate of 48 images per second, double the 24 that cinemagoers have experienced for the past century.
The higher frame rate is supposed to make fast action scenes look smoother, without strobing or other cinematic flaws. But the image is so crystal clear that it can dispel the illusion of the fantasy world.
Jackson used his own money to pursue the new technology, covering the higher production costs involved with adding special effects to twice as many frames.
The studio also backed the format because it creates something new and different that can only be seen in theatres at a time when movie ticket sales in the US are stagnating. For the time being, the new format isn't compatible with Blu-ray discs, DVDs or internet video. Many people will buy movie tickets just to see what it's like.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three movies based on JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, is playing in many places around the world.
In the screening I attended, the higher frame rate did smooth out the staccato effect common in action-packed movies. I thought some scenes using computer-generated images looked more realistic. The format brought out details that might not be noticeable with just an increase in resolution.
These are benefits for fans of the kind of heart-pumping fight scenes that are peppered throughout the movie. For some people, it is also touted to help ease the eyestrain they experience when watching movies in 3D, though I didn't notice any difference on that front.
Sometimes, though, the images can look too good.
In the rainy scene I mentioned, the intense clarity made it look as if actors with wet hair were moving between carefully placed artificial rain-makers instead of suffering through an actual downpour. So-so acting was more noticeable, and swords that were swung too easily looked like props. Flickering flames and other quickly moving objects sometimes appeared to race along in fast forward, even though that wasn't the intent.
Several people who have seen The Hobbit in "HFR 3D" have concluded that 48 frames per second is not for them, even those who wanted to fall in love with the technology.
"When I actually was watching it, I was trying to convince myself it was great," said Chris Pirrotta, co-founder of the Tolkien fan site, TheOneRing.net, who reviewed the movie under the pseudonym Calisuri.
"Eventually I realised I kept being taken out of the story... The realism of the environment really took me out."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy said the high frame rates appeared to him like "ultra-vivid television video."
The Associated Press' David Germain said the extra detail "brings out the fakery of movies."
Variety's Peter Debruge said the benefits of high frame rates come at "too great a cost," adding that "the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious."
That's not a great reception for a technology that has the potential to change the movie-going experience.
Avatar director James Cameron is among those who are eyeing the format.
Since the advent of the "talkies" in the 1920s, 24 frames per second has been the standard, picked because it was the lowest frame rate that would allow for acceptable sound fidelity. Higher frame rates have always been possible but at the cost of using more film.
Moving to 48 frames per second has become easier in the digital age. Most high-end digital video cameras can shoot at the rate with the flick of a switch, and the vast majority of digital projectors now sold to theatres need only modest software or hardware upgrades to show such movies.
High frame rates aren't completely new to audiences. Digital TV broadcasts in the US have been transmitted at higher frame rates for years, said Peter Lude, president of the standards-setting body, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. TV images look very clear because they're refreshed 60 times per second, even though only half the image hits the screen each time.
By contrast, movies shot at 24 frames per second are blurrier.
That's because movie cameras' shutters are open longer at slower frame rates. As people or cars in a scene move, more of that motion is captured in a single frame, resulting in blur. Many people describe this as a "film look" that is "soft" or "cinematic."
It also means that some details remain too blurry to be seen, helping hide imperfections and making life in the movies appear somehow better than reality.
Jackson says it will be up to audiences to decide if 48 frames per second is better.
"As an industry, we shouldn't really assume that we achieved technical perfection with motion pictures back in 1927," he said.
"There are ways to make the theatrical experience more spectacular, more immersive and that's what we're trying to do."
Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros, which is distributing the movie, is being conservative with the new format, careful not to bet too heavily that audiences will love it.
The studio is releasing higher-frame versions only in 3D, not 2D, partly because the perceived benefits are better in 3D.
About 1000 screens in the world will show The Hobbit in higher-frame 3D, including at Cairns Central here in Far North Queensland.
And despite the increased clarity, 48 frames per second is not the limit. Cameron has said he's considering shooting the sequels to Avatar at a rate as high as 60 frames per second.
Barco demonstrated for the AP footage of training boxers shot at 120 frames per second. The impact is a stunningly real picture that makes it seem as if you're looking through a giant window onto the real world.
The Hobbit opens in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day. Select sessions at Cairns Central will screen in HFR3D.
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Too good: Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf The Grey in a stunning scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But does the new HFR3D look too real?